Folktale and Myth for Modern Times – The Handless Maiden

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The Handless Maiden is a European folk tale that I first read in the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson’s wonderful book on the archetypal male and female wounds: “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden.”
It is fascinating to me how relevant these ancient stories are to the contemporary world. Below is the story.

There once lived a Miller and his family.
Every day the Miller turned the heavy millstone by hand to grind grain into flour. It was a hard task and there was only ever enough flour to make bread for his family, with a little to sell.

One day the Devil himself came by with a proposition for the Miller, “Good day Sir!” said he, for even the Devil has manners.
“For a fee I will show you how to grind your grain much faster and with much less effort.”

The Devil brought his mechanical expertise and made adjustments showing the Miller how to create a water wheel that turned the stone continuously grinding and grinding the flour.
The Miller was delighted with the speed with which he could now work.

For many months all was well and good. Indeed the Miller had quite forgotten to pay the Devil his price.
The Devil, however, had not forgotten for the Devil never forgets even the smallest detail. So one bright morning he returned to collect his fee.
Tragically, the fee that had been agreed in haste was the Miller’s daughter.

The Miller did not want to give up his daughter, in fact he had thought it would not be difficult to renegotiate with the Devil when the time came to collect his due.
Surely the Devil would prefer fine silks, gold coins or a team of strong horses of which, since the installation of the water wheel,  the Miller now had an abundance.

But the Devil would not be moved.
If he could not take the Miller’s daughter he would take back the water wheel.

The Miller was in despair.
He could not give up his daughter but equally he could not imagine how he would survive again without the Waterwheel.

After much desperate arguing the Devil, in rage, cut off the girl’s hands and marched away with them.

There were many months of sorrow and struggle, but the Miller’s daughter eventually found ways to cope without her hands.
There was now enough money to have servants in the household and she no longer had to do the work that required her hands.

After time, she became ever more unhappy at her inability to do things and she grew more withdrawn, more distressed.

One night she left home and went alone into the forest.

There, in the darkness and solitude, she found relief and a measure of peace. She
stopped weeping and began to journey through the woods.

As she was beginning to feel hungry, by chance, she found herself in an orchard that belonged to a King.

She ate the ripe gold tinged fruit from the trees until she was so tired she fell asleep on the unclothed earth.
After some time the King found her, carried her to his palace, and had his servants take care of her until she recovered her strength.

Of course as days turned into weeks and months they began to fall in love and within the year they were  married.

As a wedding gift The King had a pair of silver hands fashioned for his bride. The hands were beautiful and costly but could not be used like real hands, they were not soft and they could not move, and whatever, she touched she could not feel.. Still as almost everything was done for the new Queen she hardly noticed these things anymore.
A year later she gave birth to a son.
The kingdom rejoiced. Yet, being unable to touch her son, bathe him or cradle him in her own arms left the young Queen desolate.

In desperation, one day, she took the child and fled again into the secret peace of the forest.

She lived with the child in the seclusion of an abandoned forester’s hut. But one day the
little child who was to young to be steady on his feet fell into the stream.
As he was carried away by the current  the queen frantically cried out for her servants.
But, of course, the palace was to far away for her desperate plea to be heard.
With nothing left to do she followed her raw intuition and in a moment of sublime
strength plunged her silver hands deep into the water to rescue her child.
When she drew the boy from the water choking and sputtering she held him tightly in
her arms. Her eyes were tightly closed  yet she could suddenly feel the soft curls of his
head and the plumpness of his cheek.
Her hands had been restored to flesh and blood at last!

How many devil’s bargains have we have made in the name of convenience?

In the last 40 years there have been two major nuclear disasters.
Probability suggests that at this rate we can expect a Nuclear leak every 20 years or so.
How many can our planet realistically sustain?

The fee for convenience is often a disconnect from nature and our own humanity.
As life becomes more atomized and abstracted we loose the ability to use our hands both metaphorically and literally, our hands disconnect from our hearts and spirits when they are used only to create products and fulfill functions.

The modern workplace is illustrative of this. As part of a corporation we often don’t have the opportunity to see something through from conception, to design, to finished product in the way an artisan or crafts-person of old would.


Our natural state is interdependent.

According to studies it can take up to 10 years for a mother to recover from childbirth. In many ancient cultures there was a sacred time after birth where a new mother would be cared for by her family and the wider community. As the child grew it would have many adult role models to learn from and be cared by.
In modern, industrialized societies we are encouraged to carve out individual lives. Families live and grow in their own nucleus with less and less involvement from extended family, and community networks.   Our cage may be gilt and shiny as the maiden’s hands were silver, but we long to feel real connection. We long to reach out for help when we need it and give help to those strangers, maybe even those who live only a street away. We long to see and be seen without masks, to touch the raw edge of our experience on this planet and to feel the earth against our skin. In our exile, we substitute the real thing for vicarious reality TV versions that are all too often contrived, mechanized and only touch truth as well a pair of silver hands touching a screen might.

The Miller’s daughter represents the sacred feminine. 

The sacred feminine, in all her forms, from nurturing Gaia to our intuitive spiritual nature, has been maligned and marginalized through industrialization. Her hands have been severed and she has been stripped of her active power.We have tried to create technology to replace her but that technology cannot offer a Mother’s loving touch or embrace. Though our standard of living may be higher than ever, something is always missing.
By trading in the sacred feminine for material convenience we risk orphaning ourselves and becoming severed from the source of our spiritual vitality.


Yet the story of the Handless Maiden, as all tales worth their salt must do, offers hope.

And the hope it offers is not simply a sentimental gesture but a practical solution.
At both crisis points in the story, the Handless Maiden goes to the forest.

The forest is a symbol of feminine intuition.
The forest is a  hidden, holy place.
It is the sanctuary of animals, and the hermit’s solitude.

Our natural senses are heightened in such a place and so is our spiritual awareness.
We are close to the elements, vulnerable, stripped of our pretense, our pride and all the false structures that scaffold our sense of identity in the world “outside.”
We are left with our raw intuition.
Body and spirit interfaced.

The Maiden’s first encounter into the forest leads her to the King’s orchard which saves her physical life, yet she must leave that gilded cage with it’s silver hands, if she is to save her spiritual life too and become whole again.
Her desire to care for her infant son (look outside of herself and make choices from a place of love rather than fear) herself is the catalyst which draws her away from false security into true embodied awareness.

Nowhere more keenly is the sacred feminine exemplified than in the love of a mother, a kind of maternal care that goes beyond a bond between mother and child but encompasses
all children and all the future generation’s to come, including even plants, animals, mountains and glaciers in its embrace causes the young woman to plunge her silver hands into the baptism of a flowing river.

Immediately, her hands are restored in flesh and blood.


The Place of the Sacred Feminine in the Modern World
In the age of the DAPL pipeline, fracking and plastic filled oceans we might do well to remember and rekindle our relationship with our original kith and kin; our mother, the earth herself. We need her flesh and blood to infuse us with our own intuitive sense and feeling. If we poison her eco-system, we poison our own nervous system.

In early adulthood we are strong and ambitious, our health is in its prime, we move away from home, we cut the umbilical cords of our childhood and we begin to define ourselves as individuals. This is the Hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell speaks of, it is when we create a container for our ego as Richard Rohr would say in his book on spirituality in the second half of life “Falling Upward.” It is a vital and necessary stage. However, in Robert Bly’s book on the adolescent nature of modern adulthood: The Sibling Society he argues, that this is a stage many of us become stuck in well into our old age. The stage of self-hood is meant to pass like any season must if life is to continue to flow. Water that stagnates is in a state of dying. Paradoxically life can only exist in movement and change not sterile rigidity.

Mechanical hands might be durable and efficient, they may not decay like flesh but that senselessness makes them insensitive and numb to the true condition of what they do and what they create. We live in a highly mechanized world. In many ways the trade of feeling, sensing and intuition for utilitarian efficiency has aided medical progress, sanitation and the development of new technology but unless we are guided by our feelings and senses ( the feminine) as well as our intellect and will, (the masculine) inequality and imbalance will be infused into everything we do creating technology that contravenes our ethical values and higher standards of living that will only ever be the privilege of the few at the expense of the many.

Graham Hancock has argued that our society values a particular kind of consciousness; a consciousness that is male dominant in its ideology. It could be argued that this is the consciousness of the King, the consciousness of silver hands. It is the Beta Wave or alert problem solving consciousness, the kind of consciousness that makes us productive and focused on our objectives while everything else falls into the blurred, edges, margins and peripheries.
The messy, frayed edges of rivers, like the one in which the child was submerged,  run their irrigation channels like the life-blood of a circulatory system, a golden thread of spirit that awakens and animates and gives meaning to our material lives. This is the sacred union of both the feminine (water) and the masculine (flow) energies from which all life is propagated.

We need will, intellect and objective scientific rigor, we also need intuition, instinct, feeling and compassion. We need both the King and the Queen of our consciousness to be fully intact if we are to save the child, our soul: planting deep the roots of our yesterdays and feeding well the branches of our tomorrow.
Further Reading:

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