Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Handless Maiden


I recently re-read the story of the Handless Maiden. 
It is a European folk tale that I first read in the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson's wonderful book "The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden."
It is fascinating to me how relevant these ancient stories are to the contemporary world. Myth. folk and fairytale never go out of fashion. The multiple layers that exist within them can be understood  by people differently depending on their stage of life. Here is the story of the handless Maiden as told in Robert Johnson's book:

The Handless Maiden

There once lived a Miller and his family. 
Every day the Miller turned the heavy millstone by hand to grind grain into flour. It was a hard task and there was only ever enough flour to make bread for his family, with a little to sell.

One day the Devil himself came by with a proposition for the Miller, "Good day Sir!" said he, for even the Devil has manners.
"For a fee I will show you how to grind your grain much faster and with much less effort."

The Devil brought his mechanical expertise and made adjustments showing the Miller how to create a water wheel that turned the stone continuously grinding and grinding the flour.
The Miller was delighted with the speed with which he could now work.

For many months all was well and good. Indeed the Miller had quite forgotten to pay the Devil his price.
The Devil, however, had not forgotten for the Devil never forgets even the smallest detail. So one bright morning he returned to collect his fee.
Tragically, the fee that had been agreed in haste was the Miller's own beloved daughter.

Of course, the Miller did not want to give up his daughter, in fact he had thought he'd renegotiate with the Devil when the time came to collect his due.
Surely the Devil would prefer fine silks, gold coins or a team of strong horses of which, since the installation of the water wheel, the Miller now had an abundance.

But the Devil would not be moved.
If he could not take the Miller's daughter he would take back the water wheel.

The Miller was in despair.
He could not give up his daughter but equally he could not imagine how he would survive again without the Waterwheel. Everyone had become used to this easier life and had almost forgotten how to grind grain without it's help.

After much desperate arguing the Devil, in rage, cut off the girl's hands and marched away with them.
There were many months of sorrow and struggle, but the Miller's daughter eventually found ways to cope without her hands.
There was now enough money to have servants in the household and she no longer had to do the manual work.

Yet, after time, she became ever more unhappy at her inability to do things and she grew more withdrawn, more distressed.

One night she left home and went alone into the forest. 
There, in the darkness and solitude where the only sounds were wind and birdsong, she found relief and a measure of peace. Her tears dried up and she began to journey through the woods.
By chance, as she was beginning to feel hungry,she found herself in an orchard that belonged to a King.

She ate russet gold fruit from the trees until she was so tired she fell asleep on the unclothed earth.
After some time the King found her, carried her to his palace, and had his servants take care of her until she recovered her strength.

Of course as days turned into weeks and months they began to fall in love and within the year they were  married.

As a wedding gift The King has a pair of silver hands fashioned for his bride.

The hands were beautiful and costly but could not be used like real hands, they were not soft and they could not move, and whatever, she touched she could not feel. Still as almost everything was done for the new Queen she hardly noticed these things anymore.
Soon problems arose in the kingdom and the King had to leave to attend to them.
during this time the Queen gave birth to a beautiful baby.
The king’s mother sent a message off to the king. The baby is well. The baby is beautiful. But, as can happen, the messenger fell asleep on his way to the king and the Devil came and intercepted the message, twisting it to his own purposes: The queen has given birth to a child who is half dog.
 The king, on receiving this message, was horrified. But being a good king. And, in spite of his horror, he sent back to his mother a message of compassion, and entreaty. Please care for the queen and the baby during this difficult time. Yet once again the messenger, overly complacent, fell asleep, and, once again, the Devil intercepted the message. The king’s mother receives this twisted, and tragic, directive: Kill the queen and the child.

Fortunately, the old woman does not collude with the Devil. She stays connected to her senses—to what she can actually see and touch—the baby itself.
She counsels the queen to bind the child close. She covers them both with a veil. And then she tells the queen that she must run for her life.

In desperation, the young queen took the child and abandoned the castle for the secret peace of the forest.
She lived with the child in the seclusion of an abandoned forester's hut. But one day the little child who was still unsteady on his feet fell into the stream. As he was carried away by the current  the queen frantically cried out for her servants. But, of course, the palace was too far away for her to be heard.
With nothing left to do she followed her raw intuition and in a moment of sublime strength plunged her silver hands deep into the water to rescue her child.
When she drew the boy from the water choking and sputtering she held him tightly in her arms. Her eyes were tightly closed  yet she could suddenly feel the soft curls of his head and the plumpness of his cheek.
Her hands had been restored to flesh and blood at last!

This story makes me wonder at the devil's bargains we have made in the name of convenience.
Our incessant mining of unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels and our quest to find the "cleanest"  way to produce nuclear power could be modern examples of this phenomena.
In the last 40 years there have been two major nuclear disasters.
Probability suggests that at this rate we can expect a Nuclear leak every 20 years or so.
Everything is interconnected. Our water systems, agriculture, the air we breathe, and the food chain all feed into one another. A negative impact on one effects the others.

The fee for convenience is often a disconnect from nature and our own humanity.
As life becomes more atomized and abstracted we loose the ability to use our hands both metaphorically and literally.
Instead of growing our own food, building our own shelters and being fully invested in creating our own products we are encouraged to become specialized in only one small component of the process leaving us dependent upon a system that , though convenient, may not be serving our best interests anymore.

Traditional cultures and native tribes around the world have become dis-empowered, disenfranchised and fragmented as they are often forced to give up their lands to make way for industrial "development."
These kinds of development rarely improve the lives of indigenous people as jobs are outsourced, and profits are consumed by large, usually foreign corporations. The sacred lands of their ancestors are then left barren, polluted and infertile while the investors move on to greener pastures.

Closer to home, in urban environments we often don't know our neighbors and the only support systems are government funded bureaucracies not natural, organic communities.

Connections have been broken. We have lost our ancient intuition and knowledge. Our hands have been tied if not literally cut off.

According to studies it can take up to 10 years for a mother to recover from childbirth.
When I had my first daughter I was a single teen Mum and I had to work and go to college to support us. It was a hard struggle and I suffered badly with post natal depression. I'm not saying that I'm representative of all single teen Mums but I know a larger support network would have helped with the bonding process between us and helped me feel far less vulnerable and anxious.
I remember scouring magazine articles and later internet forums in an effort to connect with other mum's who also felt isolated, unsure and metaphorically "handless."
Studies have shown that in  ancient and tribal cultures where the sacred time period after birth is preserved there is a far lower incidence of post natal depression.
It really does "take a village to raise a child."

Contemporary  narratives tell us that the outcome of our lives is not determined in anyway by our external circumstance. This "each man for himself" stance divides communities and even families as we all struggle to make our own way.
Our cage may be gilt and shiny as the maiden's hands were silver, still our deepest desire remains unfulfilled ; to truly connect with one another and the muddy earth beneath our feet.

The Miller's daughter represents the sacred feminine. 
From the witch burnings of Medieval Europe to the regarding of women as property in the 19th century all the way to the sexual objectification of women in our modern culture, the sacred feminine, in all her forms, from nurturing Mother Earth to our intuitive spiritual nature, has been persecuted and repressed.
Her hands have been severed and she has been stripped of her active power.

Yet the story of the Handless Maiden, as all tales worth their salt must do, offers hope.
And the hope it offers is not simply a sentimental gesture but a practical solution.
At both crisis points in the story, the Handless Maiden goes to the forest.

The forest is a symbol of feminine intuition. 
It is a  hidden, holy place; natures own temple and the sanctuary of animals and birds. (those instinctual and winged creatures.)

Our natural senses are heightened in such a place and so is our spiritual awareness.
We are close to the elements, vulnerable, stripped of our pretense, our pride and all the false structures that scaffold our sense of identity in the world "outside."
We are left with our raw intuition.
Body and spirit interfaced.

The Maiden's first encounter into the forest leads her to the King's orchard which saves her life.
Yet she must leave that gilded cage with it's silver hands, if she is ever to be made real and whole again.
Her pure and instinctive desire to care for her infant son herself is the catalyst which draws her away from false security into true embodied awareness.

Nowhere more keenly is the sacred feminine exemplified than in the love of a mother for her child.

The love for her child and by default, all children (and all the future generation's to come) causes the young woman to plunge her silver hands into the baptism of a flowing river.

 Immediately, alchemy happens and her hands are restored to flesh and blood.

Further Reading:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well thought out and well said.

    I too was very cut off from social support after our daughter was born and suffered postpartum depression. I tried my best to live by this current society's standards but it was killing me and destroying our family. We came to our senses and made the necessary changes to move toward a simpler lifestyle, closer to the earth and I never want to go back.

    Thank you so much for sharing. You may enjoy the book Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

    1. I love "Women who run with the Wolves!" It is perennially stacked on my bedtime reading table :)

      It is so hard to be a parent in modern culture. So many women I know have suffered from Post Partum Depression.
      I'm so glad you came through it :)
      And I feel exactly the same way. I would rather give up a crazy lifestyle and live a simpler life that nourishes me on a spiritual, emotional level. Like you I tried it and it was making me ill.
      The pressure and the standards are ridiculous at times and not conducive to human health and well being.
      Wishing you all the best :)

  3. What a wonderful story and so much food for thought too. I know I found my NCT group invaluable after Kitty was born, and we've stayed friends through lots more babies and several years and it's a shame that that kind of support isn't automatically available.

  4. such a wonderful piece you just wrote. so much to mull over. <3


I treasure each and every one of your comments.
Your kind words never fail to bring a smile to my face:)
At the moment I am going through a busy season of life with 5 girls under my wing! I may not always be able to respond immediately but please know that every word left here is read and appreciated deeply.