‘hand of glory’: ultimately an alteration of ‘mandragora’



mandragoras – from Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX (1583), by Rembert Dodoens



The term hand of glory originally denoted a charm made from, or consisting of, the root of a mandrake. A calque of French main de gloire, it was first used in Curiosities of nature and art in husbandry and gardening (1707), the translation by Arthur Young of Curiositez de la nature et de l’art sur la végétation : ou l’agriculture, et le jardinage dans leur perfection (1705) by Pierre Le Lorrain de Vallemont (1649-1721). This book explains that mountebanks make of mandrake “what we call a Hand of Glory” (“ce qu’on appelle une Main de gloire”) and that they

make believe, that by using some little Ceremonies, the Silver they lay near it, will increase to double the Sum every Morning.
(font acraire, qu’en faisant quelques cérémonies, l’argent, qu’on metra auprès, se trouvera doublé tous les matins.)

The term later designated a charm or talisman made from the dried and pickled hand of an executed criminal, used especially to render the occupants of a house motionless during a burglary. In A provincial glossary, with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions (1787), the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) transcribes

a foreign piece of Superstition, firmly believed in many parts of France, Germany, and Spain. The account of it, and the mode of preparation, appears to have been given by a judge: in the latter, there is a striking resemblance to the charm in Macbeth.
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 [sic] 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 [= ?], saltpetre, 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 any one 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.

The French main de gloire is attested as maindegloire around 1436. By folk-etymological association with main, hand, de, of, and gloire, glory, this French term is an alteration of forms such as mandegloire, mandaglore, mandragoire (Modern French mandragore), which in turn were derived from Latin mandragoras, later mandragora, meaning mandrake.

The Latin mandragoras is from ancient Greek μανδραγόρας (= mandragoras), perhaps derived from Persian mardum giyā, literally man plant.

The English form mandrake is apparently due to association with drake in the sense of dragon. The form mandragon also existed; for example, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave thus translated French mandragore:

Mandrake, Mandrage, Mandragon.

The mandrake is a Eurasian solanaceous plant, Mandragora officinarum, with purplish flowers and a forked root. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1904) explains that it has poisonous properties, and acts as an emetic, purgative, and narcotic. It was in use in ancient times especially for its narcotic effects, and is said to have been employed as an anaesthetic. It has been regarded as an aphrodisiac, and used in amorous incantations, as a love-amulet, etc. According to an old fancy the mandrake shrieks when pulled from the ground. The resemblance of its commonly forked root to the human body is probably the ground of this superstition, as well as of the repute of the plant as an aphrodisiac.

In Dekker his dreame In which, beeing rapt with a poeticall enthusiasme, the great volumes of heauen and hell to him were opened, in which he read many wonderfull things (1620), the English author Thomas Dekker (circa 1572-1632) mentioned the mandrake’s shriek:

Heere begin the Descriptions both of the Darkenesse and fires of Hell, &c.
as also of the particular Torments assigned to euery Man, according to his particular Sinnes.

On wings of hot desire I flew from thence
With whirle-wind swiftnesse, noyse, and violence,
Being mounted on a Spirits back, which ran
With Mandrake-shrikes, and like a Lubrican [= leprechaun]:
Whilst round (mee thought) about me there did roare
Ten thousand Torrents, beating on a shoare
Made all of Rocks, where huge Leuiathans lay
Gaping to swallow Soules, new cast away.

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