DIGITUS MEDICINALIS – THE ETYMOLOGY OF THE NAME*
László A. Magyar
 
    Ring finger is indicated in Latin by three names. It is either called «the finger proximal to the middle finger » (digitus medio proximus) (1) or ring finger (digitus annularis) (2) or medical finger (digitus medicinalis or medicus) (3). This latter term can also be found in Greek. Whether the Latin or the Greek expression had occurred primarily can currently be decided only with difficulty (4).
    The name digitus medicinalis has already aroused the attention of the antique authors, since it is not at all obvious what ring finger has to do with medicine. The  only authentic ancient reference to the origins of the name can be found in Galen’s Eisagoge which reads as follows: «…this is followed by the finger proximal to the middle one which is devoted to physicians (toiv iatroiv anakeimenov)…» and was named after them (am autwn tounoma keklmrwmenov).
    Two things can be concluded from Galen’s sentence. On the one hand, that the medical finger is actually identical with the ring finger – some authors consider namely the middle finger as digitus medicinalis (6) and on the other hand, that the ring finger is somehow linked with medicine. But how is it linked? This question is going to be answered in the following.
    Of the antique traditions associated with the ring finger, one of the most interesting example in this respect is a text from the work Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, a contemporary of Galen (10.10): «According to our knowledge» – writes Gellius - «ancient Greeks wore their ring on the finger of their left hand proximal to the little finger. The Romans were assumed to wear their rings also there (7). Apion attributed it, in his books on Egypt, to the cause that Egyptians, when, according to their customs, cut and dissected the human body – this is called anatomy in Greek – detected a slim nerve, which, originating in the finger mentioned above proceeds and penetrates quite up to the human heart. There fore, it does not seem to be unjustified to adorn this finger in such a way, which, in view of the above, is related to the heart, the prince of the body.»
    Enlarging upon it, this tradition can otherwise also be found in the work Saturnalia of Macrobius in the 4th century (8). The data of Gellius should, however, be treated with some caution, partly because Apion’s work mentioned by him has been lost (9) and partly because it was not unanimously stated either by Macrobius or Gellius that the name digitus medicinalis should be associated with this tradition. They explain only the ring-wearing with the anatomical role of this finger.
    In addition, there is no trace of the view entertained by Gellius in the preserved Egyptian medical texts (10), although in the text of Macrobius  the Egyptian cultic importance of the ring finger is verified by other examples, too (11). Anyway, the records are supported by the fact that an important role was attributed by Egyptian – and Greek – thinking to the nerves or vessels proceeding from the heart solely because of the importance of the heart itself: the heart is often referred to as the centre of vitality and procreative power (12), and there is also clue – if not in the Egyptian but some other near-eastern traditions – that vital force originating in the heart can also be concentrated in the finger (13). In other places there are references of the association between the ring finger of the left hand, the procreative power and the principle of maternity (14).
    An Egyptian conception actually existed or could at least have existed according to which a vessel ascends from the heart to the ring finger. However, the scientific explanations of Gellius and Macrobius – as already pointed out by Bachofen, too – are still not satisfactory and rather seem to be the rational explanation of a belief (15). Besides these languages its identical term occurs in the German (Arzt-Finger) (16) and in the Hungarian (orvos ujj) (17), in both cases probably a metaphrase of the Latin Expression. But what about the other languages?
    In the European languages the ring finger could also have three names: it could be named after the ring worn on it (e.g. annulaire, Ring-finger, anulare) – this being the most widely used version, or its position or sequence is designated by its name (e.g. third-finger, digitus medio proximus), and finally, it can assume a cover name obscure in origin (e.g. Gold-Finger, Herz-Finger, bezimennij palec, etc.). Let us have a look into what is common in these types of name.
    As regards the name ring finger, the ring is the most powerful, magic symbol, that of the aion-snake of eternity, the symbol of the intertwining of life and death (18): it can attach significance to any of our fingers. On the other hand, the ring finger is not always a typically ring-wearing finger, and so the function of wearing a ring is difficult to interpret. The question arises, namely whether the finger could wear the ring because it had from the outset been endowed with magic power, or just the other way round, it was endowed, with magic power because it wore a ring. (According to some explanations, we wear ring on this finger, because this is the most indispensable and most protected one: affording the maximum safety to the jewel (19). Anyway, it is probable that the name ring finger suggests a magic power also in itself.
    The names of fingers according to their position on the hand can also be related to magic, since by the rules of magic thinking, generally the thing is marked by a number which is not advisable to address by its real name. It is also to be considered the this is the only finger designated by an ordinal number, perhaps just to keep away from its magic power.
    The third type of name mentioned here, the cover name (e.g. Gold-Finger, Herz-Finger, anonymous finger, etc.), inspired by whatever ideas, refers also unanimously to magic power, the function of cover name is just to render this power harmless.
    All this is mainly clear in case of the «anonymous finger », the par excellence cover name. This peculiar name has been strikingly widely used in the languages of the most varied origin. The ring finger is named «anonymous finger» among others also in Persian (binàme), in Sanskrit (anáman), in Hungarian (nevetlen ujj), in Finnish (nimeton sormi), in Turkish (adsiz parmak), in Tartar (atsyz parmak), in Buryat-Mongolian (nereguy hurgan), in Russian (benzymennyi palets), or in Bulgarian (benzimen pryst) (20). The magic character of this name has already been pointed out by several authors (21).
    It could be seen that almost all of the ring-finger names supported the magic power of the ring finger. It can thus be stated that these names, in spite of the seeming differences in them are related with each other, since all suggest a magic power. On the other hand, it can be assumed – and that’s what I wanted to get at – that the name digitus medicinalis is no exception to this rule either.
    There is ample linguistic evidence for the magic significance of the ring finger. Fingers in general are of magic importance (22). This magic power manifests in the healing ability, ring finger is of exceptional importance also in this respect. According to Hungarian beliefs, e.g. the ring finger is not only suitable for curing abscesses warts, inflammation, diphteria and other illnesses, but also for as an aphrodisiac (23), partly indirectly, and partly as a means of transmitting medicine, as well as with the help of blood withdrawn from it (24). All this is so not only in Hungarian lore, but e.g. in the German and Slavic too (25). It is also sure that these beliefs are adequately ancient, too, verified by the already cited text of Pliny, Macrobius and Gellius.
    Before drawing conclusions, let us examine the name digitus medicinalis itself. The adjective medicinalis originates from the werb medeor (medico), the original meaning of which is not else than «to heal by magic » (26). The werb can be traced back to the stem med (27) – this stem designates «middle» - that is how perhaps the original meaning of the word medicus, i.e. «mediator» (medium), a mediator between humans and the world of spirits (i.e. magician) can be interpreted. That this is not only a mere brain wave is proved not only by a line of Silius Italicus, naming magicians medicum vulgus (28), but also by series of linguistic parallels, too (e.g. in German the word Arzt has originally meant also magician, while the Greek iatros derives form iaino of similar connotations (29).
    In conclusion, the following statements can be made: based on linguistic and ethnographic examples, it seems to be evident that the ring finger is a finger of magic power. It appears to be sure that the ring-finger names almost always indicate the magic power of the finger: in this respect, according to our assumption, the Latin digitus medicinalis is not an exception either, since according to its original meaning, it is more correct to translate this expression not as «medical» but as «magic» finger. So Galen was wrong this time: the ring finger received this peculiar name not from the physicians but from the most: ancient way of healing, i.e. magic (30). Consequently, in the name digitus medicinalis the ancient meaning of the word medicinalis can be detected, this being none else than «magic».
 
 

NOTES

  1. Gellius: Noctes Atticae, 10.10
  2. Isidorus: Etymologiae, ll.l.71. In Romance languages and as a result, in the other European languages, this has survived. This name had a Greek equivalent: daktiliwtjv 
  3. Macrobius: Saturnalia (Ed.L.Willis) Lipsiane, 1963 444./7.12.7. – The
  4. name «medicus» is less often used. Cornificius: Rhetorica 3.33.: «et reum ad lectum eius statuemus, dextra poculum, sinistra tabulas, medico testiculos aretinos tenentem » - For explanation use: Hoffmann, JJ.: Supplementum lexici  universalis, Francofurti, 1713. 621. 
  5. 'Iatrikov daktulove.g.: Alexander Trallianus: Therapeutica, Ed.T. Pusthmann Wien. 1878-79.II.199.
  6. Galen: Introductio, Ed. C.G. Kühne, Lisiane, 1827 SVI.704. The explanation of Isidorus. “medicinalis  guod ero trita colliria a medicis coliguntur “, Orig.11.1.71. cannot be considered authentic because it is based on the description of Macrobius. The study of Plutarch on this subject has unfortunately been lost. Quaest.conviv.IV.8.672c 8-9.
  7. PWR, 2, Reihe, bd.I.,Stuttgart, 1920, 837. Pierius Valerianus: Hieroglyphica, Francofurti ad M.1614.442.
  8. Pliny: Hist.Nat.33.6. It can be found in Macrobuius that the fashion of wearing a ring on the other fingers had been spreading only at that time.
  9. Macrobius: o.c. 7.13.7-16.
  10. Only fragments have been preserved from Apion’s Aegyptiaca Cf.: Der kleine Pauly, München, 1979. Bd. I. 432.
  11. H, von Dienes, H. Grapow, W.Westendorf: Übersetzung der medizinischen Texte Grundriss der Medizin der alten Aegypter, Berlin, 1958 IV.l. The only fragment assodiated with this tradition is as follows: “Es sind 6. Gefässe, die zu den beiden Armen leiten 3 zu Rechten, 3 zu Linken, die weiter leiten zu seinen Fingern “, Eb. 854g, 100.5.6 op.c. 2.
  12. In Macrobius one of the figures narrates that in the sanctuary the Egyptian priests anointed their ring fingers with a fragrant oil. When he asked why they had done it, he got the answer that the rite was due to the numerological significance of the vessel proceeding from the heart into the ring finger and of the ring finger. This finger stands namely for the sacred number of six. This is worth comparing to the text of Note 10.
  13. Müller, D.: Die Zeugung durch das Herz, in Religion und Medizin der Aegypter Orientalia, Roma, 35, 1966, 247-274.
  14. Weinreich, O.: Antike Heilungswunder, Giessen, 1909 34-35. Löw. I.: Die Finger in Literatur und Folklore der Juden. In: Gedenkbuch zur Erinnerung an D. Kaufmann, Breslau, 1900, 61-85.Davies N., Weltgareten der Lüste. Dusseldorf-Wien 1985 264.
  15. Bachofen, J.J.: Das Muterrecht, Stuttgart, 1861. 130.
  16. loc. cit.
  17. Bächtold Stäubli, H. Hrsg.: Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens HDA, Berlin-New-York, 1987. Bd. 2. 1495.
  18. Its first occurrence: Comenius, J. A.: Orbis Sensualium Pictus Bilinguis, Coronae, 1675, 80.
  19. Jones, W.: Finger-ring, lore, history, legend, London, 1877,18.
  20. Macrobuis: op. cit. 7.13.16.
  21. The varieties of names mentioned above can be found together with other varieties of names in the following works: Mokány, S.: Néhány ujjnevünk eredetéhez. To the origins of some finger-names. Acta Univ. Szegedinensis, Sectio Ethnogr. et Linguistica, 1984. 28. 74-75. Hunfalvy, P. Simonyi, Zs.: Az ujjak nevei, Fingername, Magyar Nyelvőr, 1897 XXVI. 34-35. Simonyi, Zs.: Történeti vagy elemi rokonság? Historical or elemental relationship? Magyar Nyelvőr, 1915. XLIV 4-5.
  22. Mokány, S.: opt. cit. 77. Bosnyák. S.: A neveletlen ujj., The nameless finger Comm. de Hist. Artis. Med., 1977.82. 115 121. According to some researchers the name “Anonymous” finger although being a cover name, if not magic, but covers an obscene function. Horváth. T.: A magyar parasztság ékszer-kultúrája a 19-20. században. The jewel culture of the Hungarian peasantry in the 19th-20th centuries. Kand. ért. 1986. Néprajzi Múzeum kézirattára. Budapest, B 53, 861, 93. Thesis, Archives of the Ethnographical Museum Budapest
  23. Bächtold-Staubli, H. : HDA Bd. 2. 1478-1496. Stuckiust. G., cites antique examples: Sacrorum sacrificiorumque gentilium brevis et accurata descriptio. Tiguri, 1598 29.
  24. Medicusi és borbély mesterség (Medical and barber profession, Ed. by Hoffmann, G., Budapest, 1989. 1149, 36, 39, 215, 217, 253. All data derive from Hungari manuscripts from the 16th-17th centuries.
  25. Gönczi, F.: Szerelmi tevékenységek Göcsejben és Hetésben. Amorous practices in Göcsej and Hetés. Ethnographia, 1907. XIII. 35. The similar traditions might be related with the ideas of Gellius. The survival of these traditions verified also by the names of Herz-Finger, palec serdeczny, Polisch etc.
  26. Bächtold-Traubli, H. HDA Bd. 2. 1494-1496.
  27. Ernout, A., Meillet, A.: Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue Latine. 4éd., Paris, 1959. 392.
  28. Walde. A., Hoffmann. J. B.: Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, 3 Aufl. Heidelberg, 1954. Bd. 2. 54-55.
  29. Silius Italicus: Punica III. 3000.
  30. Frisk. H.: Griechisches Etym. Wb. Heidelberg, 1960. Curtius, G.: Grundzüge der griechischen Etymologie, Leipzig, 1978, 389. Df.: Kraus. L. A.: Kritisch-etymologisches medizinisches Lexicon. Göttingen, 1826. 2. Aufl. 438.


*In: Actes du Congr. Intern. d'Hist. de Med. XXXII., Antwerpen, 1990. 175-179.