A Hand of Glory 

Representations of hands have always been considered very powerful protectors, used since ancient times as amulets and charms, especially in warding off the evil eye. A particularly revolting and utterly gruesome charm depicting the hand is the so-called ‘Hand of Glory’. This charm was made from the hand cut from a hanged criminal, and in order for it to be effective, it had to be severed while the body was still on the gallows, then dried and pickled. This powerful charm was considered not only to have great healing powers, but also to protect felons from detection when committing a robbery.

The Hand of Glory was reputed to prevent sleepers from waking and to stupefy anyone who was awake in the middle of the night. There were two ways of using the Hand of Glory. Shortly before breaking and entering, either a candle was fixed between the hardened fingers, or the outspread fingers and thumb were set alight to burn as long as it was considered necessary, the fingers themselves thereby becoming a five-fold candle. If only the fingers of the upright hand burned, but the thumb would not catch fire, then this was a sign to the thief that someone in the house was still awake and free from the charm’s effects. It was firmly believed that when the affixed candle or the hand was lit, everyone in the vicinity, except the owner of this gruesome object, fell into a deep slumber from which they could not be roused. As the following nineteenth century rhyme indicates, this charm was an invaluable aid for any thief conducting nocturnal robberies:

Let those who rest more deeply sleep,

Let those who wake their vigils keep, 

Oh Hand of Glory shed thy light,

Direct us to our spoils tonight.

The underlying idea, based on sympathetic magic, was that a death-like condition could be induced in someone, if only temporarily, by using portions of a felon’s corpse. The custom of leaving bodies to rot on the gibbet – a warning to passers-by that crime did not pay – made human remains readily available for creating such gruesome charms. 

Thieves in England reportedly still used the Hand of Glory in the late nineteenth century. Although this revolting charm was peculiar to Europe, similar charms were used by burglars around the world, the line of thought persisting that ‘like influences like’, and anything related to death, such as bones, ashes, or dirt from graves, induced a death-like state in others. For instance, it was formerly thought in Germany that anyone who had silently carried off an undertaker’s measure and leant it against a house door at night could rob the people inside without their waking. Jacob Grimm attests to this in his Teutonic Mythology.45  Similarly, in Slavic countries, thieves flung a human bone over the rooftop of the house they intended to rob, and Hindu thieves scattered ashes from a funeral pyre in front of the entrance of the house they had selected, while Indonesian thieves sprinkled grave dirt around their targeted abode to ensure that everyone inside would not wake up. How widespread such notions often are!


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App