Once there was a miller who had fallen into poverty. His mill was broken so he had to go to the forest to chop wood. One day, when he was hacking at a tree stump, an old man appeared and said, “I’ll make you rich if you give me what stands behind your mill.”
The miller assumed the old man was talking about the apple tree out back, so he agreed to the deal, dollar signs flashing in his eyes. The old man told the miller he would return in three years to take what was his, and then he vanished.
The miller returned home, and his wife asked about their newfound wealth. The house was filled with expensive furniture and their clothes were new, and clean! Better than that, the mill was working again, faster and more efficiently. The miller, grinning ear to ear, explained about the old man and the apple tree.
But the miller’s wife was horrified. “You stupid old duffer,” she cried. “Our daughter was standing behind the mill, and that old man was the devil!”
Indeed, the miller’s daughter was hanging out beside the apple tree, beautiful, pious and oblivious to her fate…
The Snoozing Psyche
The Handless Maiden begins with a broken mill and a broken-down miller. As we saw in the introduction, the mill represents the psyche – the way you think and digest information and ideas, and grind it all up into a story to make sense of your life. When the mill is working effectively, your mind helps you to navigate reality. You can understand what’s going on and work out what you need to do in any situation.
But in this story, the mill is either broken or not working properly, so the psyche in this case isn’t making sense of reality. It’s not processing the information effectively. In other words, the truth isn’t getting through. This is a psyche that has no idea what’s going on.
In fact, nobody in the story knows what’s going on. Everybody is asleep at the wheel. The miller makes a bargain without knowing what he’s giving away, and the daughter is completely passive. But there is a tiny spark of awareness.
The fact that the miller is out in the forest chopping wood is a sign that the psyche is trying to figure something out. The miller is bringing back fuel to the mill so he’s looking for light and warmth, he’s not just sitting about passively.
Unfortunately, the devil pops up and offers him an easy way out. The ego loves to take it easy, so the miller jumps at the chance. But as the story continues we discover what happens when you avoid the necessary work and effort of transforming consciousness:
“When we shun the chopping of wood, the hands of the psyche will be chopped off instead…for without the psychic work, the psychic hands wither.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
This is how we’re so often disempowered by our technology and the bargains we make for an easy life. Everybody does this, it’s human nature. You ignore the voice of the soul, the still small voice of intuition that encourages you to change, because you think it’ll be too much hard work. It’s easier to sit back and go along with a culture that makes it easy to mindlessly consume and drift into oblivion.
It’s easier to do this now than ever before in our interconnected hyper-technological world. But every time you take the easy option, it’s a betrayal of your soul. You sell out. And the devil rubs his hands in glee.
“Instead of our lives being filled with the possibility of enlightenment, we are covered over with a kind of ‘endarkenment’ instead. Our outer ability to see into the nature of things and our inner seeing are both snoring away so that when the Devil comes a-knocking, we sleepwalk over to the door and let him in.” – Estes
Betrayal of the Feminine
The maiden represents innocence and the naïve part of the feminine psyche. At the start of the story the maiden is unconscious, sleepwalking through life. She’s good, well-behaved, and does what she’s told. She’s not conscious of who she and is defined by her relationships to others: she’s the miller’s daughter.
The maiden is not her own person so she’s ripe for initiation, and her unconsciousness leaves her wide open to betrayal.
She begins the story standing beside another symbol of the feminine: the apple tree. The apple tree symbolises the Tree of Life and fertility and is connected by its deep roots to the Wild Mother, the instinctual nature and soul. Both the maiden and the apple tree are undervalued and not appreciated for what they are because they’re not understood by the psyche. The psyche doesn’t realise the treasure buried at its roots, the source of its being.
The miller is the father and symbolises the part of the psyche that mediates between the self and the outer world. This is the masculine side of the psyche that is rational and disciplined. It helps to bring understanding and order to the world, and as an inner authority figure, should be supportive.
But the miller isn’t supportive and doesn’t seem to be very savvy about the world. He’s not connected with his own soul and doesn’t recognise the devil so doesn’t take much persuading to go along with the nefarious deal.
In this psyche, there’s no protection for the innocent feminine – the father more or less sells his only daughter to the devil. There are similar ideas at play in the story of Bluebeard which you can read about here.
The devil represents the predator, the part of the psyche that’s against life and wants to kill the soul before it can grow and learn its true nature. He wants to pull you back down into unconsciousness and death, not so you can be renewed and reborn, but to destroy you just because he can.
The predator is what Estes calls an “archetypal bandit” who needs the light of others because he has none of his own. So the devil comes to bargain with the miller because he’s after the maiden’s light – her soul.
The predator in the psyche turns up and feeds off your light when you’re not aware. Whenever you’re not paying attention or just feeling lazy and letting things slide, your demons come out to play and take advantage of your weaknesses. Becoming conscious is hard work so when the predator offers an easy way out, you take it because it’s easier to stay unconscious. You roll over and go back to sleep.
Like the miller, you don’t know what riches you possess until the devil tries to take them from you. And like the maiden, it happens because you don’t know any better. You give something of yourself up without realising; you make a bad choice or compromise, you take things as they appear.
This is the art of getting something for nothing, although ‘art’ is the wrong word, couldn’t be more wrong. When you make a deal with the devil you choose what seems to be an easy life, it looks valuable on the surface – Riches! Convenience! Cheap Stuff! – but it comes with a hidden price.
You make the deal and things appear to be fine on the surface. You get on with your life, but underneath there’s something missing. A deeper connection has been lost. Over time you come to realise you’ve lost touch with your soul, your passion, and inner truth. You go through the motions, desperately denying the feeling of emptiness that’s slowly taking over what’s left of your life.
This is what happens when you live from the level of the ego and the false self.
The betrayal of the feminine and loss of innocence wounds the soul. This wounding may be internal and driven by your own bad choices, or it can come from outside. Everybody goes through this rite of passage, it’s part of growing up, so everybody has wounds. And it usually happens without your knowledge. This is inevitable because you’re ignorant of your true nature, despite being immersed in it. Like fish not realising the nature of water.
The wound usually happens when you’re young, but it can also happen more than once. When you’re not paying attention or not aware of who you are, you can wound yourself over and over and over. As long as you’re drifting along on the surface of life, you’re open to betrayal. And it won’t be long before you make a dodgy deal that sends you off into the underground forest.
The wounding could be seen as a self-destructive act but it creates an opportunity to grow and develop a conscious relationship with your soul. You have to emerge from unconsciousness and innocence must be left behind, so although the betrayal leads to loss and sadness, ultimately it brings you back to awareness.
The betrayal marks the start of an initiation to bring you back to life, to reconnect with your instincts by losing them. If you want to awaken to the truth of who you really are, you must come face to face with the way reality works and that means a confrontation with what lurks in the darkness.
In fact, the whole process is orchestrated by the Self (or soul). It may look like you’ve made a mistake, wandered down the wrong path, chosen the wrong things, but without the mistake, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to awaken.
So the start of the Handless Maiden tale is all about unconsciousness – ignorance of the true Self. The betrayal of the maiden seems like a terrible tragedy, but the story offers some hope. The mother recognises what has happened. (And probably hit the miller with a broom – I hope!)
So there’s a part of the psyche that’s dimly aware of what’s going on. It sees the devil for what it is. The psyche is starting to wake up to reality.
Next time, the devil returns to claim his prize…