The Hand of Glory or The Miracle of Milk

In which we discover that a Hand of Glory is not always the solution you might think it is, that pretending to be asleep is sometimes the cleverest & bravest option and that it is surprising what you can achieve with a bowlful of milk

Dark and Scary Nights

What did you think of the story? I hope it wasn’t too dark for you, I just feel that these dark nights are the perfect time for a little scary. I say that as someone who is terrified by horror films. It probably stems from when I watched Ghostbusters too young and I’ve never been able to watch anything darker than a thriller since. I find ghost stories fascinating though so I clearly don’t mind being scared a little in an atmospheric way, I just draw the line at creatures with knives on the end of their hands and clowns.

Actually, the stories about how hands of glory were made are much more gruesome than our tale. I think I’m going to share it with you anyway as its in my head now and I don’t see why I should suffer alone. You all seem like lovely people and I’m sure won’t be going off to try and make one and use it for various unethical tasks. You would struggle in many countries anyway due to penal reform.

Tricky Foraging

Firstly, you need the corpse of a hanged man and he must have been sentenced to hang, not just suffered an unfortunate rope based accident. You then remove the hand from the corpse. Once upon a time this might have been difficult if you didn’t get to the hanged man early as they were also supposed to be good for treating tumours, swellings and warts. Everyone was so convinced by these cures that there were often queues. Nursemaids would even stroke afflicted children with the dead man’s hand still attached to the corpse.

Anyway back to our hand of glory, first get up very early and steal your hanged man’s hand. Depending on some recipes you are going to need some other things from the corpse so maybe steal the whole corpse just in case. I would suggest that this would be a good scheme to employ in the cold weather for practical reasons but part of the instructions suggest the dog days of summer are a preferred part of the ritual so you’re out of luck there. Now you are going to pickle/salt the hand. Here are the instructions translated from the French of Les Secrets du Petit Albert in 1751:

Disgusting Recipe

‘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 it 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’

There’s quite a lot of discussion over zimat: some believe it was verdigris, others believe sulphate of iron. The dog-days previously mentioned refer to the hot, sultry days of July and early August (well hopefully, they can be cold and damp in England so perhaps that’s why the additional oven instructions were helpful). Vervain is also known now as verbena. I imagine that collection of herbal bags in the back of the cupboard won’t cut the mustard though.

This wasn’t the only recipe for the hand. The following recipe from Yorkshire and displayed alongside the only Hand of Glory apparently still in existence in Whitby Museum is quite different. This suggests that the hand should be “pickled in salt, and the urine of man, woman, dog, horse and mare; smoked with herbs and hay for a month; hung on an oak tree for three nights running, then laid at a crossroads, then hung on a church door for one night while the maker keeps watch in the porch-“and if it be that no fear hath driven you forth from the porch … then the hand be true won, and it be yours”

Next Shape Your Candle …..

Once all this is done you must shape the hand so it can hold a candle. There are also differences of opinion for the candle too, of course. Petit Albert advises: ‘then compose a kind of candle with the fat of a hanged man , virgin wax , and sisame of Lapland.’ Now you can see why I suggested you needed to steal the corpse. Its frankly much more horrid than the hand itself so you can see why other people suggested using virgin wax which contained clippings of the dead man’s hair.

Much more practical and lots less disgusting, well comparatively any way. Also, there’s no need to find a way to get rid of the rest of the body which, unless you want to find out the extent to which your friends hold you in esteem, always seems like a lot of bother. There is also a version where no candle is necessary and the fingers of the hand light up, apparently unlit fingers indicated persons in the household who weren’t asleep. There’s a couple of obvious problems here for the thief, one being that they might not know how many people were present in total; the second being that many households were bigger than five.

An Accomplished Object

I’ve barely touched on what a Hand of Glory could achieve. In our story it was used for keeping people asleep but depending on where you do your reading they could also burn forever, provide a light only visible to the perpetrator and not to the household and unlock any door.

Such is the case in the story of the same name in the Ingoldsby Legends where we have a hand which opens locks, keeps people motionless and asleep.

Now open, lock!
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!

A Fascination of Folklore Collectors

The Hand of Glory fascinated 19th Century folklore collectors. Francis Grose apparently heard his story of from a judge and William Henderson was surprised that this was considered a foreign phenomenon as he had heard at least two local examples of the tale in Yorkshire. The tales were common across Europe, from Finland to Italy and Ireland to Russia over the last four hundred years There were also possibly some thieves in Ireland who believed that a Hand of Glory really did work as advertised. It was reported in the Observer of 16th January 1831, as follows:

“On the night of the 3d, some Irish thieves attempted to commit a robbery on the estate of Mr. Napper, of Loughscrew, County Meath. They entered the house armed with a dead man’s hand, with a lighted candle in it, believing in the superstitious notion that a candle placed in a dead man’s hand will not be seen by any but those by whom it is used ; and also that, if a candle in a dead hand be introduced into a house, it will prevent those who may be asleep from awaking. The inmates, however, were alarmed, and the robbers fled, leaving the hand behind them.”

The Hand Itself wasn’t the only item of interest in the tale however, the need for milk to put out the candle is another interesting discussion point. Here in out tale, it took something untainted to overcome the evil of the hand and the milk was the first item of purity to hand.

First Take Your Milk …….

Milk is interesting, from a folkloric and historic perspective. For such a naturally unstable product its the source of several origin stories and our whole galaxy is named for it: The Milky Way. In fact the word galaxy derives from gala, the Greek word for milk. In Greek myth every star comes from drops of Hera’s spilled breast milk when she was feeding Hercules. The infant Zeus/Jupiter was fed on goat’s milk and honey – in some versions of the myths the milk was provided by Amaltheia, the divine goat.

The Eygptian goddess Isis was often shown breast feeding a pharaoh and her husband Osiris was celebrated for pouring out a different bowl of milk for each day of the year. Isis was often depicted with large breasts and a cow’s head. A recipe for the sacred ‘Milk of Isis’ still survives, involving milk, almond syrup and strawberries.

The Fulani people in Africa have an origin story that the world started with a huge drop of milk from which everything else was created. According to Norse legend the primeval thawing frost cow Audhumla produced the four rivers of milk on which the frost giant Ymir fed – the universe was later created from Ymir’s body parts. In addition the goat Heidrun provided the milk which formed the basis of the mead drunk in Valhalla by the wounded Aesir.

Celtic Milk Myths

The Celts had their own milk associated myths:

The Fuwch Frech was a magic Welsh cow, with black and brown markings , who would appear if anyone were in need of milk. She would fill the largest milk pail and then vanish, sometimes into a lake. Glas Ghaibhneach was the equivalent grey cow of Irish tradition. If either cow were hurt, milked into a leaking bucket or otherwise offended they would disappear before providing all of their milk. One other Otherworld cow, the Dun Cow, turned destructive after she was tricked out of her milk and she finally had to be slain by Guy of Warwick. It wasn’t pretty.

In Ireland they also have their own milk goddess. St Brigid was washed in milk as a newborn baby and was raised on the milk of a magical Otherworld cow, as she was unable to digest ordinary cow’s milk. This cow was a white one with red ears and it accompanied her around the farms on the eve of her Saint’s Day. At this time of year there was little milk and many of the farm women would take a blessed candle to the cow’s stall and singe the long hair on the upper part of the animal’s udder in order to bring on St Brigid’s blessing so that the cow’s milk would be abundant in the spring.

Never Upset a Brownie

If England, if you were lucky enough to have a Brownie look after your home or farm it was important to reward them correctly. A bowl of cream or rich full cream milk and bread liberally spread with butter and honey would prevent the Brownie considering the householder ungrateful and thus causing havoc around the farm. In several of the Isles of Scotland farmers poured milk through a holed-stone, in honour of the Brownie. The Tomte in Sweden, were also thought to cause all sorts of trouble in the dairy if they were not offered something milky to eat.

Always Use Rowan

As well as rewarding your household spirits it was important to protect your dairy and your herd from supernatural influences. Milk was both precious and vulnerable to harm so farmers took steps in order to protect it. In order to discourage witches in Ireland, rowan wood was twisted around the milk pails. It was hung at the cowshed door on May Day and bunches of primroses were hung on the cattle or scattered around the door of the dairy and trodden on before crossing the threshold. In Scotland, red ribbon was tied to the tails of cattle. Milkmaids also sang to their cattle to ward off fairies and witches and in an effort to retain milk yields.

The Christian Perspective

Christians were suspicious of this pagan cow worship but were reluctant to let go of milk completely, the Virgin Mary was continually depicted exposing a breast and lactating. There were some other senior Christian figures of the early church who believed that the Virgin had appeared to them and given them the gift of her milk. Yes, I am thinking what you are thinking but I’m reluctant to trample on people’s beliefs so we’ll just leave that there.

There are also lots of references in the Old Testament to milk and honey (20 in total) and around 50 references to milk. Milk and honey was shorthand for a place of plenty. It was also a flavour combination that most people loved. The sweetness of the honey with the sourness of yoghurt was particularly delicious.

From Folklore to History

That idea takes us from folklore to history. Milk is one of our oldest foods but due to its unstable nature it is highly unlikely they were thinking of drinking fresh milk as a paradise in the hot countries of the Middle East as it would sour and become inedible very quickly, yoghurt and cheeses were such more popular.

It was originally thought that sheep, goats and cattle were first domesticated for their meat, hides and horn from about 9000 to 7000 BCE in the Near East (modern-day Iraq), and then exploited for their ‘secondary products’ of milk, wool and draft-power in the fifth millennium.

However, recent dating of milk residues found on pottery remains suggests that milking of animals may have occurred much earlier – during the seventh millennium and possibly earlier – and that the majority of milking occurred in north-west Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

I’d love to spend a long time on this history but we don’t really have enough time. Essentially between 9000 BCE in Turkey and medieval Northern Europe there is a long history of milk being converted into products that benefitted from bacterial activity such as yoghurt and cheese or would be improved with salt for preservation like butter. Fresh milk goes off quickly and the bacteria makes people ill so the only people drinking fresh milk regularly were people in cooler countries that farmed cows, goats or sheep.

Interesting Milk Based Ideas

In medieval times menstrual blood was thought to be diverted from the uterus during pregnancy and turned itself into milk after delivery. This didn’t change for several centuries. At Elizabethan weddings, red and white ribbons tied to a rosemary branch were used to decorate the table of the marriage feast. The white ribbon was a reminder both of milk and the absence of periods during childhood and pregnancy, whilst the red recalled the woman’s ‘monthly purgations’ auguring future fertility. ‘Milk-white’ connoted purity and innocence.The idea that milk was actually blood that had turned white is also why milk was banned on meatless holy days—more than half the days of the year.

A Dangerous Drink

The real problem with fresh milk throughout time was that it was dangerous to health. The milk carried dangerous bacteria and was milked into dirty vessels which just made things worse. It also turned bad very quickly. As mentioned, this was overcome by turning the milk into longer lasting products such as yoghurt and cheese. An alternative to this was found in India where they just boiled milk which solved most of these problems. It was also combined often with sugar which further preserved it.

Milk was also used as a medicine but in forms where it was less harmful such as Alexeterial milk-water which supposed to be good against the plague, surfeits, and almost everything else; and especially useful for the bite of a mad dog. It was a water distilled from numerous herbs and cow’s milk. It occurs in many recipe books of the seventeenth century.

As food technology improved great strides were made in preserving milk such as canning with or without sugar (evaporated milk and condensed milk) but they changed the qualities of milk. It wasn’t until pasteurisation that the concept of a big glass of fresh milk being good for your health became a familiar concept. This happened in the US at the end of the 19th Century but not until the 1940s in the UK. Fresh milk then became a health product.

Perfect Pudding

It can also be delicious apparently. I agree with that if its in most of its superior forms: cheese, yoghurt, kefir, butter, cream, creme fraiche, clotted cream, ice-cream. I just can’t drink it as it is, its fine in tea, coffee, hot chocolate, chai but not by itself. This isn’t a recent thing, when I moved onto bottled milk at around 3 months old I refused to drink it until someone suggested that some weak tea be added to the bottle. Then I drank it like a trooper. It was the seventies, things like that used to happen then.

I still can’t stand it on cereal unless its hot on a well-sugared weetabix or porridge or at a push cold on cocoa pops. In addition all milk smells off to me. It’s not just me, vast swathes of the planet stop drinking milk once weaned and mostly develop an intolerance for it.

My dislike is really only for fresh milk in its unadulterated form, I love the rest of dairy. I wanted to find something very milky for today’s recipe so I chose something that I love. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but that is overridden for Indian milk based sweets like barfi, gulab jamun, kheer and rasmullai. I think its because Ma used to take me to Asian sweet centres in Handsworth for these milk based puddings when I was small so they have a special place in my heart.

I chose kheer as it is lovely and milky but the rice and spices and reduced milk really make this into something special. I love cardamon and pistachio so I hope this relatively quick recipe appeals to you too.




Prep time


Cooking time




  • 800ml full cream milk

  • 50g basmati rice

  • 190 ml evaporated milk

  • 100g sugar

  • 1/2 tsp cardamon powder

  • 50g slivered pistachios

  • 50g plump sultanas (optional)


  • Rinse out a heavy based pot with water then add milk and rice and bring to a boil.
  • Once the milk and rice have come to a boil, lower the heat to very low and cook for around an hour. Be careful to keep the heat very low, to avoid the milk scalding on the bottom of the pot. Keep stirring every few minutes during this time.
  • Once the milk has reduced quite a bit add the evaporated milk and cook for a few minutes while stirring.
  • Now add the sugar. Cook for a minute or two and add the pistachios, sultanas and the cardamon powder. Cook for around 5 minutes, while stirring until the kheer has thickened to your liking. Be aware that the kheer will also thicken further while cooling down.
  • Transfer the kheer to a serving dish, and let it cool at room temperature until it is completely cold. I usually let my kheer cool completely for about 2 hours or so.
  • Now cover the kheer with cling film or foil, and place in fridge to chill for a few hours.
  • If you can’t wait you can just eat it warm
Further Reading

The Book of English Folktales – Sybil Marshall
British Folk-Tales and Legends – Katharine Briggs
Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties – Ruth Tongue
A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstition – Francis Grose
Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain – John Brand
Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders – William Henderson
Milk! – Mark Kurlansky
Milky Medicine and Magic – Layinka M. Swinburne
Milk, A Global History – Hannah Velten
Oxford Companion to Food – Alan Davidson