What was a Hand of Glory and what did it look like?
Hand in the Whitby Museum
A Hand of Glory was the dried pickled hand of a man who had been hanged, which, when used as either a candle or candle holder, was meant to have special magical properties. Descriptions of the hands vary but they were all pretty gruesome. The hand was grey and withered due to its preparation. In stories such as this one, where the fingers themselves are used as a wick, either the back of the hand provided a rest and the finger were bent upwards, or it was placed in some kind of holder with the hand straight and the fingers upright. Where the hand is used as a candle holder the fingers are bent around the candle which was usually made from the fat of the dead man with the dead man’s hair as the wick.
What special magical properties was it meant to have?
The magical properties of the hand vary from story to story but they always relate to things that would help a thief to enter a house at night without opposition. They include:
Giving light only to the holder whilst others are left in darkness or, alternatively, making the owner invisible
Being able to burn forever, once alight, without being consumed
Having the power to open any lock in the vicinity
Putting to sleep occupants of a house or rendering motionless all persons to whom it is presented
In stories where the fingers themselves act as candle wicks, each finger that catches fire means somebody inside the house is sleeping and once the finger is lit they will be unable to wake until the flame is extinguished. If a finger does not light then it means the person is awake or that there are fewer people in the house than there are fingers on the hand. This is important in these stories, as the thieves are usually caught by misjudging the number of people in the house and therefore the number of people asleep.
How was the Hand of Glory made?
Illunstration of the Hand
Firstly, the hand had to come from the corpse of a villain still hanging from the gallows. Usually it is the right hand that is taken, especially in stories where the hand is that of a murderer, as this is the hand that is most likely to have done the deed (most people at that time were trained to use their right hands). In other versions of the story, the left hand is used as this was thought of as the sinister hand. The hand had to be taken at the dead of night, preferably during a lunar eclipse. Next, any remaining blood was drained out of the hand and the fingers positioned. It was then wrapped in a specially prepared cloth and pickled in a solution of saltpetre, long peppers and regular salt. After two weeks the hand was removed and left for several months to dry. If the fingers were to be lit, they were dipped in wax, if not a candle was made. The whole process was accompanied by certain rituals, including a poem or incantation chanted when the hand was used.
How could you protect yourself against it?
The candle could only be extinguished by blue (sterilized) milk. However, you could protect your home, so that the hand would not work, by anointing the door step and window ledges with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen and the blood of a screech owl. This had to be prepared during the dog days of the summer – not an easy task!
How did the name arise?
The term ‘hand of glory’ is believed to be derived from the French ‘main de glorie’, the name for the supposedly magical mandrake root - ‘mandrogore’ being the French for mandrake. The legend of the hand was thought to be related to the legends of the mandrake, a plant that was believed to grow under the gallows from the seed of a hanged man. Their leaves were thought to resemble hands. In Saxon times, mandrakes were also believed to shine at night like a lamp, which may have added to the idea of a light for criminals. The legend can be traced at least to the 15th century, but the name ‘Hand of Glory’ was only used later.
Did these hands really exist?
Yes, they existed; until recently one was on display in Whitby museum. There are a number of folk stories associated with the hand, many in the North of England where the belief was most common. Similar myths are known across Europe. Such items were highly prized by criminals in the 16th to early 18th centuries. Indeed there are cases of witches being accused of creating a hand of glory during the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1590 John Fian, for example, confessed under torture, during his witch trial in Scotland, to breaking into a church using a hand of glory. However, as the witch hunts drew to a close with the dawn of the age of reason, the practice of creating Hands of Glory died out, along with belief in the protection they offered.
Why did people believe they would work?
This has its roots in the once widely held belief that certain objects, or living things, had powers that were related to their looks or characteristics. For example, if a plant had a red stem it was thought to be good for curing blood diseases or if a leaf was kidney shaped for treating kidney disease. This belief was true, not just in folk medicine, but also for objects considered magical. This is now known as ‘sympathetic magic’. There was also a widely held belief in the magical power of human remains, especially the remains of executed criminals and the more notorious the criminal the greater the potency. Criminals like the rest of the population were a superstitious lot, so what better, they assumed, to put people into a death like slumber, than the burning of a dead man’s hand? Or what could create darkness more effectively than the hand of a dark-souled individual removed at the dead of the night? And what could possibly be more helpful for magically picking locks than the hand of a dead thief and murderer? Milk however is associated with new life, nourishment and growth, the very opposite to that of the hand of glory in terms of sympathetic magic; hence its ability to neutralise its power.