Dark Night of the Soul

The Handless Maiden part 2: Dismemberment

Our story continues: the deal has been made and three years have passed…

At last, the dreadful day arrived when the devil would come to claim his payment: the maiden. That morning, the girl washed and drew a circle around herself with chalk. The devil appeared, but couldn’t come near her. Furious, he demanded she must not wash herself again, and then he left.

When the devil returned the next day, the maiden wept and wept and her tears ran down her arms to her hands, washing her clean. So the devil still couldn’t touch her. Enraged, he ordered the girl’s father to cut off her hands so she couldn’t weep on them.

The miller was shocked and tried to refuse, but the devil threatened to kill him, his wife, and everything around the mill. Quaking in his boots, the miller approached his daughter and begged her forgiveness. She replied, “I am your daughter, do with me what you will.” The miller took his sharpest axe and cut off both her hands.

The maiden wept and wept and her tears ran down her arms and mingled with the blood that poured from her stumps. When the devil returned once more, he tried to claim his prize but still couldn’t touch the maiden for her tears had washed her stumps clean. Muttering darkly to himself, the devil slunk off back into the forest…

Sacrifice and Dismemberment

This part of the story is pretty gruesome. It’s a hostage situation and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. The deal with the devil was made without conscious awareness and all you can do is watch in horror as he takes his price.

As we saw in part 1, the devil represents the predator of the psyche and he’s after the maiden’s soul, her light, because he has none of his own. The maiden’s father fails to protect her and she surrenders to his will and allows the predator to do as he wishes. Her innocence is gone.

And yet the devil can’t touch her. She’s too clean. What’s going on here? Surely the devil wouldn’t be bothered by a little bit of dirt?

Washing is a symbol of purity and this makes the maiden immune to the devil. Bathing and standing within a circle are symbols that link back to the older Goddess rituals and mystery rites of descent and rebirth. The circle provides magical protection, like stepping into another dimension, away from the ordinary world. It places the maiden at the centre of her deep Self. The devil can’t touch her because she’s connected to the source of life and he’s anti-life.

She stands in the circle and cries. This is the Self protecting itself. Something deep inside the maiden knows what to do. Her tears wash away the dirt and purify her wounds. Tears are salt water, of the ocean, and another link to the Wild Mother and the roots of the psyche and life. Tears are often called ‘holy water’ and they help the psyche to heal and protect it from further damage.

When you realise what has happened and what you’ve lost, you grieve and cry. This moves you closer to your instinctual self and the roots of your being. Even though you’ve been terribly wounded, you’ve lost your hands, something deeper protects you. And the predator can whistle.

That doesn’t mean denying the wound or the devil – he’s standing right there in front of you, ordering you about, determined to destroy you. It means being honest about what you’re feeling.

When you cry, you can’t deny something is wrong so it makes you aware of what’s happened. The more consciousness you have, the less leverage the unconscious (the predator) has to manipulate or control you. If you deny how you feel, the devil will take you. But as long as you’re willing to actually feel what you feel, the devil can’t touch you.

This part of the story illustrates the process of surrendering the ego to a deeper, instinctual wisdom. Under normal circumstances the ego clings to whatever it thinks will keep it safe. It holds on using the hands. But if your hands are removed, you have to let go. The ego can’t hold on anymore because you’re moving away from this world into the world of the Wild Mother. You’re on your way back to the underground forest, to the source of your life and soul.

To do this you have to let go of anything that gets in the way of the awakening process. It’s about returning to your full senses as a whole human being, fully awake to who you really are. So the symbolic loss of your hands is a sacrifice in service of this deeper process.

“In the underworld, whenever a thing is not able to live, it is taken down and cut apart to be used in another way. This woman of the story is not old, not sick, yet she must be dismantled for she cannot be the way she has been anymore.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

The maiden’s hands are severed by her father. He isn’t strong enough to stand up to the predator, so he complies in order to save himself. Symbolically speaking, the father represents the organising principle of the psyche, the ego, so of course he doesn’t want to die. He sacrifices the maiden’s hands instead.

However, this has the effect of amputating the ego anyway because without the maiden, the psyche can no longer feel. The ego wounds the soul and hobbles itself in the process.

Without hands you can’t take care of yourself, you’re helpless. In making the deal with the devil, you sold yourself and lost control of your life. You’ve lost sovereignty over your life because when you lose your hands, you lose your grip on reality. The psyche can no longer operate as normal in the world.

The only thing you can do is turn inwards and grieve. You’re stripped of your defences, the old ego games no longer work. You can’t hold on to your old ways of doing or being in the world. There’s nothing left to hold on to. You don’t know what you want or need and nothing makes sense anymore.

The descent into the underworld has begun.

This is a period of incubation and waiting. The psyche turns inwards, seeking answers, but there’s nothing there yet. It’s hard to be productive or act in the world. You feel like you’re going in circles, or don’t feel much of anything at all. Nothing feels the same anymore.

Something more powerful than you takes over. Wisdom arises from deep within and guides your path. This may come from prayer or spiritual practice, or from dreams, synchronicities and encounters in life, or just sudden realisations and breakthroughs that you can’t ignore or deny.

At this point, you may want to spend more time alone. You can’t rely on the culture of the father to take care of you, the dominant culture, the old thoughts and values. You can’t think your way out of this or heal by going on some daring heroic quest. As Robert A Johnson explains in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden:

“Feminine wounds are almost always cured by being still. A man, or the masculine side of a woman, generally has to take an outwardly heroic stance with his problems. … But woman’s genius is quite the reverse. When a woman is aware of her problem, the healing comes spontaneously and from the depths of her nature. Solitude is the feminine equivalent of masculine heroic action.”

This applies to the feminine side of a man too, although it may be harder for a man to accept the need to sit down, shut up and just be. When the wound is to your soul, no amount of rushing about doing stuff will help.

This need for stillness can be hard to accept, especially in the face of such terrible wounds. The severing of the hands looks like self-destructiveness, but you have to trust that a deeper wisdom is at work and that your hands will grow back. Nothing has really been lost. The wounding happens in order to bring about a deeper healing and a return to sovereignty.

The worst has happened. Now you must be still and descend deeper into the underworld. The time has come to enter the forest…

Read the whole series here: The Handless Maiden

Images: Hand; Hands

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