Tuesday, October 11, 2011


That wonderful Halloween prop which always comes in handy, the Hand of Glory has an extensive amount of folklore attached to it. Here we have Sabine Baring-Gould's 1873 edition of "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages" concerning our favourite diabolical digits:


"The Hand of Glory ... is the hand of a man who has been hung, and it is prepared in the following manner: Wrap the hand in a piece of winding-sheet, drawing it tight, so as to squeeze out the little blood which may remain; then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpeter, salt, and long pepper, all carefully and thoroughly powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in this pickle till it is well dried, then expose it to the sun in the dog-days, till it is completely parched, or, if the sun be not powerful enough, dry it in an oven heated with vervain and fern. Next make a candle with the fat of a hung man, virgin-wax, and Lapland sesame.


Observe the use of this herb: The hand of glory is used to hold this candle when it is lighted. Douster Swivel, in The Antiquary [by Sir Walter Scott] adds, "You do make a candle, and put into de hand of glory at de proper hour and minute, with de proper ceremonisth; and he who seeksh for treasuresh shall find none at all!" [Robert] Southey places it in the hands of the enchanter Mohareb, when he would lull to sleep Yohak, the giant guardian of the caves of Babylon. He --

From his wallet drew a human hand, Shrivel'd, and dry, and black; And fitting, as he spake, A taper in his hold, Pursued: "A murderer on the stake had died; I drove the vulture from his limbs, and lopt The hand that did the murder, and drew up The tendon strings to close its grasp; And in the sun and wind Parch'd it, nine weeks exposed. The taper . . . But not here the place to impart, Nor hast thou undergone the rites That fit thee to partake the mystery. Look! It burns clear, but with the air around, Its dead ingredients mingle deathliness."

Several stories of this terrible hand are related in [William] Henderson's Folklore of the Northern Counties of England. I will only quote one, which was told me by a laboring man in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and which is the same story as that given by Martin Anthony Delrio in his Disquisitiones Magicæ, in 1593, and which is printed in the Appendix to that book of M. Henderson.


One dark night, after the house had been closed, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn, in the midst of a barren moor. The door was opened, and there stood without, shivering and shaking, a poor beggar, his rags soaked with rain, and his hands white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; though there was not a spare bed in the house, he might lie along on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome. All in the house went to bed except the servant lassie, who from the kitchen could see into the large room through a small pane of glass let into the door. When everyone save the beggar was out of the room, she observed the man draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract a brown withered human hand from his pocket, and set it upright in the candlestick; he then anointed the fingers, and, applying a match to them, they began to flame.

Filled with horror, the girl rushed up the back stairs, and endeavored to arouse her master and the men of the house; but all in vain, they slept a charmed sleep; and finding all her efforts ineffectual, she hastened downstairs again. Looking again through the small window, she observed the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb gave no light: this was because one of the inmates of the house was not asleep.

The beggar began collecting all the valuables of the house into a large sack -- no lock withstood the application of the flaming hand. Then, putting it down, the man entered an adjoining apartment. The moment he was gone, the girl rushed in, and seizing the hand, attempted to extinguish the quivering yellow flames, which wavered at the fingers' ends. She blew at them in vain; she poured some drops from a beer-jug over them, but that only made the fingers burn the brighter; she cast some water upon them, but still without extinguishing the light. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashing it over the four lambent flames, they went out immediately.

Uttering a piercing cry, she rushed to the door of the room the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole house was aroused, and the thief was secured and hung.

+++ We must not forget Tom [Thomas] Ingoldsby's rendering of a similar legend: +++ Open, lock, To the Dead Man's knock! Fly, bolt, and bar, and band! Nor move, nor swerve, Joint, muscle, or nerve, At the spell of the Dead Man's hand! Sleep, all who sleep! -- Wake, all who wake! But be as the dead for the Dead Man's sake! Now lock, nor bolt, nor bar avails, Nor stout oak panel thick-studded with nails. Heavy and harsh the hinges creak, Though they had been oil'd in the course of the week. The door opens wide as wide may be, And there they stand, That murderous band, Lit by the light of the Glorious Hand, By one! -- by two! -- by three!


But, instead of pursuing the fable through its further ramifications, let us apply the schamir of comparative mythology to the myth itself, and see whether before it the bolts do not give way, and the great doors of the cavern of mysteries expand, and discover to us the origin of the superstitious belief in this sea-prince's worm, the stone of wisdom , sesame, forget-me-not, or the hand of glory. What are its effects?
It bursts locks, and shatters stones, it opens in the mountains the hidden treasures hitherto concealed from men, or it paralyzes, lulling into a magic sleep, or, again, it restores to life.

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