Fairy tales, with their archetypal motifs, offer a simple and clear understanding of the structural and the dynamic patterns of the human psyche.
The Grimm Brother’s fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands, illustrates the problems of our patriarchal culture’s repressive attitude toward the Feminine. Though this tale can be seen from both a cultural and an individual perspective, I choose to present my analysis of this fairy tale from a cultural perspective — that is, seeing the culture as having a psyche of its own.
When I speak of the Feminine and the Masculine, I am not speaking of gender, but rather of qualities that are associated with each category. Each psyche, whether male or female, contains aspects of both the Feminine and the Masculine principles. In order to experience a greater sense of wholeness, part of our personal (and cultural) individuation task is to bring these opposites into a mutual and reciprocal relationship with each other.
I suggest that it is the devaluation and de-potentiation of the unconscious, irrational feminine realm by our patriarchal culture that has resulted in the current narcissism so prevalent today. This tale provides a possible way to heal this wounded feminine. My analysis is done by story sections with each section consisting of a summary of the tale followed by interpretative comments.
The Girl Without Hands presents a young maiden (the Feminine) with a debilitating father complex (Patriarchy). She comes into her own authority by leaving the “father” and his offer to care for her and by facing the challenges that confront her as she makes her journey.
A Miller had gradually fallen into poverty. One day, as he goes into the forest to fetch wood, an old man steps up to him and chides him for spending his time and energy in cutting wood. The old man makes the Miller an offer…riches for what is behind the mill. The Miller thought that only the apple tree stands behind the mill and hastily makes the deal, sealing it with a written promise. The old man leaves saying, “I’ll return in three years for what is mine.” The Miller’s wife appears and questions what is happening. Horrified, she corrects the Miller’s thinking (stating that it is not the apple tree, but their daughter that stands behind the mill) and identifies the old man as the Devil.
Thus, the tale opens. The scene is set at a mill — a place of transformation, a place that is often mentioned as the scene of demonic happenings or the summoning of the devils. The wheels of the mill also relate to time. It takes time to make a cultural shift which changes ever so gradually. The symbols of the forest, (a place of testing and initiation), the apple tree (an Other-world tree, with a relationship to Artemis who is connected with important female times of transition; and the number three which symbolizes forward movement, resolution, growth and synthesis — all contribute to setting the stage for this feminine initiatory process, the reclaiming of the Feminine realm, (unconscious, subjectivity, body, instincts, experiencing). The Miller symbolizes culture’s striving toward external wealth, goal-directed orientation, objectivity, ideas, rational thinking, and progressive nature. Our conscious attitude seems to be: ‘the faster, the better’. The Masculine principle (Miller/ father) had become impoverished. When we lose touch with our instinctual roots and the unconscious, we become impoverished. In this tale, it is the Patriarchy that sacrifices its feminine, creative soul to the Devil (the underworld/unconscious) in order to achieve fast, easy wealth.
The Miller’s daughter was a beautiful, pious girl who feared God and lived without sin. True to his promise, the Devil arrives three years later to claim what is his. However, the daughter washed herself and drew a circle of protection around herself. This young girl has no blemish, no ‘dirt’ that will allow the Devil to come near. The Devil comes a total of three times: first demanding that water be taken away from her and finally that her hands be chopped off. Each time the daughter wept and washed herself clean with her tears. The daughter passively laid down her hands and said: “Dear Father, do with me as you want.” The Devil’s three “tries” were up and he had to go away (for now).
The Maiden is just too good, too passive, too obedient to the patriarchal and conventional forces of the law/order and good/bad represented by the father world. The circle symbolizes wholeness, totality, self-containment and the Self — the center and guiding dynamic of the psyche. Since the Maiden lacked a dark side, she obviously was not whole; however, I would like to think that the protective circle around the Maiden indicates the incorruptibility of the archetype, in this case, the archetype of the Feminine. However, it did not seem to be the circle that kept the Devil at bay but rather the cleaning of herself with water and her tears. The Maiden lost access to the cleansing and renewing water from without only to find such cleansing and renewing water within in the form of her own tears as she touches the deep sadness that is about to befall her. It is this proximity to her emotional and instinctual nature that gives the Feminine element her redemptive power and the potential to heal our ailing culture of its narcissistic wounds.
What does it mean to be without hands? The Maiden’s hands were chopped off by her father rendering her maimed, vulnerable, incapable of doing for herself. We use our hands to reach for and grasp for what we want in life; we use our hands to strike out or push others away, to protect ourselves and our space; we use our hands to create; and we use our hands to communicate with others and to express ourselves. We use our hands to connect with the Divine. Hands symbolize one’s power (both temporal and spiritual), action, strength, domination, and protection. With our hands we touch others, we touch the world and, through this sense of touch, we come to know a sense of reality. Without our hands we are limited — we are handicapped.
This young Maiden represents the developing Feminine principle. (Though her mother could identify the Devil she appeared powerless to stop the violent assault on her daughter by the father. It is the new Feminine that holds the potential for healing the wounding that our culture received at the hands of an extreme patriarchal attitude toward its Feminine counterpart.) This one-sided father complex (the rational, thinking, conscious world) of our culture has lost touch, and has even caused its Feminine element to lose touch with her instinctual nature,
Our story continues with the Miller and his wife set in a life full of riches (material wealth). This came at a very high price — the loss of his daughter’s hands. He offers to keep her for as long as she lives. To her credit, she turns down his offer saying, “Here I can not stay, I will go forth, compassionate people will give me as much as I require.” Her maimed arms are bound to her back and she sets out at sunrise and walks until night fall. She comes to a royal garden surrounded by a moat filled with water. By the moonlight she sees trees full of beautiful fruit. Hungry, she knelt down and prayed to God who sends an angel to dry the moat so she could cross over into the royal garden. Seeing a tree filled with pears she went to it and ate one. The gardener observes this in fright. The next night, the King (accompanied by a priest) joins the gardener and observes the same thing happening. Believing the girl to be a spirit, the King sends the priest to talk to the girl. The King takes her to his royal palace and, as she was so beautiful and ‘good’, he had silver hands made for her and took her to wife.
In this section, we see the new and developing Feminine consciousness move away from the old Patriarchal rule with its de-potentiated Feminine, the mother. (The power to initiate the long arduous journey toward a new cultural balance between the Masculine and Feminine principles comes from within the wounded young Feminine. The Masculine principle has become too one-sided and the wound and debilitation of the Feminine too great.) The Maiden has her maimed arms bound to her back (at this time she keeps her extreme limitations and potentials in the shadow realm) and sets out on her own. The Maiden moves toward and enters the realm of the archetypal Feminine where she is nourished. This movement toward and the entering of the archetypal Feminine realm is symbolized in numerous ways. The Maiden sets out at sunrise and walks until nightfall. This represents a movement from the Masculine realm (sunrise, day) to the Feminine realm symbolized by night — a period of gestation and germination, an image of the unconscious. The Maiden is hungry. Our young woman senses the sacred space within her feminine soul (the royal garden) and the qualities cultivated within it, but she cannot reach it without becoming still and, in reflective prayer, calls upon the Divine for assistance. The fruit hanging from the trees within the garden symbolizes abundance. Such abundance can be seen in the reflective light of the moon. The presence of the moon represents the dark side of nature, her unseen aspect; the spiritual aspect of light in darkness; inner knowledge; the irrational, intuitional and subjective. A new psychic space has been reached by our young woman — a more feminine, gestational realm. Many symbols speak to this nurturing realm: garden, tree, pear, shimmering moonlight, moat, and nightfall. Our young woman, a new Feminine consciousness, has moved into a space of dynamic growth and connection with the nourishing realm of the Great Mother. Her contact with the Great Mother provides the counter to her one-sided obedience to the Patriarchal realm. She is now in touch with and supported by the Feminine principle — the nourishing, sheltering, protecting, supporting aspects of the Great Mother which is symbolized by the pear tree.
The King marries her; the Maiden is now connected to a Masculine figure. He symbolizes the temporal realm, consciousness, the rational, goal-directed orientation, thinking, and doing. She has connected with “the Masculine within” giving her the desire to stand independently in the world and the desire to achieve in the outer world. However, this connection offers her only a semblance of feminine wholeness. The silver hands made for the Maiden, now queen, give her the appearance of having hands and of being whole; however, they are useless. The hands are man-made and part of the temporal realm — useless as far as touching, sensing, and creating. Without her natural hands, she can neither claim her full feminine power nor be self-contained. Silver symbolizes purity and chastity and though it is connected with the feminine principle (the moon), it is cold. This contrasts with true femininity which is dark, moist, and earthy. She is still seen as all “light”, no darkness and therefore, does not yet have substance. The silver hands were given to her by a representative of the Patriarchy and symbolize the cultural “false self” of the Feminine. This place of the cultural Feminine individuation process suggest to me the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.
After a year, the King had to go on a journey and commended the care of his wife to his old mother. He asks that he be notified by letter if his wife should give birth to a baby. A “fine baby boy” arrives and the old mother sends the announcement of his arrival to the King. A series of messages go back and forth between the old mother and the King; all of which are intercepted and rewritten by the Devil while the messenger rested and slept by the brook. The Devil was ‘always seeking to injure the good Queen’. Ultimately, the “rewritten” messages stated that the Queen and child were to be put to death. Horrified, the old mother binds the child to the queen’s back saying, “…but here you may stay no longer. Go forth into the wide world with your child, and never come here again.” With the child tied to her back, the Queen leaves the palace and comes to a great wild forest. Once again she becomes still, falls to her knees and prays. An angel appears and leads her to a little house on which was a sign with the words: “Here all dwell free.” A snow-white maiden welcomes the “Lady Queen’; takes her inside; unbinds the baby from the Maiden’s back and held him to his mother’s breast that he might feed. The Queen stayed seven years in the little house; was well cared for; and by God’s grace, her hands grew once more.
A “fine” baby boy was born to the King and our young Queen — a new Masculine in potentia. The infant is vulnerable and is endangered by the old Patriarchy. The old mother tells the queen, “…but here you may stay no longer” thus indicating that this was just a stop along the way and not her destination. The Queen has not yet come into the fullness of her feminine being. Culturally speaking, the development of Feminine consciousness is enroute, on its way but has not yet arrived at its destination — a balanced partnership with Masculine consciousness. The Queen leaves the palace with her baby strapped on her back and comes to a great wild forest — a place of mysteries, dangers, trials or initiation. The young Queen-mother falls down and once again prays to God who sends angels. The angel addressed her as “Lady Queen” and led her to a little house that had a sign on it with the words: “Here all dwell free.” Free from what? Free from the collective demands; free to connect with one’s own inner authority and to creatively express one’s self. It is the young Queen’s attitude and reflective nature and her ability to become still and go within that enables her to access her deep feminine nature and, consequently, nurse her baby. (The more the collective Feminine consciousness can take on such an inward attitude, the more it can access its true feminine instinctual power and rightful place in relationship to the Masculine collective and in the healing of our culture’s narcissistic wounds.)
When the Queen left the palace, her baby was bound to her back. She was not yet in relationship with her baby, this new Masculine potential. It remained in the shadow realm, in potentia and could only be felt, not seen or nursed. That is, not until she enters the wild forest and a “snow-white maiden” unbinds the baby from the Queen’s back and holds him so that he may nurse. This new masculine potential can now be seen, nourished and nurtured. By entering the dark realm of the unconscious, she has gained access to her innate feminine potential to nurture, nourish, protect and respond to her baby’s needs. (I believe that it is the collective Feminine consciousness, whether in man or woman, that holds the potential to begin healing the narcissistic wound of our culture. It requires courage and perseverance and an ability to enter the darkness and the unknown of the unconscious.) The Queen stayed seven (completeness, totality) years in this place and was well cared for. By God’s grace and because of her piety, her hands grew once more. (Through devotion to her internal process, the young Queen was able to gain her innate-wholeness. I wonder: was it her wholeness that allowed her to nurse and care for her baby, her new potential or was it in caring for this new potential that she became whole again? My Jungian mind would say that it was “both”; each impacting the other.)
There is a variant motif that I found in Folktales of Japan (Seki [ed.] 1963) of how the Maiden’s hands were restored. It goes like this:
When the Maiden returns to the forest with her baby strapped to her back, she kneels by a stream to get a drink. The baby slips from her back and falls into the water. She stoves her stumps into the water in a desperate attempt to save her child. When she does so, her hands instantly are restored.
I like this particular variant because it speaks to the importance of the rescue of the child, the inner child. The child is the mediating factor between the opposites of masculine-feminine; objective-subjective; rational-irrational; and real-imaginal. In regards to the culture, it is the “good-enough” nurturing of the children that will allow them to grow into psychologically and emotionally healthy adults.
Meanwhile, the King arrives home anxious to see his wife and child. Once the story was sifted through and the truth be told, the King set out to find them. He traveled for seven long years and came to the same great forest where he found the same little house. An angel came and led him in, greeting him as Lord King. Tired, he laid down to sleep. Once awakened and the identity of his wife was confirmed by the presenting of the silver hands, they ate with the angel and left for home with great rejoicings where they were married again and lived happily.
Seen from a cultural perspective, The Girl Without Hands opens with the wounding of the Feminine by the culture’s predominant Patriarchal attitude. The healing process for the Feminine and its ultimate joining with the Masculine in a balance and compensating way comes about at the initiative of the young, wounded Feminine. It is ‘her’ ability to enter the dark realm of the unconscious and survive its dangers without turning too quickly toward the light (and thus exiting the forest prematurely) that allows her to come into her full instinctual being and to nurture the ‘child’. It is through this strengthening of ‘her’ Feminine nature that there is a birth of a new Masculine perspective. As the ending of the fairy tale indicates, the Masculine consciousness (open to a new form of relationship with the Feminine), must make his own journey to the dark forest, the unconscious. There, ‘he’ will find his Feminine counterpart and “their” child, a new Masculine potential. I imagine this new Masculine to seek a mutual and reciprocal relationship with the Feminine.