It's October, my busy month, and I'm swamped at work every weekend... time to set up a post in advance. Halloween being right around the corner, I figure I'll post something appropriately creepy... One of my prized possessions is a copy of the first paperback edition of Katharine Briggs' British Folk Tales and Legends: A Sampler, a gift that my father purchased for me while on a business trip that took him to London. Yeah, I was a nerd from day one.
One of the most outré bits of folklore in the book involved the Hand of Glory, a black-magic talisman used by thieves breaking into a house or business. Creating a hand of glory is a grisly affair, involving the amputation of a hanged murderer's hand. From clergyman and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould's monumental Curious Myths of the Middle Ages:
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.
In this particular tale of the hand of glory, the hand has the power to render the sleeping unwakeable and to open all locks:
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 hand cannot be extinguished through conventional means:
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.
The Hand of Glory has made it into several modern works of fiction- in my mind, most notably in John Bellair's The House with a Clock in its Walls. A variation on the theme plays a major role in Charles Stross' 'Laundry' books, in which the talismans can provide protection from observation and be used as projectile weapons- in a further deconstruction of the trope, they can be made from pigeon feet. The hand of glory also figures prominently in the 'weird tale' Dead Man's Hand by Manly Wade Wellman, a tale which also introduces Wellman's take on a particularly 'Lovecraftian' subject- the survival of hostile not-quite-humans in what Robert E. Howard dubbed the dark corners of the earth.
The hand of glory lends its name to the title of a Smithereens song I first heard as a high schooler, the lyrics of which the title of this post references:
The Smithereens song is actually a cover of a song by the late Jimmy Silva.. As Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken explained to music journalist Joe Clark:
Joe: All right. What is the song "Hand of Glory" about, and what are the damn fucking lyrics that I can't understand?
Dennis: I'll give you Jim Silva's number. You can call him. He's the guy who wrote that.
Pat: Jimmy Silva was a--
Joe: He sung it. He must know.
Pat: I sung it. I always felt I did a very piss-poor interpretation.
Dennis: It's an obscure kind of lyric. It's about this medieval ritual to ward off evil spirits froma a person's house, where you take the hand of a freshly-hung felon, chop it off, pickle it with these various herbs and things in, dip it in tallow, light the fingers, run around the house several times, and what it's supposed to do is, for a robber that wants to rob the house, it makes the people inside the house asleep.
Jim: No, it's an unborn hand. It's a--
Dennis: Well, that's another interpretation of it. So there''s your answer.
Pat: But anyway, to make a long story short
Jim: That's some weird shit, man!
Joe: [Laugh] That's even weirder than what I thought it was [namely, finding a severed hand in a railway yard]!
Pat: I could never get behind the lyric of that song. It was more the type of song that had a lot of energy live and it always went over great, and we thought we'd give it a shot in the studio, and it wound up on the album.
I hadn't heard the original before, but the Smithereens cover is a pretty faithful rendition:
I love it, I'm going to have to second musician Scott McCaughey's take on the song- the combination of macabre subject matter with a nice jangle-pop song is particularly appealing to me.
Now, to make things even creepier, Yorkshire's Whitby Museum has a purported hand of glory in its collection. Don't go to sleep tonight!