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The Strange and Spooky Folklore of the Hand of Glory

hand of glory in museum display box
www.badobadop.co.uk / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Maybe you’ve seen pictures of them—strange-looking illustrations of mummified hands clutching candles or with their fingertips aflame. They’re called Hands of Glory, and they’re not just recent inventions meant to spook modern audiences. The folklore of the Hand of Glory stretches back a long, long way—and most of the stories associated with this grisly item are even spookier than you probably think they are.

Maybe you’ve read about them in comics like Hellboy or books like the Harry Potter series or John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls. Maybe you’ve encountered them in television shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or Supernatural.

Stories about the Hand of Glory are especially rife throughout Europe, although they’re particularly prevalent in England. Indeed, one of the few remaining Hands of Glory we have resides in a museum in the UK. That’s the interesting thing about Hands of Glory: We have ample evidence pointing to their physical existence. But we also have lots of myths and legends about them—so even though we know now that they were just a bunch of hocus pocus, we also know that for centuries, many believed in their supernatural abilities.

Here’s the lowdown on this weird and spooky item and the equally odd and eerie folklore associated with it.

What Is a Hand of Glory, Anyway?

As is often the case with pieces of folklore, the details of the Hand of Glory vary from story to story. Its function, however, is consistent: It’s a talisman—an item said to harbor immense power and extraordinary abilities.

The talisman itself also varies in appearance between accounts, although some elements are relatively constant throughout. Whatever else goes into the creation of the item, it typically involves a preserved, severed, human hand and some sort of candle. More often than not, the style of preservation is described as the hand having been dried and pickled, often with the use of salt. Meanwhile, the candle is usually said to be made from tallow rendered from fat from the same corpse to which the hand belonged. The two items might be combined to create the full talisman in a few different ways; for example, the candle might be placed between the hand’s fingers, wrapped in its fist, or driven into the top of the hand. In some renderings, however, the candle isn’t separate, but instead made by creating wicks and attaching them to the hands’ fingertips—that is, the fingers themselves serve as the candles. Regardless, lighting the candle is the final step: The flame is how the power of the Hand of Glory is ultimately unleashed.

The hand, by the way, can’t be taken from just any dead person. Again, sources vary, but most accounts specify that it must be the hand of a person who has been executed by hanging. Sometimes, they even must have been hanged for a specific crime—either thievery or murder.

Hands of Glory are, as you might imagine, ghastly to behold—or at least, we assume they are, based on the illustrations and written descriptions we have of them. Almost no actual Hands of Glory have survived to the present day. One may reside at the Whitby Museum in North Yorkshire. However, some folklorists have noted that this particular preserved hand, which was found inside a cottage wall in the early 1900s, may not have been a Hand of Glory, but merely a ward or charm meant to protect against evil.

The Hand of Glory and its Literal Roots

But although the Hand of Glory as we understand it now is made from the preserved hand of a dead person, the phrase itself didn’t always refer to this particular version of the item. Indeed, the first appearance of the term in English reveals the Hand of Glory’s real roots—both literally and figuratively.

Maine de Gloire print
print maker: Pieter van der HeydenPieter Brueghel (I) (mentioned on object)Hieronymus Cock (mentioned on object) / Public domain

1707 saw the publication in London of Curiosities of Nature and Art in Husbandry and Gardening, the English translation of Pierre Le Lorrain de Vallemont’s 1705 French volume Curiosités de la Nature et de l’Art par la Végétation. In this volume, there’s a section that describes the Hand of Glory as a charm that mountebanks and charlatans fashion not out of the hands of dead people, but out of mandrake roots which have grown in such a way as to resemble the shape of a human. These mountebanks then sell the mandrake charms to the foolish and gullible, claiming that “by using some little Ceremonies, the Silver they lay near it will increase to double the Sum every morning.”

In the original French, “Hand of Glory” is written as “main de gloire” —and “main de gloire,” it turns out, is itself a corruption of “mandaglore,” the French word for “mandrake.” (Mandrakes themselves have a considerable amount of folklore associated with them, too, which may be of note here as well.)

Interestingly, though, there’s a reference in English to the item itself as it’s now known today—that is, as the severed hand of a dead person holding a candle—that predates the mention in Curiosities in Husbandry and Gardening; however, the item isn’t actually named. According to Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud’s A Dictionary of English Folklore, a record of a Coroner’s Court held at Maidstone in Kent 1440 made note that one way to make sure that “they that sleep shall sleep, and they that wake shall not move, whatever they do” involved placing a lit candle in the hand of “a dead man that has lain in the earth nine days and nine nights.”

The hand isn’t referred to as a Hand of Glory; it’s also notably an actual hand, not a mandrake. It isn’t evident what we should take away from this curious incident about the timeline of the Hand of Glory’s evolution, but it’s worth noting all the same.

What Does a Hand of Glory Do, Exactly?

Of course, whether we’re talking about charms made from mandrakes that look like people or talismans made from the remains of corpses, the question about why exactly one would even go to the trouble of creating or otherwise acquiring one remains. The answer to that question is simple: According to the stories associated with the item, Hands of Glory hold enormous powers which can be harnessed for the benefit of anyone in possession of one.

Precisely what those powers are, however, varies depending on who you talk to. The French charm described in Curiosities of Nature and Art in Husbandry and Gardening, for example, was initially sold simply as a “get rich quick” scheme. It was literally meant to replicate money or valuables—although, as the volume itself notes, the “charm” was nothing more than a con.

But this power doesn’t seem to have followed the talisman into its English iterations. More typically, tales about the Hand of Glory describe it as having two primary abilities: It was said to provide light to those who bore it—meaning that, in a dark room, a person holding a Hand of Glory would be able to see by its light, while anyone else present would remain in the dark—and it could allegedly incapacitate anyone nearby, whether by causing them to fall asleep, by ensuring that those already sleeping would stay asleep, or by simply paralyzing anyone who happened to be around at the time. For these reasons, it was thought of as a thief’s tool: After all, if you were going to rob someone, leaving them literally in the dark and rendering them unable to move would make the job a whole lot easier for you.

The 18th-century French grimoire Secrets Merveilleux de la Magie Naturelle et Cabalistique du petit Albert, more commonly known simply as Petit Albert, states that the Hand of Glory was used to “amaze and make motionless those to whom it was presented.” Meanwhile, a story said to have taken place in 1797 and recounted in Belgravia: A London Magazine in 1882 ascribes not only powers of sleep and paralysis to the Hand, but also the ability to provide light to its bearer. In this tale, an old woman attempts to rob an inn using a Hand of Glory. The incantations she speaks to call upon the Hand’s power inform us of its properties:

“Let those who rest more deeply sleep;/ Let those awake their vigils keep,” “O Hand of Glory, shed thy light;/ Direct us to our spoil tonight,” and “Flash out thy blaze, O skeleton hand,/ And guide the feet of our trusty band.”

Numerous other tales about the Hand of Glory-–most of which follow a similar plotline—further underline these powers. However, an additional story adds one more to the mix. “The Nurse’s Story” in The Ingoldsby Legends, or Mirth and Marvels, written by cleric Richard Harris Barnham under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby and initially published in 1840, describes a Hand of Glory being used to open locks that would otherwise be fastened tight.

Hands of Glory aren’t infallible, though. According to one narrative from England, the item won’t work to its full ability if any bystanders nearby are awake when it’s put into use: “Each finger flamed, but the thumb they could not light; that was because one of the household was not asleep,” the narrative states. Furthermore, if the Hand of Glory is extinguished correctly, its effects may be dispelled. In that same narrative, merely blowing the flames out gets the job done; the same is true in a similar narrative from the Netherlands. However, according to the innkeeper story dated to 1797, the only surefire way to put out the flames of a Hand of Glory is to douse it in milk.

Just, y’ know, something to bear in mind, should you ever find yourself in a situation where you might… need to guard yourself against a Hand of Glory.

How to Make a Hand of Glory

The abilities ascribed to the Hand of Glory are likely nothing more than stories meant to shock and frighten us—but even so, several different methods for making a Hand of Glory may be found scattered throughout the literature we have about the item.

The Ingoldsby Legends, for example, states that the hand must be severed at midnight from a corpse still hanging from a gallows tree; then, “five locks of hair/ From the skull of the Gentleman dangling up there” should be combined with “the grease and the fat of a black Tom Cat” to make wicks. Next, fasten these wicks to the tips of each of the hand’s fingers—and, when you light them, voila: You’ve got yourself a Hand of Glory.

Meanwhile, according to Petit Albert, the hand, once harvested from a person who had been hanged, should be “[wrapped] in a piece of mortuary cloth,” squeezed dry of blood, and “put it in an earthen jar with zimat, saltpeter, salt, and long peppers, all well pulverized.” (There’s some debate about what “zimat” refers to, but most believe it to be verdigris. ) The jar is then to be left alone for about two weeks; then, you’re to place it in the sun until the hand is totally dried. The candle, meanwhile, is meant to be fashioned from fat from the hanged man, wax, sesame, and “ponie” —probably horse dung—before being placed within the Hand of Glory and lit.

Several German tales, including one recorded by Jacob Grimm in the 1878 volume Deutsche Mythologie and Ernst Moritz Arndt’s 1843 work Mährchen und Jugenderinnerungen, describe particularly gruesome methods for creating Hands of Glory. According to these sources, “Thieves’ Thumbs” or “Thieves’ Lights” can only be made from the fingers of unbaptized children. Yikes.

Of course, it’s…well, let’s say it’s not recommended that you attempt to make a Hand of Glory yourself. Besides just generally not being a good idea, it won’t actually hold the powers all those stories say it does; they are, after all, just stories. But stories are compelling all the same, so if you feel like spooking yourself out a little bit? Go right ahead.

Maybe the Hand of Glory will light your way for you.

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »