“We are here, it seems, to be transformed, and transformed again, and again and again.”

—Michael Cunningham

Our world and each of us faces a pandemic, crisis and chaos. The Handless Maiden is a story of the Feminine facing betrayal by the Masculine to the enemy, the ultimate evil. Mix these elements with the telling of current dreams of natural catastrophes, and from this potent mix comes an answer to “What can I do now to protect myself, to win through?”

The last week of June, 2020, Lara Newton convened an online Zoom meeting of Colorado Jung Society members and friends with the goal of offering a platform to talk about the Covid-19 pandemic as a collective experience, including dreams. Lara summarized Grimms’ The Handless Maiden as the tale that has come up for her recently, reinforced by her dreams, of which she shared two. She modeled vulnerability, because she wasn’t teaching and her personal work was incomplete. The dreams shared were of heading into or surviving natural catastrophes. It was fascinating – these were collective dreams, not personal (though personal connections existed, of course). By and large there was nothing the dreamer could do but ride out the situation, alone, or with the people they were with in the dream – helper teams, family, friends, archetypes. The dreams and the Handless Maiden illuminated each other.

Keeping Ourselves Clan

Making a Deal

I’m adding more interpretation to this story than we did on the Zoom call. Note that I’ve provided the link to the Grimms’ tale, and it is always good to read through the story first, thinking about what it means to you.

The story begins with a miller (the Masculine), headed for bankruptcy, who makes a deal with the devil (the most evil imaginable). He thinks he’s getting wealth for trading the devil the apple tree behind his mill. At home his wife learns of the deal because the house is full of riches, and the miller learns it’s his daughter who was behind the mill, sweeping.

The devil will come for her in three years. The story specifically says she “lived three years worshipping God and without sin”. She knows how to protect herself; like us in the pandemic, she washes herself clean and stands inside a chalk circle she draws round her (social distancing/staying at home). When the devil comes, she’s so clean he can’t take her. He tells the father to keep her from washing: “Otherwise I have no power over her.” Here’s a critical piece of ancestral information: evil has no power over you if you are clean.

When he comes again she is standing within the circle with her hands washed clean by her tears. So the devil says “chop off her hands”. He threatens to take the miller instead. The miller/father explains the new deal to the daughter: “in my fear I promised him…. Help me in my need, and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you.” When the devil comes the third time she has wept her stumps clean, and the devil loses his claim to her.

Because of evil, now the Handless Maiden has no way to act, touch, or work. (Perhaps we feel this way after months of staying at home to protect ourselves and others from Covid-19.) The father offers to take care of her in splendor, but the Handless Maiden replies “I cannot remain here. Compassionate people will give me as much as I need.” Ancestral wisdom again: take the Heroine’s Journey, trusting that what you need will be provided.

In the Garden

At the end of the day our Heroine comes to a garden of fruit trees. A circle (moat) of water protects the garden. She prays, and an angel “closes a headgate” and the moat dries up. This detail is alive to me because I’ve closed headgates when irrigating hay or corn fields, and I can feel the wood and metal in my hands, hear the sounds of water flowing, the wheel creaking. The ancestral wisdom is to Pray – to ask the Holy Ones for what you need, knowing they are standing ready to serve if asked.

The Handless Maiden enters the garden, and eats a pear from one tree with her mouth. A gardener observes all, thinking she is a spirit guarded by an angel. He tells the King in the morning when he comes to count his pears. This King knows his garden. They determine to watch again that night, along with a priest who will question the spirit.

Priest: Have you come from God, or from the world? Are you spirit or human?
HM: I am not a spirit, but a poor human who has been abandoned by everyone except God.
King: Even if you have been abandoned by the whole world, I will not abandon you.

The King finds her beautiful and pure, loves her with all his heart, marries her and provides her with silver hands. Later, when she is pregnant, he is called away to the battlefield. The devil substitutes letters sent to/from the king, letters that lie and betray. In the final substituted letter is the king’s command to his mother to kill her and the child. The truth was nowhere in anything the king or the queen read.

The Handless Maiden

Into the Wilderness

However, unable to slay them, the King’s mother sends the Queen and her son (tied to her back) into the world. The Queen leaves, weeping. A Homeless person again, in the wilderness, the unknown, the Temenos, she prays. The Forest Angel appears and leads her to a small house with a sign “Here anyone can live free.” Another angel within welcomes her as Queen, and, protected, she lives with the angel and they raise her son. Those with compassion provide.

The King meanwhile comes home where he and his mother between them discover the truth. She tells him she didn’t follow his orders to kill his wife. I’ve always loved the reasonableness of these people, talking it out, and following their heart’s instincts. The King (the refined Masculine) searches for her (the lost Feminine). He not only searches for seven years; he keeps himself clean by fasting. He does not lose hope or falter in his commitment. When he finds her, her hands have grown back. She is the Feminine restored, and able to do her work in the world.

Keeping Ourselves Clean

I originally worked this tale with Robert Bly in the 1970’s. I remember the exercise of putting on a backpack (the baby) and having our hands tied behind us during lunch. Now dependent on others, we were exceptionally creative in the bathrooms and in feeding each other. Robert asked the group: “When up against true evil, and our hands, our ability to work, to protect, have been cut off, what saves us?” The question is a good one. Ancestral wisdom says to “Stay Clean”.

How To Be Clean

  • It doesn’t hurt to stand inside your circle of protection, and let your tears fall.
  • Investigate the deals being offered to determine the real price being paid.
  • Wash yourself, and fast. There is a literal layer to this but in the psychological and mythical realms we are asked to search for what is not clean inside us.
    • To fear is to give power to the evil… the opposing actions are to trust and be brave.
    • To be angry is to feed the fear… the opposing act is patience, a Handless Maiden virtue.
    • Where there is cruelty, the opposite is compassion.
      • What cruel thoughts do you have to weed away?
      • What compassion act can you provide?
        • Can you guard the floodgate giving access to or protecting a garden?
        • Can you help provide a small home for those with no place to lie down at night?
        • Can you speak up to stop cruel language and actions?

What if what is required of us is to be clean of misunderstanding, fear, hate, worry. What if we are required to remove our projections of the Other, the opposition, which create our fears and hate. What if, as we wait and care for our beloved, protected by the Holy Ones, we remain open enough that our broken places heal?