Dark Night of the Soul

The Handless Maiden part 5: The Devil Returns

Our story continues: the maiden has become a queen with silver hands

The queen stayed in the castle and the king lavished her with love and care. But in time, he had to leave to wage war in a distant land. Before he left, the king asked his mother to take care of the queen, for she was expecting his child. She must send a letter as soon as the child is born.

Some months later, the queen gave birth to a beautiful son, and the king’s mother immediately sent a letter with the good news. But the messenger fell asleep by a river along the way. While he was dozing, the devil, who was still brooding over his humiliation in losing the maiden, exchanged the real letter for another. The devil’s message informed the king that the queen had given birth to a monster.

When the king received the letter, he was shocked but sent a reply asking his mother to take care of his wife at this terrible time. But once again, the messenger fell asleep on his journey. While he dozed beside the river, the devil exchanged the message once more and ordered, “Kill my wife and child.”

The king’s mother couldn’t believe her eyes when she received the letter, so she sent another message to the king, asking for clarification. But the devil played the same trick again and switched the messages, there and back. Finally, the king’s mother received a letter that ordered her to save the queen’s eyes and tongue to prove to the king that she had been killed.

By now, the king’s mother believed her son had gone quite mad, what with the war and everything, and she had no intention of killing the queen. Instead, she killed a deer, removed its tongue and eyes, and saved them. The king’s mother then told the queen that she and her baby son were no longer safe in the castle. The queen must run and go far away, and never return…

Return to the Mother

The maiden has finally found some peace and love in the underworld, but as soon as she gets settled, the king buggers off. This often happens in fairy tales and it’s a sign that the next stage of the journey is about to begin. The masculine part of the psyche recedes and the energy turns inward to prepare for another descent. All that you’ve learned so far, the new knowledge, healing, and wisdom, must be tested. A new perspective on life is no good if it collapses at the first sign of trouble.

The love between the masculine and the feminine sides of the psyche is also tested. When the animus, or masculine guiding spirit, withdraws, you have to learn to take care of yourself and find nourishment from deep within the feminine side of your nature. So the young queen is left in the care of the king’s mother.

The king’s mother represents the Wild Mother, the deep feminine roots out of which everything grows, and to which everything returns. She contains within her being the mysteries of the cycles of life and death and rebirth. This is the deep instinctual part of the psyche that can see and understand what’s going on, and knows what to do about it. The king’s mother is able to see through the devil’s tricks and take evasive action.

As we saw in part 4, the king’s mother represents two phases of the Triple Goddess: the mother and the crone. Normally the crone would be symbolised as having a dual nature, both giving life and taking it, because she stands for the death/rebirth cycle of nature. But in this tale, the crone role is given to the devil instead.

The modern way of thinking about life and death splits the cycle up. It sets life and death against each other, death becoming the enemy of life. Originally, death was seen as being in service to life and part of the deeper cycle of rebirth and regeneration. But here, in the guise of the devil, it’s only interested in the destruction of life. It has become purely negative; pure evil.

Evil only really gets going when you have monotheism with its conception of God as being wholly good. This splits the natural cycles of life up, turning a cyclical process into a linear ideal. When you have a God who is wholly good you must invent a devil who is wholly bad. This sorry state of affairs came about with the repression of the feminine:

“Here’s another clue to the source of the predator: it’s the banishment of the divine feminine archetype, represented by the grail cup, that creates the Dying King. He has rejected his own soul and the loss is slowly killing him. The grail is right there in his castle, but he can’t access it because he can’t listen to his soul. As soon as the grail is acknowledged by Percival, the healing begins.”

Read more on this: Sympathy for the Devil: the Nature of Evil

Originally the crone would have played the role of the devil, getting up to trickster-style mischief to ensure the maiden’s initiation followed the natural pattern of death followed by rebirth. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes says the modern rewrite is relevant because:

“we often find ourselves fighting off the Devil in the form of cultural, familial, or intra-psychic injunctions that devalue the soul-life of the wild feminine.”

The Handless Maiden provides a good example, with the betrayal of the maiden by the father in exchange for wealth and a life of ease. Another excellent example is The Handmaid’s Tale, currently freaking me out on Sunday nights.

It works whichever way you look at it, but it can help to remember that death is supposed to serve life. Destruction doesn’t have to be entirely negative if it serves a deeper purpose. That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt like hell. Suffering is never fun, even if you do eventually get something out of it. But you do have to be careful not to let it pull you under, and to remain connected to life, to the deeper soul. Otherwise, the devil’s shenanigans turn destructive in the worst way.

So this part of the story is about learning to trust life to take care of you. The Wild Mother is there, ready to give you what you need. But you must keep your wits about you and do what’s necessary to survive.

The queen gives birth to son – a child has come from the sacred marriage. The child represents new life, ideas, breakthroughs and possibilities that begin to pour into your psyche now. This is really you giving birth to yourself – you’re becoming a new version of you. The union of opposites has given rise to a more complete individual, but there’s still work to be done.

At this stage of the process you’re becoming more conscious and learning to work with all the various aspects of yourself, especially the parts that are hard to accept. Your inner life is exploding with potential and you’re transforming into the person you’re meant to be. A new self is on the way but it’s still unformed – a child.

The child is born and is immediately challenged by the destructive part of the psyche. The devil returns to stick a spanner in the works and finish what he started…

Mixed Messages

The king’s mother sends a message to the king via a messenger. This is the deep instinctual unconscious communicating with the conscious mind. Or you could see it as messages going between the soul and the spirit. But here it goes wrong. The messenger falls asleep beside a river and the devil takes his chance.

Instead of the Styx of the moat around the castle, this river is one of forgetfulness – the river Lethe. When you drink from this river in the underworld you forget your life in the upper world. It’s a symbol of unconsciousness, of falling asleep at the wheel, and not paying attention to what you’re doing. You’re not awake yet. The messenger isn’t paying attention so the devil takes advantage and switches the positive message to a destructive one.

The distorted messages reflect your own doubts and fears at this stage of the journey. You’ve been through so much already, and you just want to rest. Transformation is hard work and you get tired of always having to be your better self. Unconsciousness is so much easier.

Something begins to nag at you from the darkness. Doubts about your worthiness, fear that things will never change, or that terrible things will happen to you if you do change. You may feel stuck, traumatised, filled with distrust and anger. You can end up slipping back into your old naïve ways and forget that the journey isn’t over yet.

All this negativity is the devil’s work, the predator of the psyche. Sometimes the predator operates within your own mind, but it often works through the culture in which you live. The practice of turning inwards to engage with the deep feminine and the inner life is consistently undermined and undervalued in Western culture. So when you embark on this journey to reconnect with your soul, you’re bound to encounter cynicism and disparaging language designed to shame you into quitting.

“When there is too much predator and not enough wild soul, the economic, social, emotional, and religious structures of culture gradually begin to distort the most soulful resources, both in spirit and in the outer world. … The value of what is wild and visionary is denigrated, and dark speculations are made about how dangerous the instinctual nature really is. Thus stripped of authentic sanctity and meaning, destructive and painful means and methods are rationalised as superior.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

The predator would rather you didn’t feel anything and there’s a part of your own psyche that agrees. It cuts off your ideas, feelings and actions because it wants to stop and destroy life. The predator wants to steal your light and disconnect you from your natural wisdom. It distorts your perception so you can’t see clearly and cuts you off from deep sources of nourishment.

In the story, the devil asks for the eyes and tongue of the maiden as proof that she has been killed. So the predator doesn’t want you to see or to speak of what you know. He wants you blind and silent. There’s a good reason for this:

The predator doesn’t want you to know the truth about who you really are because then you will know who he is.

In other words, you’ll see through the illusion and this will undermine his power. When you see and speak your truth, you catch him with his pants down, and no self-respecting devil will tolerate that!

So the devil ambushes you to make you lose your faith. But there are other parts of the psyche working hard to protect you at this vulnerable time: the king and the king’s mother. Neither of them believe the twisted messages.

This is a test of faith – the darkest part of the dark night of the soul – when you must continue on your journey without knowing why or how. Can you maintain your faith even when you think God has abandoned you? It often feels as if you’re lost in the darkness, but this story reminds you that you’re not alone. It’s actually impossible for you to be abandoned, even if it feels that way at times – it simply cannot happen.

The king and the king’s mother maintain their faith. Like them, when you find yourself going in circles in the dark, it’s essential that you don’t give in to the predator. Outsmart it instead. See through its manipulations, like the king’s mother. She recognises the devil for what he is, so you too must know your enemy.

Learn about the predator – don’t just try to ignore it or pretend it’s not there. Understand what he’s trying to do and refuse to be drawn into his games. This means refusing to be sidetracked by your own negative complexes, fears and doubts. The predator isn’t the only thing you have to contend with – other negative complexes will pop up and try to scupper what you’re doing.

A complex is an organised group of feelings and ideas that operate from the unconscious, which makes them very hard to see. Something positive happens in your life and then before you know it, another part of your psyche is kicking up a fuss and shitting all over your lovely new book or painting or plans for the future.

The best way to deal with this is to be as conscious of what’s happening as possible. Don’t lie to yourself about what you’re feeling or doing. Pay attention and be honest with yourself. Bring the negativity into the light. Investigate what the little shits are saying and tear them apart with the truth. These kinds of negative complexes can’t stand the light, so all you have to do is shine the light of your awareness on them and they’ll slink off, muttering to themselves.

Like the messenger in the story, if you feel drained at this stage of the journey, be aware that the devil may be close. When you feel lost and hopeless, like there’s no point in going on and that all you want to do is lie down and sleep, then there’s a good chance there’s some sort of negative complex at work below the surface. You may genuinely need to rest, but on the other hand, the predator may be leeching energy from your soul.

Remember: the devil is a liar. He’s talking shit. Don’t listen to him.

The king’s mother refuses to cooperate with the devil’s tricks because she knows the truth. She packs the queen off on the next stage of her initiation and sends her back into the forest

Read the whole series here: The Handless Maiden

Images: Pregnant; Handmaid’s Tale; Devil

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