-John F. Kennedy
The Hand of Glory is one of those stories you hear of when you’re running around with PROFESSIONAL occultists. Like the beat cop’s story of the junkie on angel dust, still standing after a barrage of gunfire; or the “Things I’ve Pulled out of Rectums” stories from nurses. Stuff that blows the layman’s mind, but is just another day in the business for the pro.
The Hand is supposed to be an object of extreme occult power. Depending on the version, it will either turn its user invisible, mesmerize victims in its vicinity, or it can tell the future.
There are varying instructions for its creation, but the most commonly cited is a delicious recipe by Petit Albert (1722) for pickling the hand of a recently hung jerkwad.
“Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless.”
Other versions involve dipping the hand in wax and lighting the fingers, or the use of a different set of herbs.
The end result is always the same, though: a nasty piece of black magic, coveted by thieves and brigands, who are said to have used the thing to put entire houses to sleep while they robbed them blind.
The only real way to protect your home from its use was to rub your doorjambs with the “gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of the screech-owl,” made during the Dog Days. This would nullify the Hand’s power. To put the flames of the candle out, you had to use blood or skimmed milk.
But “hand of glory” is actually a folk etymology, from the French main de gloire, a corruption of the Latin mandragore, or mandrake.
Mandrake root was used as a surgical anesthetic in Rome in the First Century, due to its soporific qualities, which also made it useful as a sleeping agent to cure mania when mixed into a little wine. It was often employed to help exorcise demons. It belongs to the Nightshade family, containing poisonous alkaloids which can produce hallucinations and hypnotic trance states.
Probably not something that you’d want to fool around with too much. Other than the fatal overdose, there’s also the downside of its purgative properties, which can turn you into a human fountain of excrement.
Mandrake root happens to have its own occult history and superstition attached to it, as do most nightshades.
The root can sometimes appear to take the form of a human body, or a man’s penis, which was noted by the Greeks and taken for a run by the medieval alchemists, some of whom thought it might have been the “umbilical vestige of our terrestrial origin,” as Eliphas Levi said it. The thought being that if man came from the earth, as the biblical origin states, then he must first have grown from a more rudimentary form, which they believed to be the mandrake.
This also led to experimental attempts at creating hommunculi, or little people, by exposing the mandrake to the right amount of sunlight as it lounged in the perfect soil. The hope was to recreate the conditions in which Adam was born, and create a human being without the unnecessary intervention of those irritating females.
In Grimm’s Saga 84, the proper way to harvest the mandrake is described:
First, you have to plug up your ears. Then, you find a completely black dog, dig up a circle around the mandrake, make a few signs of the cross over it, and tie some string around it. Attach the string to the dog’s tail, dangle a treat in front of him, and run like hell.
If you don’t follow these instructions, there’s a chance that you will hear the terrible scream emitted by the mandrake as it is torn from the ground. And anyone who hears that awful noise will quickly curl up and die.
The text details how the mandrake comes to be, as well, offering another hint that the mandrake root is the original Hand of Glory: it appears that when a thief is hanged, his sperm will fall on the ground, and a mandrake will grow there.
And there you have it. Mystery solved. Like a game of telephone played out over oceans and centuries. There is no Hand of Glory.
Except for the one on display at the Whitby Museum in England.
Wait. Did I type that correctly?
So how does a folk etymology end up pickled and under glass in the UK, when it should be safely nestled inside our collective unconscious?
Looking back at the legends surrounding the Hand, it’s easy to find supposed accounts of it in use, like the famous incident at the Inn of Spital on Stanmore, where a gang of burglars were caught trying to unsuccessfully use the Hand to rob the Inn. But that was in 1797, so who knows?
What I do know is that cultural memes tend to break up and mutate as they get copied and passed around.
Like the Roman vomitorium, a large aisle situated in an amphitheater so that large crowds can leave quickly. Thanks to one little misunderstanding, we all heard for years about those crazy Roman vomitoria, the places where you could go to puke, making room for more cake at the food orgy.
And then there’s the (possibly nonexistent) idol worshiped by the Templars, the “Baphomet,” which some scholars swear up and down was a head (sometimes associated with John the Baptist) made of silver or gold, sometimes bearded.
The goat-headed Baphomet we all know and love was introduced by Eliphas Levi in Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie. Levi called his Baphomet the “Goat of Mendes,” possibly referring to an Egyptian ram-headed deity who was worshiped in the city Djedet, or Mendes in Greek.
Why Levi gave his Goat of Mendes the same name as the Templar head is up for discussion (though I am fond of the stretchy theory set forth by one of those conspiracy nuts that Levi had stumbled upon the secret god of the Templars).
Levi’s Baphomet, though, has become one of the most recognizable occult figures in history, enjoying a large following of devotees from different paths. They don’t seem to care who the “original” Baphomet was.
William S. Burroughs said, “The word is literally a virus.” I wonder what he thought of the Hand of Glory. How one little slip up would cause a good amount of backwoods Europeans to lop off a few hands.
I guess he was right. I’d better be more careful with what I say.