Severed hands with candles stuck inside them were once sought after by thieves across the continent – at least by those callous enough to acquire them.
Gadgets for all sorts of purposes are everywhere in our modern age. Just over ten years ago, it was considered the peak of comedy to reply "there's an app for that" to pretty much any question.
But even before the arrival of high-tech inventions, people liked to use little gizmos to make their lives more convenient. More specifically, the people we're interested in today are thieves and the gizmos in question are… severed hands.
Join us – if you dare – on the misty paths of folklore, as we delve into the story of a truly abominable, but highly powerful, object.
I. The Hand of Glory
The myth we're covering today exists in different variations across Europe. In English-speaking countries, the most common version tells us that the Hand of Glory is the severed hand of an executed criminal.
The hand has to be preserved in some way and there are many different "instruction manuals" on how to do that. To give you just one example, here is how Sabine Baring-Gould describes the process in her book Curious Myths of the Middle Ages:
"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."
Considering what these instructions tell you to do, you may very well be wondering why on Earth anyone would do such a thing. Well, as it turns out, the world's most macabre torch is believed to possess dark powers, including inducing sleep, immobilising people, and unlocking doors.
Once they had a Hand of Glory, thieves are said to have used it during break-ins: Once they lit the candle, anyone who was asleep could not wake up until the flame was extinguished, which could only be done with raw milk.
As mentioned before, the myth of the Hand of Glory was widespread across Europe, but there are many different variations.
In the Netherlands, there are tales of a man who used a severed foot from a hanged man and a sorceress who forced a priest to empower a thief's finger, giving it the same powers as a full Hand of Glory.
A finger was allegedly also used by a tavern owner in Poland, while thieves in Germany were said to use ravenstones, i.e., undigested remains of criminals' eyes found in ravens' droppings.
However, there is another version of this myth that is mainly found in German-speaking countries, including Luxembourg, and if you thought what we have discussed so far is dark, you may not be prepared for what comes next.
II. The Thieves' Lights
There is no nice way of saying this, so let's just get straight to the point.
According to Dr Gredt's Sagenschatz des Luxemburger Landes, Luxembourgish folklore suggests that "thieves and murderers often used the hand of an unborn child, or, as they say, an unborn (unbaptised) hand, to carry out their nefarious craft."
Yep, you've read that correctly. Cutting the hand off an executed felon was clearly not sinister enough for Luxembourg's criminal underbelly.
Now, some of you may be wondering how you'd get the hand of an unborn child, but I don't think I really need to spell it out for you. There is another story in Dr Gredt's Sagenschatz about the origin of the Piretteschkreiz ("Pirett's Cross") in Dalheim that hints at the gruesome way these lights were obtained.
At the place where the cross stands today, a man named Pirett and a tinker are said to have murdered a woman to obtain "an unborn hand." However, the two men were caught, "one of them was wheeled and the other was hanged on Gimmerenger Hill between Dalheim and Altwies." The Piretteschkreiz was erected in memory of the crime.
I've mentioned before that this particularly sickening version of the myth is found in many Germanophone countries. In Germany, the most common version of the story suggests that thieves used the fingers of unborn infants or even just the thumb, according to the famous German folklorist Jakob Grimm.
Swiss folklore mirrors Luxembourg's in the sense that criminals allegedly also used the whole hand of unbaptised children. In fact, the belief in this practice seems to have been so widespread in Switzerland that it was common to bury unbaptised babies at night in unmarked graves to prevent malicious individuals from creating these wicked instruments.
III. The watchful maid
Coming back to Luxembourg, there is one more story in the Sagenschatz that is related to the Thieves' Lights.
In this story, a beggar arrives in a village seeking shelter for the night. A household offers him a room, but the maid quickly becomes suspicious of the stranger.
When he lights three peculiar candles, she discovers that they cause everyone in the house to sleep deeply until the candles are extinguished. The stranger opens the front door to communicate with accomplices outside, revealing their plans for robbery and murder.
The maid acts swiftly, sealing the door before the intruders can enter. Unable to access the house, the stranger flees.
The maid desperately tries to wake the sleeping residents but fails until she reads in a book left behind by the stranger that the candles can be extinguished by holding them under the udder of a cow and miking the animal. She follows the instructions, and when she returns, the people in the house are finally awake.
As with many myths, this is not an original story but a trope that is found across the European continent. There are numerous stories related to the Hand of Glory that are about someone seeking shelter for the night and trying to use the lights to rob their hosts, only to be discovered by a maid who did not go to sleep (the sleep spell only affects those already asleep when the candles are lit).
IV. Beyond the tale
On his blog The Serpent's Pen, author David Castleton offers some background information that can help us understand where the myth of the Hand of Glory might have come from.
First, in the days when public executions were still common practice, objects associated with these events were widely believed to possess magical properties. People often collected "souvenirs" from executions, driven by either superstition or financial motives.
As for the powers attributed to the Hand of Glory, Castleton points out that, as the famous proverb goes, sleep and death are brothers, and as such it is not surprising that people believed the hand of a deceased individual could temporarily render others "dead."
But what about the even more heinous myth related to "unborn" children? When reading the old texts, it stands out that "unborn" is often used as a synonym for "unbaptised." On his blog, Castleton highlights the fact that folklore "ascribed a strange power to the fact the children hadn't undergone baptism," believing that untouched by holy water, "the babies' relics were empowered with a demonic force."
There is one more thing that Castleton mentions which also stood out to me as I was reading the folktales about the Hand of Glory: In these stories, the characters who thwart the thieves' plans are often people of "lower" social status, most often maids. As David Castleton puts it: "In folktales, those of modest rank […] can demonstrate a resourcefulness and cunning that eludes the better-educated, powerful and wealthy."
Stories have always been one of the most fascinating ways humans communicate between each other. Through them, we don't just entertain, but we convey ideas and concepts about the world we live in. These multifaceted layers of meaning are one of the reasons that make learning about these myths and legends so interesting – even, or perhaps especially, when it comes to tales as gruesome as the one we covered today.
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