The Handless Maiden is a myth that speaks powerfully to our dark and confusing times. It’s a fairy tale that was collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, but its roots are much older. The story is about a maiden whose father sells her to the devil in exchange for wealth and convenience. Her hands are chopped off and she must wander alone in the forest in search of healing.
Jungian analyst, Robert A Johnson, says the story is about the wounded feeling function, a wound that’s so common in the Western world that many people don’t even realise it’s a problem. In a sense, we’re all handless maidens, wandering about, bleeding from our stumps, feeling lost and alone.
The basic story goes like this: a miller has fallen on hard times so he makes a deal with the devil to exchange what stands behind the mill for great riches. The miller thinks the devil wants his apple tree and doesn’t realise that his daughter is standing beside the tree. When the devil comes for the maiden, her father chops off her hands. But she cries on the stumps so the devil can’t touch her.
The maiden goes wandering in the forest where she meets and marries a king who gives her a pair of silver hands. While the king is away, she gives birth to a child, but in a mix up orchestrated by the devil, the king’s mother is ordered to kill the queen and the child. She escapes back to the forest with her child and goes wandering again.
In some versions of the tale she finds an inn and is taken care of until her hands grow back. In others, she returns to the forest and takes care of herself until there’s an accident and the child falls into a river. Without thinking, she grabs the child and her hands miraculously grow back. Either way, the king returns and goes looking for her, and they’re reunited.
What does this story mean to us? What does it mean to be handless?
As with dreams, one of the ways to make sense of stories like this is to see all the characters as parts of yourself. You are the handless maiden and her wounding father, the king, his mother, and the devil. These are all aspects of your own psyche, but they can also be reflected in the people and circumstances of your life too.
The maiden represents the feminine part of the psyche, whether you’re a woman or a man, so her severed hands point to a deep inner wound to the soul. She can’t feel or touch or hold anyone. She can’t relate because she’s lost the ability to really feel on a deep instinctual level. And how does this wound come about?
The mill represents the psyche, the mind’s ability to take in and process information, and to produce nourishment and meaning. The grinding stone and the waterwheel of the mill are mandalas, a symbol of wholeness. This tells us that the mill is a positive thing, if used correctly.
But in the story the mill is broken and the miller has failed. He’s lost and powerless so the devil takes advantage of his weakness. The miller is tempted to take the easy option, the quick fix. He trades something living, his daughter, for something dead and mechanical. In other words, the miller sells his soul for an easy life.
So the story can be seen as a warning. This is what happens when you misuse your mind.
The word machine means ‘contrivance,’ which emphasises its artificiality, and comes from the Latin machina which means ‘trick.’ When you lie to yourself, rationalise, take short cuts to solve your problems and look for the easy way out, it wounds your soul – the maiden within.
You end up living in your head, alienated from your body and feelings. You can function like this, but you’re more machine than human. An automaton, without soul, distanced from yourself and others. Dead from neck down.
This loss of soul creates a feeling of emptiness which you try to fill with substitutes like money, power, and stuff. And food. And late-night binges on Netflix. It also feeds into the rage and violence that are endemic in our times.
We’re living in a state of profound inner poverty which comes from a culture that doesn’t value human beings or life. We can barely face the horror of living this way so we allow it to continue despite the consequences. Just like the parents in the story, we deny the suffering and pain we inflict on each other and find a convenient scapegoat to carry our wounds for us.
(Read Mental Health Awareness Week wants to know why you’re not thriving for more on this)
The story also highlights the incompetence of our leaders and the avoidance of responsibility that we all participate in. The maiden’s parents don’t protect her or prevent the terrible wounding from happening. They collude in it because they’re wounded too; estranged from each other and from themselves.
The parents in the story represent the status quo or consensus reality, the collective cultural attitude. They don’t recognise the value of their daughter – the soul. They’re in denial and can’t face the horror of what they’ve done. They would rather sacrifice the maiden (their own feelings and soul) than face the truth.
This collective loss of soul has plunged us into a global dark night. We’ve wounded ourselves and now must undergo a journey into the underworld in order to heal and retrieve our souls.
“Crisis in life is often to be understood as the invitation and initiation to maturity – to another level of true adulthood. And a ‘spiritual emergency’ or even a ‘madness’ that has the look of a possession can be an initiation into spiritual meaning – a process which our modern culture is slow to understand as a creative illness. Jung compared this ‘dark night of the soul’ with the powerful, painful and often uninvited inner experience that initiates and defines the making of a shaman. It is always critical whether this experience will become a blunder into an eternal hell … or the cleansing passage through hell to the other side where the creative daimon awaits one. Having first been dis-membered, the person is then re-membered, and emerges again healed and in possession of wisdom and the gifts of healing.” – Gertrud Nelson, Here All Dwell Free
The Handless Maiden story isn’t just about the wounding and wounded soul; it also provides a blueprint for how to heal and become whole again. The tale is a rite of passage, a descent and return designed to build endurance and strength and bring a wounded soul back to life.
It’s often told to illustrate a woman’s initiation into her own deep instincts but it applies just as much to the wounded feminine nature in men. Following the handless maiden on her journey into the underworld can help you to become whole and reclaim your sovereignty so you can live and act in the world with integrity and genuine soulful feeling.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes says it’s the Wild Woman that enables you to live like this, even in the darkest of times. The Wild Woman is the deepest part of the feminine side of the psyche, whether you’re male or female. It’s what Estes calls the ‘Life/Death/Life’ force.
“She is the mind which thinks us, we are the thoughts that she thinks.”
God, in a word. But God manifest and living through wild nature, the essence of life. The Wild Woman archetype is the instinctual self or soulful nature, the part of the psyche that’s still connected to the natural cycles of life. It’s often portrayed as a wild woman living at the edges of the world, spinning the fates of all beings, a creator and a hag, a death Goddess who births life, and a maiden who descends into the darkness to be reborn…
In this series we’ll journey with the handless maiden and explore the fairy tale and its meaning in seven stages:
- Deal with the Devil
- Entering the Forest
- Love in the Underworld
- The Devil Returns
- Wandering and Waiting
- Inner Marriage