Dark Night of the Soul · Mythology

The Handless Maiden part 7: Inner Marriage

Our story continues: the queen is healing in the forest with her child, but what of the king…

Soon after the queen left the castle, the king returned from the war, but the queen and his child weren’t there waiting for him. He asked his mother where they were. She was furious with him, and said, “How could you? I did as you ordered, you lunatic!” She showed him the eyes and the tongue, and the terrible letters he had sent.

The king was shocked and heartbroken. He almost fell over in his grief. When his mother saw the anguish on the king’s face, she realised the letters were not from him. She quickly explained that his wife and child were still alive and that she had sent them into the forest. The king vowed to find them and said, “I will not eat or drink until I find my wife and child.”

The king left the castle and wandered for seven years. As he searched for his wife and child, his hands and face became blackened with dirt, and his beard grew wild until he looked more animal than man.

Finally, he came to a cottage in the woods with a sign that read, “Here All Dwell Free.” A maiden dressed in white invited the king inside. He was so exhausted from his search that he lay down and covered his face with a handkerchief.

The king slept deeply, and as he slept, the handkerchief slipped from his face. He awakened to find a beautiful woman and a small child gazing down at him.

The woman smiled, for she recognised the man, despite the ingrained filth and crazy beard. “I am your wife and this is your son,” she said. The king wanted to believe her but couldn’t help noticing her hands. She explained, “With grace, my hands have grown back.” The maiden in white retrieved the queen’s silver hands from a trunk and showed them to the king.

The king was overjoyed and embraced his long-lost queen and greeted his son warmly. All three returned to the king’s mother, who helped to arrange a second wedding. In time, they had many more children and lived happily ever after.

Healing the Psyche

The final part of this inner journey is about how the soul and the spirit work together to heal each other. The queen has been through her own seven year initiation, and now the king goes through a similar process. The king hasn’t been wounded in the same way as the maiden, but he has lost his queen – his soul, and the child that came from their union.

Both the queen and the king are going through their seven year initiations at the same time, so really, the last two parts of the story run concurrently. The masculine and the feminine sides of the psyche must find a balance and work together if you’re going to heal and live with integrity. So this part of the story is about getting the king back up to speed so he can meet the queen halfway.

When one part of the psyche changes, the rest of it has to change too. The queen has changed – she’s no longer the handless maiden that the king married, so now the king must change. The feminine side of the psyche is healing and becoming strong, so the masculine side needs to reorient itself. The king goes wandering in order to find the queen – in other words, to understand her so he can serve her better.

As we saw in part 4, the king represents the ability to bring inner knowledge out into the world and put it into action. He’s the masculine principle of leadership and order and structure, but without the feminine he is lost and wandering. There’s no point in putting your plans into action in the world if your plans don’t mean anything to you on a deep soul level.

So this part of the initiation is about integrating the masculine side of the psyche so it can work with the feminine, rather than against it. In other words, what you feel and how you act must work together and reflect each other. Everything you’ve learned on your journey through the underworld will now become available for you to act on in the outer world. But only if you can maintain your integrity.

Just like the maiden, the king undergoes a seven year initiation that involves wandering in the forest. And again, just like the maiden, the details of what happens during those seven years are lost. The forest is the realm of the Wild Mother so his wanderings have something to do with learning her ways and reconnecting with the deep instinctual nature.

The king doesn’t eat or drink for seven years but he’s obviously nourished by something. Being out in the forest seems to be enough to sustain him so the Wild Mother herself must be keeping him alive. He’s drawing on energy from deep within his being and learning the natural cycles of life and how to conquer his appetites.

This seems to have something to do with the idea of self-mastery and overcoming the desire nature. The masculine side of the psyche can’t be getting distracted by worldly temptations and illusions if it’s going to find its other half. To surrender the ego and put it in service of the soul, you have to conquer your appetites and focus your attention on what really matters. You won’t gain self-mastery if you keep chasing after desires that will never be satisfied.

By the time the king arrives at the cottage in the woods, he’s in a pretty bad way. Surviving in the forest has stripped away the layers of civilisation and now he’s more animal than man. Learning the ways of the Wild Mother has made him wild and brought him closer to the soul.

The first thing the king does when he gets to the cottage is fall asleep. Usually this would mean that he falls into unconsciousness and would be a bad sign, but he puts his handkerchief over his face. He veils himself, which is obviously significant, although it’s not clear exactly why. Again, it seems to indicate lost knowledge, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes points out:

“The story line that refers to the veil being placed over the king’s face while he sleeps is most likely another fragment from the old mystery rites. There is a beautiful sculpture in Greece of just this: a male initiate veiled with his head bowed as though resting or waiting or asleep.”

Veils can have many meanings and how we see them has changed over the centuries and varies by culture. They’re often seen as tools of oppression and submission, tied to ideas of chastity and modesty. But there’s an older meaning that links the veil to divine authority and power.

The ancient mystery rites, referred to above, involved men being initiated into the ways of the Goddess, just like the king in this story. Perhaps he veils himself in recognition that he’s in the house of the Wild Mother, the house where all may dwell free. The veil signals his obedience to the feminine, the ego surrendered to the soul.

The king falls asleep and rests, and the queen comes to him while he sleeps. He’s been searching for seven years and at the final hurdle, he falls asleep. It looks like he’s given up and drifted into unconsciousness. But perhaps, with the veil over his face, he knows he must wait and allow her to come to him. He finally learns the lesson of doing nothing that the queen mastered in the previous part of the story.

This is the art of doing without doing, or Wei Wu Wei in Taoism. Wu Wei is effortless action – doing things without interference from the ego or the meddling intellect. It’s about acting spontaneously and allowing things to happen in their own way and in their own time. The soul’s way.

As the king sleeps, his breath blows the handkerchief from his face. The breath is pneuma or spirit – the breath of life. The veil is lifted by the spirit and the king is reunited with his queen, the spirit with the soul. At last, we have the true sacred marriage, first glimpsed in potential in part 4, now a meeting of equals.

This is the goal of the descent and return undertaken by the maiden in the story. The masculine and the feminine aren’t supposed to be at war with each other. They’re partners and they need each other in order to function at their best. So the idea is to bring what you know inwardly into balance with how you behave outwardly. The unconscious and conscious working as one. It’s an inner journey to wholeness and integrity to reconnect with your true Self.

It’s important to emphasise that this is an inner journey. It can’t be done by proxy. You’ll never create a perfect relationship in the outer world that can reflect and hold the meaning of this archetypal marriage between equals. Human beings are too complex and messy for that. Your beloved is within you, just like the Kingdom of Heaven.

And again, you must stay in the world while going through this process, even if you feel torn in two and part of you wants to run off to the woods and howl at the moon. The tension between the inner and the outer worlds helps to give shape to the process, and anchors you in reality. It also reminds you why you’re going through this whole thing in the first place. Why else, than to bring back to the mundane world what you learn in the underworld.

Even if you do go away from normal life for a while, the return to the world at the end of the journey is important. You can’t stay in the forest forever, unless that’s your calling – to be the hermit in the woods, the sage or wild woman who lives with cats and knows the names of all the plants and how to heal. But that would be another story…

This story is about building stamina and endurance at the soul level. To grow in wisdom and knowledge about the cycles of life and death and renewal, so you can serve life better by remaining attuned to its cycles. It’s about living a deep life, from the soul – not bouncing along on the surface of life and hiding behind your wounds. It’s about being a whole human being.

Free PDF of whole series here!

The descent into the underworld of darkness and dissolution probably won’t happen once in your life, but many times. You journey into and out of the forest multiple times, as many as it takes for the layers of the deep Self to be manifested and given voice. At least one of those times is likely to be very tough, but after that it’ll get easier.

Once you know your way around the underworld and are familiar with the beings you meet down there, it’s easier to remember the truth that’s always with you. The truth that the Wild Mother is your very being and that you’re always home.

“When we come up out of the underworld after one of our undertakings there, we may appear unchanged outwardly, but inwardly we have reclaimed a vast and womanly wildness. On the surface we are still friendly, but beneath the skin, we are most definitely no longer tame.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Read the whole series here: The Handless Maiden

Images: Couple; Forest; Hugh

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2 thoughts on “The Handless Maiden part 7: Inner Marriage

  1. Thank you. I studied this material many years ago. After a crisis involving swollen disabled hands I remembered the story. Your further meditations speak deeply.

    Liked by 1 person


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