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Re-membering: A Mythopoetic Interpretation of The Handless Maiden

The Handless Maiden and the Angel (illustration by Robert François Richard Brend'amour, nineteenth century)

The Handless Maiden,” collected by the Brothers Grimm, is one of the most complete stories of feminine individuation in fairy tales. It addresses the wounding of the feminine by the patriarchal shadow, but it also allows for a transformative journey of the masculine with a hieros gamos, a sacred wedding, at the end. 

“The Handless Maiden” reflects a compensatory psychic function present in many fairy tales. As Joseph Campbell shows us, “Where the male comes in, you have division; where the female comes in you have union.” (Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine).

The handless maiden’s father, a miller who has fallen into poverty, trades the apple tree in his backyard to an old man in return for great wealth. The Miller fails to recognize the old man as the Devil, and he fails to understand that the apple tree is incidental to what is truly at stake: his daughter who was in the backyard, sweeping. This is the devil’s bargain. As Robert Johnson puts it, “Trickery as attitude always involves getting something and refusing to pay the human, direct price for it.” (The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology, 69).

The miller’s wife, despite her grasp of the situation, is unable to protect her daughter. The devil comes to collect his prize, but the maiden has kept herself clean, outwardly and inwardly, and she is so pure the devil cannot touch her. The devil is furious, and the daughter cries so hard into her hands that her hands are washed clean, which is enough to repel the devil again, illustrating the power of tears as a purifying, sanctifying element.

In his rage, the Devil demands that the Miller cut off his daughter’s hands, or he will take the Miller. The Miller begs his daughter to trade her hands for his life. To save her father, the daughter agrees to this terrible sacrifice. But again she cries so deeply, that the stumps that were once her hands are purified, and the Devil loses possession of her a third time. The devil leaves, swearing revenge. The Miller, now wealthy, tells his daughter that he’ll take care of her. She refuses.

The grief of the handless maiden relates to her understanding that she no longer belongs in the world of her father, her inability to touch the world or be fed by it, her lack of embrace, all reflect a dismemberment of the human feeling, seeing, touching, holding and healing functions. Her loss of a sensual and instinctual life is complete. 

The fairy tale reveals what is required for the feminine to return to wholeness, to be restored and re-membered. Such a regeneration requires the solitude of the forest, and illuminated by the light of the moon, the handless maiden’s attendant spirit or soul (with her from the moment she made the decision to leave) leads her to a garden, creates a dam on which she crosses the river, and bends a pear tree toward her so she can taste a single pear with her mouth. Perhaps it is the tree itself that bends toward her. In the midst of her loneliness and despair, her soul guides her into a paradise. The shift from ego to Self as the center of the personality has begun.

In the garden, the gardener watches the Miller’s daughter, but doesn’t interfere. When the king comes to count his pears and finds one missing, the gardener tells him of the maiden and they return the next night with a priest/magician. The three of them hide and watch her, as she comes with an angel at midnight. The priest believes she must be a spirit, but the king is wise enough to see beyond the handless maiden’s wild appearance. He takes her as his wife and gives her the gift of silver hands.

The silver hands, though precious, are only a stage in her transformation. While silver is representative of the alchemical process she is going through, it is metal, not flesh and blood; cold, not the gold of life transfigured, not individuation, not yet. That will take 7 more years. The Devil as a symbol of the shadow often leads us back into the forest, deep into the collective unconscious, especially when we tell ourselves that our work is done. The handless maiden, now with a newborn child, is forced back into the forest in order to escape once more the trickery of the Devil. They live in a cabin “where all who enter dwell free.” There, the handless maiden learns the ways of nature from a wise woman and during this time, her own hands finally grow back.

 Understanding what it takes to bring the masculine and the feminine back into balance, to return to our feeling nature, to wholeness, are the gifts of this particular fairy tale. When the handless maiden recovered her natural connection to the physical world, the king finds her again and, having undertaken his own heroic journey for the past seven years, a second wedding occurs: a coniunctio, and the shift from the ego to the soul-centered personality is completed.

 Failing to value the feminine feeling and healing functions, we find that, “The universe is dead, no longer an organism but a building[…] and man, accordingly, is not as a child born to flower in the knowledge of his own eternal portion, but a robot fashioned to serve.” (Goddesses, xxii). Without the inner work, as “The Handless Maiden” illustrates, we all are in danger of becoming robots. This is why the world-wide healing and re-membering of the Feminine is essential to the survival of the planet and of both human and non-human species.


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