After the Bronze Age: Hands by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 158-159.


Like the footprints, the symbol of the hand is not prominent in the later heathen period. In the Roman period the hand was included among votive offerings, and one in bronze was found at the temple of Nodens at Lydney Park on the banks of the Severn (Ross, p. 177). Nodens seems to have been a god of healing, and some of the cult objects found at his shrine are associated with the sun, while a piece of bronze from a headdress or a metal vessel shows a sun-god driving a four-horse chariot; some objects found also suggest association with water. The name of this god is the same as that of Nuadu, a divine king-ancestor, who was given a silver hand when his own was cut off in battle against the Fir Bolg. in Scotland an impressive carving of two left hands on a boulder ar Barnakill, Argyll, was discovered in 1960 (Dickie, p. 249).

Fenrir bites off the hand of a sword-wielding Týr in an illustration on an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript
Fenrir bites off the hand of a sword-wielding Týr in an illustration on an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

A myth relating to a single hand in Norse sources is the story of the god Tyr in the Prose Edda, although unfortunately the source from which Snorri derived the tale is unknown. Tyr had his hand bitten off by the wolf Fenrir, when he succeeded where all the other gods had failed and put fetters on the wolf who was threatening the safety of Asgard. Dumézil (pp. 70 ff.) believed that this myth of a one-handed god is one of the earliest surviving traditions, going back to very ancient times. Tyr is the successor of Tîwaz, the early (O.E. Tiw) sky-god, and if Dumézil is right, this might offer an explanation of the hand symbol in association with sun-disks, ships and graves in the Bronze Age. it would be one of the symbols of the sky-god, the pledge of his protection for his worshippers. There seems, unfortunately, to be no figure with one hand among the Bronze Age carvings, although one is found among the acrobats on the Gallehus horn without runes (Fig. 73). This is not, however, singled out in any way as though he represented a deity, and might be a worshipper who has sacrificed a hand as an offering. Oxsenstierna (p. 36) also notes scenes on the bracteates where a man’s hand is apparently being bitten off by a wolf-like creature.

Grendel arm hangs in Herot.
Grendel arm hangs in Herot.

There is a strange example in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf of a hand set up ‘under the roof’ of a hall, presumably outside the building, on the gable. The hand and arm of Grendel, torn out in the fierce wrestling match in Heorot between the monster and the hero, are set up for all to see, and the Danes come from afar to wonder at the sight. The hand with its steel-like nails is vividly described, and although there is a practical reason for fixing it up after Grendel has escaped, such an incident might be based on memories of the hand symbol set up for worship. Miller long ago (p. 397) pointed out that the words used of the setting up of Grendel’s arm are echoed in Bede’s account of the head and arms of King Oswald being cut off and set up on stakes by the heathen Penda after the battle at Masterfield. Scholars who have shown interest in the story of Grendel’s arm have linked it with the widespread folk tale of ‘The Hand and the Child’, a version of which is found in the Mabinogion, where a demonic hand comes into a house to seize a victim, and is chopped off. The Grendel story, however, has significant differences, since he is not a huge giant, and there is no idea of his hand coming into the hall while he stays outside. It is possible that both the tradition of the arm raised up on the hall and the folktale go back to an earlier tradition of a great hand which once symbolized the power of a deity.

Fig. 73. Chariot of the Sun

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