folktales of type 958E*
edited and/or translated by
D. L. Ashliman
University of Pittsburgh
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,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.
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."
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,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?
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!
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.
Of the hand of glory, which is made use of by housebreakers, to enter into houses at night, without fear of opposition.I acknowledge that I never tried the secret of the hand of glory, but I have thrice assisted at the definitive judgment of certain criminals, who, under the torture, confessed having used it. Being asked what it was, how they procured it, and what were its uses and properties, they answered, first, that the use of the hand of glory was to stupify those to whom it was presented, and to render them motionless, insomuch that they could not stir, any more than if they were dead; secondly, that it was the hand of a hanged man; and thirdly, that it must be prepared in the manner following:
Take the hand, left or right, of a person hanged, and exposed on the highway; wrap it up in a piece of a shroud, or winding sheet, in which let it be well squeezed, to get out any small quantity of blood that may have remained in it; then put it into an earthen vessel, with zimat, saltpeter, salt, and long pepper, the whole well powdered; leave if fifteen days in that vessel; afterwards take it out, and expose it to the noontide sun in the dog days, till it is thoroughly dry; and if the sun is not sufficient, put it into an oven heated with fern and vervain; then compose a kind of candle with the fat of a hanged man, virgin wax, and sisame [sesame] of Lapland.
The hand of glory is used as a candlestick to hold this candle, when lighted. Its properties are, that wheresoever anyone goes with this dreadful instrument, the persons to whom it is presented will be deprived of all power of motion.
On being asked if there was no remedy, or antidote, to counteract this charm, they said the hand of glory would cease to take effect, and thieves could not make use of it, if the threshold of the door of the house, and other places by which they might enter, were anointed with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of a screech owl; which mixture must necessarily be prepared during the dog days.
One cold October night the red curtains were drawn across the windows, and a huge log fire sputtered and crackled on the broad hearth, and lighted up the faces of George Alderson and his son as they sat talking of their gains at the fair of Broughton Hill; these gains, representing a large sum of money, being safely stowed away in a cupboard in the landlord's bedroom.
Mrs. Alderson and Bella sat a little way off spinning by firelight, for the last coach had gone by and the house door was barred and bolted for the night. Outside the wind and rain were having a battle; there came fierce gusts which made the old casements rattle and stirred the red curtains, and then a torrent of rain swept smartly across the window, striking the glass so angrily that it seemed as if the small panes must shatter under its violence.
Into the midst of this fitful disturbance, only varied by the men's voices beside the hearth, there came a knock at the door.
"Open t' door, lass," said Alderson. "Ah wadna keep a dog out sik a neet as this."
"Eh! best slacken t' chain, lass," said the more cautious landlady.
The girl went to the door, but when she saw that the visitor was an old woman she opened the door wide and bade her come in. There entered a bent figure dressed in a long cloak and hood; this last was drawn over her face; and, as she walked feebly to the armchair which Alderson pushed forward, the rain streamed from her clothing and made a pool on the oaken floor. She shivered violently, but refused to take off her cloak and have it dried. She also refused the offer of food or a bed. She said she was on her way to the north, and must start as soon as there was daylight. All she wanted was a rest beside the fire. She could get the sleep she needed in her armchair.
The innkeeper and his wife were well used to wayfarers, and they soon said "Good-night" and went to bed; so did their son. Bella was left alone with the shivering old woman. The girl had kept silence, but now she put her wheel away in its corner and began to talk. She only got surly answers, and although the voice was low and subdued, the girl fancied that it did not sound like a woman's. Presently the wayfarer stretched out her feet to warm them, and Bella's quick eyes saw under the hem of the skirts that the stranger wore horseman's gaiters. The girl felt uneasy, and, instead of going to bed, she resolved to stay up and watch.
"Ah'm sleepy," she said, gaping, but the figure in the chair made no answer. Presently Bella lay down on a long settle beyond the range of the firelight and watched the stranger while she pretended to fall asleep.
All at once the figure in the chair stirred, raised its head, and listened; then it rose slowly to its feet, no longer bent, but tall and powerful-looking. It stood listening for some time. There was no sound but Bella's heavy breathing and the wind and the rain beating on the windows. Then the woman took from the folds of her cloak a brown withered human hand; next she produced a candle, lit it from the fire, and placed it in the hand. Bella's heart beat so fast that she could hardly keep up the regular deep breathing of pretended sleep; but now she saw the stranger coming towards her with this ghastly chandelier, and she closed her lids tightly. She felt that the woman was bending over her, and that the light was passed slowly before her eyes, while these words were muttered in the strange masculine voice that had first roused her suspicions:
Let those who rest more deeply sleep;The light moved away, and through her eyelashes Bella saw that the woman's back was turned to her, and that she was placing the hand in the middle of the long oak table, while she muttered this rhyme:
Let those awake their vigils keep.
O Hand of Glory shed thy light;Then she moved a few steps away and undrew the window curtain. Coming back to the table she said:
Direct us to our spoil tonight.
Flash out thy blaze, O skeleton hand,At once the light shot up a bright livid gleam, and the woman walked to the door; she took down the bar, drew back the bolts, unfastened the chain, and Bella felt a keen blast of cold night air rush in as the door was flung open. She kept her eyes closed, however, for the woman at that moment looked back at her, and then drawing something from her gown she blew a long shrill whistle; she then went out at the door and down a few of the steps, stopped and whistled again, but the next moment a vigorous push sent her spinning down the steps on to the road below.
And guide the feet of our trusty band.
The door was closed, barred, and bolted, and Bella almost flew to her master's bedroom and tried to wake him. In vain. He and his wife slept on, while their snores sounded loudly through the house. The girl felt frantic. She then tried to rouse young Alderson, but he slept as if in a trance. Now a fierce battery on the door and cries below the windows told that the band had arrived.
A new thought came to Bella. She ran back to the kitchen. There was the Hand of Glory, still burning with a wonderful light. The girl caught up a cup of milk that stood on the table, dashed it on the flame and extinguished it -- in one moment, as it seemed to her, she heard footsteps coming from the bedrooms, and George Alderson and his son rushed into the room with firearms in their hands.
As soon as the robbers heard his voice bidding them depart they summoned the landlord to open his doors and produce his valuables. Meanwhile young Alderson had opened the window, and for answer he fired his blunderbuss down among the men below.
There was a groan, a fall, then a pause, and, as it seemed to the besieged, some sort of discussion. Then a voice called out, "Give up the Hand of Glory, and we will not harm you."
For answer young Alderson fired again, and the party drew off. Seemingly they had trusted entirely to the Hand of Glory, or else they feared a long resistance, for no further attack was made. The withered hand remained in possession of the Aldersons for sixteen years after.
This story was told to my informant, Mr. Atkinson, by Bella herself when she was quite an old woman.
One evening, between the years 1790 and 1800, a traveler, dressed in woman's clothes, arrived at the Old Spital Inn, the place where the mail coach changed horses, in High Spital, on Bowes Moor. The traveler begged to stay all night, but had to go away so early in the morning that if a mouthful of food were set ready for breakfast there was no need the family should be disturbed by her departure. The people of the house, however, arranged that a servant maid should sit up till the stranger was out of the premises, and then went to bed themselves.
The girl lay down for a nap on the longsettle by the fire, but before she shut her eyes she took a good look at the traveler, who was sitting on the opposite side of the hearth, and espied a pair of man's trousers peeping out from under the gown.
All inclination for sleep was now gone; however, with great self-command, she feigned it, closed her eyes, and even began to snore. On this the traveler got up, pulled out of his pocket a dead man's hand, fitted a candle to it, lighted the candle, and passed hand and candle several times before the servant girl's face, saying as he did so: "Let all those who are asleep be asleep, and let those who are awake be awake." This done, he placed the light on the table, opened the outer door, went down two or three of the steps which led from the house to the road, and began to whistle for his companions.
The girl (who had hitherto had presence of mind enough to remain perfectly quiet) now jumped up, rushed behind the ruffian, and pushed him down the steps. She then shut the door, locked it, and ran upstairs to try and wake the family, but without success: calling, shouting, and shaking were alike in vain. The poor girl was in despair, for she heard the traveler and his comrades outside the house. So she ran down again, and seized a bowl of blue (i.e., skimmed milk), and threw it over the hand and candle; after which she went upstairs again, and awoke the sleepers without any difficulty.
The landlord's son went to the window, and asked the men outside what they wanted. They answered that if the dead man's hand were but given them, they would go away quietly, and do no harm to anyone. This he refused, and fired among them, and the shot must have taken effect, for in the morning stains of blood were traced to a considerable distance.
These circumstances were related to my informant, Mr. Charles Wastell, in the spring of 1861, by an old woman named Bella Parkin, who resided close to High Spital, and was actually the daughter of the courageous servant girl.
Two magicians, having come to lodge in a public house with a view to robbing it, asked permission to pass the night by the fire, and obtained it. When the house was quiet, the servant girl, suspecting mischief, crept downstairs and looked through the keyhole. She saw the men open a sack, and take out a dry, withered hand. They anointed the fingers with some unguent, and lighted them. Each finger flamed, but the thumb they could not light; that was because one of the household was not asleep.
The girl hastened to her master, but found it impossible to arouse him. She tried every other sleeper, but could not break the charmed sleep. At last, stealing down into the kitchen, while the thieves were busy over her master's strongbox, she secured the hand, blew out the flames, and at once the whole household was aroused.
One dark night, when all was shut up, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn in the middle 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 hand white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; there was not a spare bed in the house, but he could lie on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome.
So this was settled, and everyone in the house went to bed except the cook, who from the back kitchen could see into the large room through a pane of glass let into the door. She watched the beggar, and saw him, as soon as he was left alone, draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract from his pocket a brown withered human hand, 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 cook rushed up the back stairs, and endeavored to arouse her master and the men of the house. But all was in vain--they slept a charmed sleep; so in despair she hastened down again, and placed herself at her post of observation.
She saw the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb remained unlighted, because one inmate of the house was awake. The beggar was busy collecting the valuables around him into a large sack, and having taken all he cared for in the large room, he entered another.
On this the woman ran in, and, seizing the light, tried to extinguish the flames. But this was not so easy. She blew at them, but they burnt on as before. She poured the dregs of a beer jug over them, but they blazed up the brighter. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashed it over the four lambent flames, and they died out at once. Uttering a loud cry, she rushed to the door of the apartment the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole family was aroused, and the thief easily secured and hanged.
This tale is told in Northumberland.
Two fellows once came to Huy, who pretended to be exceedingly fatigued, and when they had supped would not retire to a sleeping room, but begged their host would allow them to take a nap on the hearth. But the maidservant, who did not like the looks of the two guests, remained by the kitchen door and peeped through a chink, when she saw that one of them drew a thief's hand from his pocket, the fingers of which, after having rubbed them with an ointment, he lighted, and they all burned except one.
Again they held this finger to the fire, but still it would not burn, at which they appeared much surprised, and one said, "There must surely be some one in the house who is not yet asleep."
They then hung the hand with its four burning fingers by the chimney, and went out to call their associates. But the maid followed them instantly and made the door fast, then ran upstairs, where the landlord slept, that she might wake him, but was unable, notwithstanding all her shaking and calling.
In the meantime the thieves had returned and were endeavoring to enter the house by a window, but the maid cast them down from the ladder. They then took a different course, and would have forced an entrance, had it not occurred to the maid that the burning fingers might probably be the cause of her master's profound sleep. Impressed with this idea she ran to the kitchen, and blew them out, when the master and his men-servants instantly awoke, and soon drove away the robbers.
In the village of Alveringen there formerly lived a sorceress, who had a thief's finger, over which nine masses had been read. For being acquainted with the sacristan, she had wrapt it in a cloth and laid it on the altar, telling him it was a relic. With this finger she performed wonderful things. When she had lighted it -- for such fingers burn like a candle -- everyone in the house where she might be was put to sleep. She would then steal money and everything else that she fancied, until she was at last detected, and the stolen property found in her possession.
There are many curious and miraculously unusual happenings and things in nature, of which no human understands how they occur or how they relate to other things, but they exist nonetheless. And when people hear stories about them, they are amazed and terrified, but they cannot comprehend them. Thus it is with the Raven Stone, which many people talk about, but no one knows anything about with certainty. But it is known for sure that Raven Stones exist.
You have heard about Thieves' Lights. They are similar to the Raven Stone and other invisible thieves' lanterns. It is gruesome to relate how Thieves' Lights are obtained. They are the fingers of unborn, innocent little children. For these purposes the fingers of already born and baptized children cannot be used.
And what sort of unborn little children are they? And how does one obtain the lights? When a female thief or murderer hangs or drowns herself, or is hanged or beheaded, and she is carrying a child inside her body, then you must go forth at midnight on the devil's roads, not on God's roads, with incantations and magic, not with prayer and blessings, and you must take an axe or a knife that has been used by an executioner, and with it you must open up the poor sinner's belly, take out the child, cut off its fingers, and take them with you.
But this absolutely must all be done at midnight in the most perfect solitude and silence. Not even the softest sound, no "oh" and no sigh can escape the lips of the seeker. In this manner you obtain the lights, which you can burn whenever you want to. And however short they are, they will never burn up, but will always remain the same length.
These magic lights have the unusual nature and property that they ignite whenever and wherever their thievish owner wants them to. And they extinguish themselves as fast as his wish and thought.
With their help he can see everything, even in the densest and darkest night, whenever and wherever he wants. But they shine only for him and for no one else. He himself remains invisible, even though they illuminate everything else. Further, the horror within them gives them a mysterious power over sleep. In any room where they are lit a sleeper will snore so soundly that one could set off ten thunderbolts over his head without waking him. Just think how easy it is to steal things and carry them off under these conditions!
At first the woman did not want to take him in, but finally she agreed to do so, when the old man said, "Madame, I am a poor and unassuming man, but you cannot know how I can help you if you allow me to stay here."
During the night when everyone in the house was asleep, the old man was still lying awake in the loft when he heard footsteps in the entryway. Thinking that this was suspicious, he krept from his bed in the hay and saw below him three pitch-black fellows with unusual candles in their hands moving about the main room. The old man immediately knew what was happening. The black companions were intent on robbery. Their candles were the toes of unborn children, and as long as they were burning everyone would remain in the deepest sleep -- a spell which the robbers themselves as well as our old man were protected against through a counter-spell.
While the black fellows were busy emptying trunks and chests the old man quietly climbed down the ladder, found the thieves and murmured a charm that held them all fast. Then he extinguished their candles and woke the woman and the servants. They came with lights.
"Madame," said the old man, "have these fellows washed up so we can see their actual faces."
This was done, and the widow did not believe her eyes when the layer of soot was removed, revealing her brothers-in-law.
"My good man," she said to the old man, "you captured these, my dear relatives, and you will be able to release them as well. Please do so! They will thank you and do us no more harm."
The old man released them with a charm, and the widow told her brothers-in-law to be on their way. Deeply shamed, they crept away.
In former times thieves made lights for themselves which had the power to keep the inhabitants of a house asleep as long as the lights were burning. If the rogues knew how many people there were in the house that they wanted to rob, then they would ignite that number of lights, and no one would be able to wake up as long as the lights were burning. These lights were made from unborn children which had been cut from the womb. Therefore it occurred not infrequently that pregnant women were sold to bandits for high prices.
That very thing happened once at a mill. A servant girl who was pregnant worked for the miller. Her fiancé came to visit her one night. He saw a wagon standing before the door of the miller's house. It was covered with a tarp. He heard a stifled groaning sound coming from beneath the tarp. The servant rushed to the living-room window, and inside he saw several fellows with the miller. They were counting out a large pile of silver coins onto the table. The servant immediately became suspicious and rushed back to investigate the wagon. He pulled his own fiancée from beneath the wagon tarp. Her mouth had been bound with a cloth. The servant carried her to safety and then untied her hands and feet. The robbers soon emerged from the house and drove off as fast as their horses could run, thinking that they were carrying with them a rich booty.
Once a rogue slipped into a house during the day. The inhabitants of the house saw him, but although they searched high and low, they could not find him. At nightfall the inhabitants went to bed, but the servant girl could not fall asleep. She was afraid of the stranger, and wanted to look around carefully one last time. To her fright she discovered him hiding in the stove.
The girl then pretended to fall asleep. Now that all was quiet in the house, the rogue climbed out of the stove and ignited as many lights as there were people in the house. But one of the lights would not burn. He believed that the girl was not yet asleep and held a burning light against her feet. However, in her fear she withstood the pain and did not move.
Now satisfied, the rogue placed all the lights on the table and went outside to summon his fellow robbers. The girl jumped up and barred the door shut behind him. She attempted to awaken the people in the house, but to no avail. She then tried to extinguish the lights, but failed to do this as well.
The rogue came to the window and demanded his lights, promising to leave once he had them. The servant girl answered that she could not reach them out to him while there were burning. She said that she had been unable to put them out and asked him what to do. He told her to submerge them in fresh milk. That is exactly what she wanted to know. She submerged them in fresh milk, and the lights went out. She shouted at the fellow that he was not going to get his lights back, and he then did indeed have to made a hasty retreat, for as soon as the lights were extinguished, everyone in the house awoke, and they all came running to see what was the matter.
After having completed his prison sentence the merchant attempted to reestablish his business, but luck was not with him. Customers stayed away, and he had to make his living through begging.
For more legends about human hands see:
Revised January 19, 2019.