hand of glory

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The first mention of a ‘hand of glory’ in English (1707) refers to a piece of mandrake root, kept as a charm to make coins multiply; this corresponds to medieval French maindegloire, a corruption of Latin mandragora ‘mandrake’. The French word, however, sounds exactly as if it meant ‘hand of glory’ so it is commonly applied to a magical torch made from a dead man's hand to cast people into deep sleep. This is first described, though not named, in 1440, when a Coroner's Court at Maidstone (Kent) was told that a burning candle held in the hand of ‘a dead man that has lain in the earth nine days and nine nights’ will ensure that ‘they that sleep shall sleep, and they that wake shall not move, whatever thou do’ (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 100).

This charm was said to be much used by thieves; variations are recorded from Aubrey to the early 20th century—the Ashton-under-Lyme Reporter of 22 April 1905 says many a burglar feels sure ‘that if he can possess himself of a candle made from the body of a young woman, he will never see the interior of a gaol’ (FLS News 17 (1993), 15). An actual hand, reputed to have been used in this way, is in Whitby Museum (Yorkshire), together with ‘A True Receipt for the Pickling and Claiming of a Hand of Glory, and likewise the Making of a Glory Candle’ from a North Yorkshire manuscript book of 1823. It must be cut from the body of a criminal on the gibbet; pickled in salt and the urine of man, woman, dog, horse, and mare; smoked with herbs and hay for a month; hung on an oak tree three nights running, then laid at a crossroads, then hung on a church door for one night while the maker keeps watch in the porch—‘and if it be that no fear hath driven you forth from the porch …then the hand be true won, and it be yours’. The candle is made from animal and human fat, with a wick of threads from a hangman's rope, and only milk or blood can quench it. This has continental parallels, notably in a French book of spells called Le Petit Albert (1722).

An allegedly true story, current in the 19th century, tells how a burglar, having tricked his way into a house, lit a hand of glory, saying ‘Let those who are asleep be asleep, and let those who are awake be awake.’ But one servant girl was secretly watching him, while pretending to be asleep, and foiled his plot by dousing the hand in milk (Henderson, 1866: 201–2; Roud, 2003: 235–7; Philip, 1992: 199–200).

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