Dark Night of the Soul · Mythology

The Handless Maiden part 4: Love in the Underworld

Our story continues: the maiden has found her way to the king’s orchard

The next day, the king was walking in his garden, counting his pears, for he knew exactly how many were on each tree, when he realised that one was missing. He called the gardener and questioned him. The gardener explained to the king what he had witnessed the night before. A spirit without hands had been led into the garden by an angel and had eaten one of the pears.

The king was curious and so that night decided to watch the garden and took his magician with him. He waited until the moon was high in the sky before he saw a strange sight. Out of the forest came a maiden without hands, accompanied by an angel who led her across the dry moat and into the garden. Once there, the maiden began to eat a pear, just as the gardener had described.

The magician approached the maiden and asked, “Are you of this world or not of this world?” The maiden replied, “I was once of the world, and yet I am not of this world.”

The magician returned to the king who was eager to know, “Is she human or spirit?” The magician replied, “She is both.”

The king rushed to the maiden and promised not to forsake her and took her to his castle. He loved the maiden with all his heart and had a pair of silver hands made for her, and then took her as his wife. And so the maiden became a queen with beautiful silver hands…

Life in the Garden

The maiden has arrived at the centre of her being, the sacred space of the king’s garden. The entire unconscious is curious to meet this new arrival and they all come out to watch as she eats the king’s pears. Nobody is angry about the pears being stolen; they’re eager to help and understand.

The first to spot the maiden is the gardener. The gardener represents the “cultivator of soul,” the one who helps the psyche to regenerate and produce new growth. The psyche is constantly learning, processing, adapting, and growing, but it can get worn out and tired. It needs fuel in the form of creative input and inspiration. So the gardener helps to mulch all this stuff and turn it into useful fuel for growth.

As we saw in part 3, the pear tree symbolises the Tree of Life, so the pears represent the potential for new life. They provide fuel and the seed of the new self that’s trying to be reborn through this process of descent. Since the pear trees are in the king’s garden, you might think they belong to him, but they don’t.

The pear trees belong to the Great Mother, or the Wild Mother, and it’s the king’s job to look after them. This is why he knows how many pears are on each tree. It seems a bit anal and typically masculine, to count your pears. Robert A Johnson says it’s “a wonderful symbol of the patriarchal world, where everything is catalogued and numbered!”

But it’s actually the Wild Mother who knows every pear. She is every tree, every pear. The king keeps tabs in case a new soul turns up in the garden looking for initiation.

“Holy figures throughout the ages assure and reassure us that on the transformative open road there is already ‘a place set for us.’ And to this place, by scent, by intuition, we are dragged or spirited by destiny. We all arrive in the king’s orchard eventually. It is only right and proper.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

So the king has been waiting for the maiden. The king represents knowledge in the underworld. He’s the part of the psyche that can take inner knowing out into the world and put it to use in a practical way. Obviously this works differently if you’re a man or a woman, which we can’t get into here. But generally speaking, as an archetype, he represents order, leadership, and structure, and enables you to initiate action in the world.

The king watches over the unconscious to ensure all the various parts are pulling their weight, but he’s not a static figure. Later in the story, the king will undergo his own descent and initiation (see part 7). In other words, your ideas about life have to change and go through their own process of death and rebirth, but we’ll get to that later.

The king is also accompanied by a magician. The magician, or priest, represents the ability to put your intuition into practice in the world. It’s no good picking up vibes or sensing hidden information if you can’t do anything with it. The magician archetype isn’t always portrayed as masculine; it could just as easily be a priestess or wise woman, or even an animal. Whatever shape it takes, the king uses his magician to interpret what the gardener sees, so all three work together as a collective.

In this story, the king, the gardener, and the magician are all representations of the masculine archetype. They correspond to the equivalent feminine archetypes of the maiden, mother, and crone, or the Triple Goddess which relates to the phases of the moon. In the Handless Maiden tale, the mother and the crone are both portrayed by the king’s mother who turns up in the next part of the story (see part 5).

The magician asks the maiden whether she is human or spirit and discovers that she is both. She is in the world but not of it. The maiden has been stripped of her ego and all her old attachments and desires. She’s no longer of this world.

This is a tricky part of the process where you have to straddle two worlds, two types of consciousness, at the same time. The act of crossing between worlds is how life continues to grow. You’re entering into the state of consciousness of the dead, but you remain conscious. With one foot in each world, you can maintain the tension between them and this helps to keep you balanced.

As we saw in part 3, you’re not dying, even though you may feel that you are. But the old dead stuff, the things you no longer need, become fertiliser for new growth. You may feel very tired during this process because you’re living in two worlds at once, but your exhaustion encourages the ego to let go.

“…such a process must be of both worlds. It is the wandering in such a manner that helps to wring out every last bit of resistance, every last possibility of hubris, to flatten every last objection we might think up, for wandering this way is tiring. But this special kind of fatigue causes us to finally surrender ego fears and ambitions and just follow what comes.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Nobody can accompany you on this journey, but that doesn’t mean you have to go off to live in a cave, or set up home in a shack in the woods and never speak to another living person. You can’t cut yourself off from the world because the mundane, or normal world provides ballast. It anchors you in reality and stops you getting lost in the underworld, sidetracked by illusions and temptations.

Staying anchored in two worlds at once keeps you grounded and balanced. It’s not easy to do, but without reference to mundane reality you can go mad without realising it; lost within your own hall of mirrors. So maintaining your daily life, even at reduced capacity, helps to keep you rooted as you travel through the land of the dead. Think of it as the rope tied to the ankle of the Hanged Man in the tarot card.

Silver Hands for the Queen

The king accepts the maiden as she is, bloody stumps and all, and marries her. This represents the marriage between the conscious and the unconscious, known as the conjunctio or sacred marriage in alchemy.

The sacred marriage is the union of spirit and soul, the sun and the moon, the rational and the mysterious. Similar to living in two worlds at once, it’s a union of opposites or paradoxes where the tension between the pairs gives rise to insight, wisdom, and growth. This can only occur after a spiritual death and results in a new life being born.

So the maiden has become the queen of life and death, like Persephone, but this isn’t a complete union. The queen still has no hands. There’s more healing to come, but in the meantime, the king has a pair of silver hands made for his new queen.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes says the silver hands represent spiritual seeing which allow you to act in the spirit world. In the mundane world, hands allow you to touch and feel and hold, but in the spirit world there’s nothing to touch. So in the king’s castle in the underworld, the silver hands allow you to see. Silver also represents the moon, and this links to the idea of seeing in the dark. The moon is a reflected and reflexive light, not the full glare of the sun, or conscious awareness.

So with your new silver hands you can see in the dark. They’re psychic hands with which you can grasp the mysteries of the spirit world. These mysteries can’t be grasped with normal hands – with the intellect. So the healing of the psyche is underway and the silver hands give you a healing touch. The maiden has become a wounded healer.

But there’s another way to look at this: The new queen still can’t act on her own behalf. She’s still dependant on the king and his generous gift, but her hands are artificial. This connects back to the beginning of our tale and the machinations of the miller. It was her father’s betrayal that sent the maiden into the forest in search of healing, but she’s not healed yet. She still isn’t her own person.

The king represents the dominant attitude of the collective consciousness (like the father) and the maiden has given herself over to him. It’s a slight improvement on her father, who was actively abusive and didn’t value her at all. The king loves the maiden, so he wants to relate to her. But this isn’t a meeting of equals – yet. It can’t be as long as the queen has silver hands.

In The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz explains that the devil is still lurking in the background, ready to re-enter the story (see part 5), because the maiden hasn’t fully healed the wounds inflicted by the demonic side of the psyche:

“What cannot be produced spontaneously is brought about by force of will, which leads to an unfortunate situation, according to the story. There is insufficient spontaneity, symbolised by the silver hands, which replace those which have been cut off. Instinct is replaced by the rule of the collective. But such people will be aware of a dead corner within them, of something unredeemed; and the restless seeking remains, as though the devil stirred in the background and would not leave them alone.”

In The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, Robert A Johnson agrees that the silver hands represent a lack of spontaneity. It’s a classic masculine solution to a feminine problem. The wound to the soul will never be healed by artificial means. The silver hands may be useful up to a point, but they’re no substitute for the real thing:

“It is not an admirable trait in men that they will convince women that silver-handedness is a high virtue. A man is often only too ready to keep a woman in the silver-handed state, as long as it is the man who determines the character of the silver hands. … This is another example of domination, which is sterling silver – but nonetheless an artificial existence for the woman.”

Free PDF of whole series here!

Women can do this to themselves too. In fact, the entire culture reinforces the denial of the soul and genuine human feelings. Silver-handedness is a condition of artificiality where everything you do is inauthentic on a deep level. With silver hands you can’t act from the soul, only from the surface of life. You can’t touch anyone or feel anything deeply, and this leaves you feeling lonely and isolated. As Johnson goes on to say, “Even at its best, silver is cold.”

So the maiden has become a queen but is living in a partial state, only half healed. She has further to travel, and the devil is about to return

Read the whole series here: The Handless Maiden

Images: Orchard; Silver hand

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