Welcome friends to a 7-Part Series of Deep Psyche Digging & Surgery.
In her book, Women Who Run With Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, writes about the Initiation into the Underground Forest, the underworld of intuitive knowing, through the story of the Handless Maiden.
“It is a wild world that lives under this one. Were we are infused with instinctive language and knowledge.” And from this “vantage point we understand what cannot be so easily understood from the point of view of the topside world.”
Through what Jungians, Freudians, call, “participation mystique” and “projective identification,” we story tellers know as “sympathetic magic”: the ability of the mind to step away from its ego for a time and merge with another reality, experiencing and learning ideas there it can learn in no other form of consciousness and bringing these back to consensual reality.
Basically, I am going to share a story with you, so that you may identify with, let go of past trauma, rebuild your power and then heal from through the rite of endurance.
Yes, Endurance means, “to continue without cessation,” but it also means “to harden, to make sturdy, to make robust, to strengthen.” We just don’t keep going on and on because Endurance means we are making something.
“The teaching of endurance occurs all throughout nature. The pads of wolf pups’ paws are soft as clay when the pups are born. It is only the ranging, the roaming, the treks on which their parents take them that toughen them up. Then they can climb and bound over sharp gravel, over stinging nettle, even over broken glass, without being hurt.”
The story of the Handless Maiden has many names all over the world. Some call her the “Silver Hands,” the “Handless Bride,” and the “The Orchard.” In this story you will learn something about yourself, I promise you that. You will learn, and heal, and grow on. You will surely taste the Blessing that is Endurance. So, without further ado, here is the story of “The Handless Maiden.” After you read, there will be a brief talk about the story, and how we may use it to meditate and descend into the psyche and find strength and be initiated into the renewal of the wild….
“ONCE UPON A TIME A FEW DAYS AGO,
the man down the road still owned a large stone that ground the villager’s grain to flour. The miller had fallen on hard times and had nothing left but the great rough millstone in a shed, and the large flowering apple tree behind it.
One day, a she carried his silver-lipped ax into the forest to cut deadwood, a strange old man stepped from behind a tree. “There’s no need for you to torture yourself by cleaving wood,” wheedled the old man. “I shall dress you in riches if you will but give me what stands behind your mill.”
“What is there behind my mill but the flowering apple tree?” thought the miller, and agreed to the old man’s bargain.
“In three years’ time, I’ll come take what is mine,” chortled the stranger, and he limped away, disappearing between the staves of the trees.
The miller met his wife on the path. She had run from their house, apron flying, hair askew. “Husband, husband, at the stroke of the hour, into our house came a finer clock upon the wall, our rustic chairs were replaced by those hung in velvet, and the paltry cupboard abounds now with game, our trunks and boxes are overflowing. Pray tell, how has this happened?” And even at that moment, golden rings appeared on her fingers and her hair was drawn up with a golden circlet.
“Ah,” said the miller, looking in awe as his own doublet turned to satin. Before his eyes his wooden shoes with the heels worn to nothing so he walked tilted backward, they too turned into fine shoes. “Well, it is from a stranger,” he gasped. “I came upon an odd man in a dark frock coat in the forest and he promised great wealth if I gave him what is behind our mill. Surely, wife, we can plant another apple tree.”
“Oh, my husband!” wailed the woman, and she looked as though she has been struck dead. “The man in the black coat was the Devil, and what stands behind the mill is the tree, yes, but our daughter is also there sweeping the yard with a willow broom.”
And so the parents stumbled home, weeping tears on all their finery. Their daughter stayed without husband for three years and has a temperament like the first sweet apples of spring. The day the Devil came to fetch her, she bathed and put on a white gown and stood in a circle of chalk she’d drawn around herself. When the Devil reached out to grab her, an unseen force threw him across the yard.
The Devil screamed, “She must not bathe any more else I cannot come near her.” The parents were terrified and so some weeks went by and she did not bathe until her hair was matted, her fingernails like black crescents, her skin gray, her clothes darkened and stiff with dirt.
Then, with the maiden every day more resembling a beast, the Devil came again. But the girl wept and her tears ran through her palms and down her arms. Now her hands and arms were pure white and clean. The Devil was enraged. “Chop off her hands, otherwise I cannot come near her.” The father was horrified. “You want me to sever the hands of my own child?” The Devil bellowed, “Everything here will die, including you, your wife, and all the fields for as far as you can see.”
The father was so frightened he obeyed, and begging his daughter’s forgiveness he began to sharpen his silver-lipped ax. The daughter submitted, saying “I am your child, do as you must.”
And this he did, and in the end no one cold say who cried out the louder, the daughter or the father. Thus ended the girl’s life as she had known it.
When the Devil came again, the girl had cried so much the stumps that were left of her limbs were again clean, and the Devil, was again thrown across the yard when attempted to seize her. Cursing in words that set small fires in the forest, he disappeared forever, for he had lost all claim to her.
The father had aged one hundred years, and his wife also. Like true people of the forest, they continued as best they could. The old fathered offered to keep his daughter in a castle in great beauty and riches for life, but the daughter said she felt it more fitting she become a beggar girl and depend on the goodness of others for sustenance. And so she had her arms bound in clean gauze, and at daybreak she walked away from her life as she had known it.
She walked and walked. High noon caused her sweat to streak the dirt on her face. The wind disheveled her hair until it was like a stork’s nest of twigs all tangled this way and that. In the midst of the night she came to a royal orchard where the moon had put a gleam on the fruit that hung from the trees.
She could not enter because the orchard was surrounded by a moat. She fell to her knees, for she was starved. A ghostly spirit in white appeared and shut the sluice gate so the moat was emptied.
The maiden walked among the pear trees and somehow she knew that each perfect pear had been counted and numbered, and that they were guarded as well. Nevertheless, a bough bent itself low so she could reach it, its branch creaking. She put her lips to the golden skin of a pear and ate while standing there in the moonlight, her arms bound in gauze, her hair afright, appearing like a mud woman, the handless maiden.
The gardener saw it all, but recognized the magic of the spirit who guarded the maiden, and did not interfere. After the girl finished eating the single pear, she withdrew across the moat and slept in the shelter of the wood.
The next morning the king came to count his pears. He found one missing, and looking high and looking low, he could not find the vanished fruit. When asked, the gardener explained: “Last night two spirits drained the moat, entered the garden at high moon, and one without hands ate the pear that offered itself to her.”
The king said he would keep watch that night. At dark he came with his gardener and his magician, who knew how to speak with spirits. The three sat beneath a tree and watched. At midnight, the maiden came floating through the forest, her clothes dirty rags, her hair awry, her face streaked, her arms without hands, and the spirit in white beside her.
They entered the orchard the same way as before. Again, a tree gracefully bent itself to her reach and she supped on the pear at its bough’s end.
The magician came close, but not too close, to them and asked, “Are you of this world or not of this world?” And the girl answered, “I was once of the world, and yet I am not of this world.”
The king questioned the magician. “is she human or spirit?” The magician answered that she was both. The king’s heart leapt and he rushed to her and cried, “I shall not forsake you. From this day forward, I shall care for you.” At his castle he had made for her a pair of silver hands, which were fastened to her arms. And so it was that the king married the handless maiden.
In time, the king had to wage war in a far-off kingdom, and he asked his mother to care for his young queen, for he loved her with all his heart. “If she gives birth to a child, send me a message right away.”
The young queen gave birth to a happy babe and the king’s mother sent a messenger to the king telling him the good news. But on the way the messenger tired, and coming to a river, felt sleepier and sleepier and finally fell entirely asleep by the river’s edge. The Devil came from behind a tree and switched the message to say the queen had given birth to a child that was half-dog.
The king was horrified at the message, yet sent back a message saying to love the queen and care for her in this terrible time. The lad who ran with the message again came to the river, and feeling heavy as though he had eaten a feast, soon fell asleep by the side of the water. Whereupon the Devil again stepped out and changed the message to “Kill the queen and her child.”
The old mother was shaken by this request and sent a messenger to confirm. Back an d forth the messengers ran, each one falling asleep at the river and the Devil changing the messages that became increasingly terrible, the last being “Keep the tongue and eyes of the queen to prove she has been killed.”
The old mother could not stand to kill the sweet young queen. Instead she sacrificed a doe, took its tongue and eyes, and hid them away. Then she helped the young queen bind her infant to her breast, and veiling her, said she must flee for her life. The women wept and kissed each other good-bye.
The young queen wandered till she came to largest, wildest forest she had ever seen. She picked her way over and through and around trying to find a path. Near dark, the same spirit in white as before appeared and guided her to a poor inn run by kindly woodspeople. Another maiden in a white gown took the queen inside and knew her by name. The child was laid down.
“How do you know I am a queen?” asked the maiden.
“We who are of the forest follow these matters, my queen. Rest now.”
So the queen stayed seven years at the inn and was happy with her child and her life. Her hands gradually grew back, first as little baby hands, pink as pearl, and then as little girl hands, and then finally as woman’s hands.
During this time the king returned from the war, and his old mother wept to him, “Why would you have me kill two innocents?” and displayed to him the eyes and the tongue.
hearing the terrible story, the king staggered and wept inconsolably. His mother saw his grief and told him these were the eyes and tongue of a doe and that she had sent the queen and her child off into the forest.
The king vowed to go without eating or drinking and to travel far as the sky is blue in order to find them. He searched for seven years. His hands became black, his beard moldy brown like moss, his eyes red-rimmed and parched. During this time he neither ate nor drank, but a force greater than he helped him live.
At last he came to the inn kept by the woodspeople. The woman in white bade him enter, and he laid down, so tired. The woman placed a veil over his face and he slept. As he breathed the breath of deepest sleep, the veil billowed and gradually slipped from his face. He awakened to find a lovely woman and a beautiful child gazing down at him.
“I am your wife and this is your child.” The king was willing to believe but saw that the maiden had hands. “Through my travails and yet my good care, my hands have grown back,” said the maiden. And the woman in white brought the silver hands from a trunk where they’d been treasured. The king rose and embraced his queen and his child and there was great joy in the forest that day.
All the spirits and the dwellers of the inn had a fine repast. Afterward, the king and queen and baby returned to the old mother, held a second wedding, and had many more children, all of whom told this story to a hundred others, who told this story to a hundred others, just as you are one of the hundred others I am telling it to.”
The First Stage of Endurance
In the first stage of the story, the vulnerable and materialistic miller makes a very poor bargain with the Devil. He hoped to become rich and live forever, but the price of that bargain was very very steep.
We all make horrible bargains sometimes. We give up something in hopes of a better future. And that image of greener grasses is not actually what will bring us True happiness. That something turns out to be the very thing that we most cherish about ourselves. Through life we constantly give up dreams, or parts of our personality to fit in or to “compromise” with a loved one. However, in the end, the only one who is compromised is our selves.
“Though we hate to admit it, over and over again the poorest bargain of our lives is the one we make when we forfeit our deep knowing life for one that is far more frail; when we give up our teeth, our claws, our sense, our scent; when we surrender our wilder natures for a promise of something that seems rich but turns out to be hollow. Like the father in the tale, we make this bargain without realizing the sorrow, the pain, and the dislocation it will cause us.”
But within making these awful bargains there lays an incredible paradox: although poor pathological choices of self-destruction are traumatic, they also offer us vast opportunity to “redevelop the power of the instinctive nature. Though there is loss and sadness, the poor bargain, like birth and death, constitutes a rather utilitarian step off the cliff planned by the Self in order to bring a person deep into their wildness.”
This is where the initiation begins.
By choosing what appealed to us at the time, without knowing we surrendered “dominion over some and often every part of our passionate, creative, and instinctive life. This choice causes us to then sleepwalk through life. During this stage, we “walk, we talk, yet we are asleep. We love, we work, but our choices tell the truth about our condition; the voluptuous, the inquiring, the good, and incendiary sides of our natures” are not fully awake.
In the beginning of the tale, the maiden is in a daze, forever sweeping with her willow broom, never learning anything. “Her metamorphosis has no metabolism.” So in order to wake her up, the all knowing Self concocts an acute betrayal. And with the father part of our psyches, who is supposed to “guide us in the outer world, is , in fact, very ignorant about how the world and inner world truly works, something just must be done to teach us. Because when the fathering function of the psyche fails to have knowing about issues of soul, we are easily led by fake promises of others and are only asking to be betrayed.Innocent naivete has its pros and cons, but here you can see that someday if we are not prepared and pay attention, our hands- our personal power- will get cut off.
And this betrayal, this trauma of the severing of our sovereignty, this horrible moment in our lives that has done this to us and our psyche, “marks a dramatic beginning for us; a forthcoming consciousness shift and shrewdness.”
Beloveds, “no sentient being in this world is allowed to remain innocent forever. In order for us to thrive, our own instinctive nature drives us to face the fact that things are not as they first seem. The wild creative function pushes us to learn about the many states of being, perception, and knowing. These are the many conduits through which the Wild Woman speaks to us. So this loss and the betrayal are the first slippery steps of a long initiatory process that pitches us into la selva subterranea, the underground forest. There, sometimes for the first time in our lives, we have a chance to cease walking into walls of our making and learn to pass through them instead.”
Living through the demise of our own innocence, we are given a hidden blessing of “working hard to understand, to peel back the layers of our perceptions and our defenses to see what lies underneath.”
This is a fucking rite of passage, and is to be applauded.
Because we have endured and must continue to endure and continue to learn and process.
This rite of passage “takes raw material, in the form of ideas, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions, and breaks them open in a way that makes them usable for our nourishment. When we process, we sort through all the raw material of our psyche, all the things we’ve learned, heard, longed for, and felt during a period of time. We break these down into parts, asking “How shall I use this best?” We use these processed ideas and energies to implement our most soulful tasks and to fund our various creative endeavors. This is how we stay sturdy and lively.”
But to get there to this, we must ask ourselves, “when did we become zombies?”
“There appears to be a natural slumber that comes upon humans at a certain time in their lives. Usually it descends upon children at age eleven or thereabouts. When they begin to take acute measurements about how they compare with others.” Eyes once clear become cloudy and hooded. Instead of our lives being filled with the possibility of enlightenment, we are covered over with a kind of “endarkenment” instead. Our outer ability to see into the nature of things and our inner seeing are both snoring away so that when the devil comes a-knocking, we sleepwalk over to the door and let him in.”
And boy do we let the “Devil” in, over and over again, until we learn our lesson. Until we wake up. Until we know we will have to burn to the ground in one way or another, and then sit right in the ashes of who we once thought we were and go on from there.
It is normal to not want to do the hard work. There is another part of us that is desirous of languor, desirous of relaxing, of lounging, of taking the bargain of staying on the couch and watching TV, instead of exercising our minds, bodies, and souls. We give in to the Devil, we give in to Resistence that natural force that tries to keep us like zombies still asleep and barely conscious of our days and lives.
But when we shun our work, our art, our passion, our power, our sovereignty; “when we shun the chopping of woods, the hands of the psyche will be chopped off instead…for without the psychic work,” the deep work of figuring who we really are again, without this, we and the very things that we need to defend ourselves from the world, wither down and die.
Why is it that a woman or man “marries for the wrong reasons and cuts off his/her creative life?
Why is it when a person has one sexual preference, but forces themselves to another?
Why is it when we want to be, go do a big something, yet we stay home and count paper clips instead?
Why is it that when we want to live life, but we save little shreds of life as though they are string?
Why is it that even though a woman or man is their own person, they give an arm, a leg, or an eyeball away to every lover who comes down the pike?
Why do we flow with radiant creativity, and invite our vampirish friends to a group siphon?
Why is it that when we need to go on with our lives, something in us says, “No, being snared is being safe.?”
This is what is called a “devil’s bargain.”
Now, I do not believe in thee Devil, but I think you can relate to what I am saying here. There are people who do not always have the best of intentions our there. And sometimes they don’t even know that they don’t. You can’t help it. It is a force of nature. It is what Steven Pressfield writes about Resistance in his book The War of Art.The Devil of the psyche is nothing but Self-loathing.
It is selling ourselves out. It is forfeiting our potential. And we are all guilty of doing this at one time or another in our lives.
“Yes, you have suffered for it, no doubt. And you may have given it away for years, even for decades. But there is hope.”
The mother in the fairy tale announces to the entire psyche, “Wake up! See what you have done!”
And then you wake up. And it hurts. But it is still good news.
Because you have awakening from the bargain.
You are becoming conscious.
And over the long term there will be even more good news.
“That which can be given away can be reclaimed. it can be restored to its proper place in the psyche.”
You will see.
So Beloved, meditate. Meditate with the New Moon.
What bargains have you taken in this lifetime or in past lifetimes? And what can you learn?
And what New beginnings can you begin now that you’re awake?
Creative Commons Photography courtesy of: Nikola Ostrun, William Ellison, Kaoru, Moyan Brenn.