Preserving what's common
Tales of the Forest

Wild Sanctuary and The Handless Maiden

...with art by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

For those of you who follow Folklore Thursday on Facebook or Twitter, today is "Favorite Fairy Tale" day, so I'm reprinting this post about wild sanctuary & healing in relation to the Handless Maiden story. It's not my absolute fairy fairy tale, which is Donkeyskin -- but the only piece I've written about that one is a rather dark essay-cum-memoir addressing the subject of child abuse. (If you're curious, and up for it, the essay is here. And Helen Pilinovsky has a good piece on Donkeyskin here. ) But I love The Handless Maiden too, for its complexity, its psychological depth, and for all that it tells us about trauma, strength, and the true nature of healing....

Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz saw the fairy tale forest not only as a place of trials for the hero, but also an archetypal setting for retreat, reflection, and healing. In a lecture presented to the C.G. Jung Institute in Switzerland in the winter of 1958-59 (subsequently published as The Feminine in Fairytales), she looked at the role of the forest in the story of "The Handless Maiden" (also known as "The Armless Maiden," "The Girl Without Hands," and "Silver Hands"). In this tale, a miller's daughter loses her hands as the result of a foolish bargain her father has made with the devil. (In darker variants, it is because she will not give in to incestuous demands.) She then leaves home, makes her way through the forest, and ends up foraging for pears (a fruit symbolic of female strength) in the garden of a tender-hearted king — who falls in love, marries her, and gives her two new hands made of silver. The young woman gives birth to a son — but this is not the usual happy ending to the story. The king is away at war and the devil interferes once again (or, in some versions, a malicious mother-in-law), tricking the court into casting both mother and child back into the forest. "She is driven into nature," von Franz points out. "She has to go into deep introversion.... The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life, in the deepest sense of the word.

The Handless Maiden then encounters an angel who leads her to a hut deep in the woods. Her human hands are magically restored during this time of forest retreat. When her husband returns from the war, learns that she's gone, and comes to fetch his wife and child home, she insists that he court her all over again, as the new woman she is now. Her husband complies -- and then, only then, does the tale conclude happily. The Handless Maiden's transformation is now complete: from wounded child to whole, healed woman; from miller's daughter to queen.

Von Franz compares the Handless Maiden's time of solitude in the woods to that of religious mystics seeking communion with god through nature. "In the Middle Ages, there were many hermits," she notes, "and in Switzerland there were the so-called Wood Brothers and Sisters. People who did not want to live a monastic life but who wanted to live alone in the forest had both a closeness to nature and also a great experience of spiritual inner life. Such Wood Brothers and Sisters could be personalities on a high level who had a spiritual fate and had to renounce active life for a time and isolate themselves to find their own inner relationship to God. It is not very different from what the shaman does in the Polar tribes, or what the medicine men do all over the world, in order to seek immediate personal religious experience in isolation."

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

In other versions of the Handless Maiden narrative, the young queen's time in the woods is not solitary. The angel (or "white spirit") leads her to an inn at the very heart of the forest, where she's taken in by gentle "folk of the woods." (It's not always made clear whether they are human or magical beings.) The queen stays with them for a full seven years (a traditional period of time for magical/shamanic initiation in ancient Greece and other cultures world-wide), during which time her hands slowly re-grow.

In an article titled "Healing the Wounded Wild," Kim Antieau uses this variant of the story to reflect on illness, the healing process, and the ways our relationship with the natural world impacts both physical and psychic health. "In many cultures," she writes, "the prescription for chronic illness was a stay in the country (not necessarily the wild country). In ancient Greece, the chronically ill went to Asklepian Temples for relief. The priests created tenemos — sacred space — for the patient to help facilitate healing. The ill went to the temples and prepared with purification and ritual for a healing dream. Then the patient went to the abaton — the sleeping chamber — and dreamed. Often the dreams either healed the patients or told them of a remedy which would heal them.

"Today, practitioners of integrated medicine believe the body wants to heal, and the patient needs the time, encouragement, support and space to be able to get well. In many instances the time, encouragement, and support can be found, but wild spaces are lacking. Silvia [the Handless Maiden] was able to travel deep into a wild place. Where do we go? Where do the wild things go (including human beings) when no wild remains?"

Gamekeeper by Jeanie Tomanek

Midori Snyder comes at the story from a different angle in her luminous article "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey," examining the tale, in its various forms, as a classic rite-of-passage narrative.

When such stories are devised for young men, she notes, the hero typically sets off from home seeking adventure or fortune in the unknown world, where the fantastic waits to challenge him. "Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride....

"While no less heroic, how different are the journeys of young women. In folktales, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is confirmed by marriage and the assumption of adult roles. In traditional exogamous societies, young women were required to leave forever the familiar home of their birth and become brides in foreign and sometimes faraway households. In the folktales, a young girl ventures or is turned out into the ambiguous world of the fantastic, knowing that she will never return home. Instead at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation as an adult and, like her male counterpart, brings to her new community the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility."

Although fairy tales have been known as children's stories from roughly the 19th century onward, older versions of these same narratives (aimed at older audiences) looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young daughters to the highest bidder under the guise of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity. In rite-of-passage tales devised for young women, the heroes don't tend to ride merrily off into the forest in search of fame and fortune, they are usually driven there by desperation; the forest, despite its perils, is a place of refuge from worse dangers left behind.

Communion by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless/Armless Maiden is not a passive princess in the old Disney mold, waiting for romance to rescue her. She finds her own way to the orchard of a king in her search of food, and although she agrees to marry him, a royal wedding is not the conclusion of her story, it's the half-way point. "It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle," Midori points out. "The brutality of the opening scene seems resolved as the Armless Maiden is rescued in a garden and then married to a compassionate young man. But she has not completed her journey of transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She is not whole, not the girl she was nor the woman she was meant to be. The narratives make it clear that without her arms, she is unable to fulfill her role as an adult. She can do nothing for herself, not even care for her own child.

"Conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, and she returns reborn as a woman. Every narrative version concludes with what is in effect a second marriage. The woman, now whole, her arms restored by an act of magic, has become herself the magic bride, aligned with the creative power of nature. She does not return immediately to her husband but waits with her child in the forest or a neighboring homestead for him to find her. When he comes to propose marriage this second time, it is a marriage of equals, based on respect and not pity.

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

"I have come to believe," Midori continues, "that robust narratives such as the Armless Maiden speak to women not only when they are young and setting out on that first rite of passage, but throughout their lives. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating analysis of this tale, demonstrating the guiding role the armless maiden plays in a woman's psychic life:

" 'The Handless Maiden is about a woman's initiation into the underground forest through the rite of endurance. The word endurance sounds as though it means "to continue without cessation," and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means "to harden, to make robust, to strengthen," and this is the principal thrust of the tale, and the generative feature of a woman's long psychic life. We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.'

"To follow the example of the armless maiden," Midori concludes, "is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Poet Vicki Feaver has also reflected on the story in relationship to creativity. In an interview in Poetry Magazine, Feaver discusses her poem "The Handless Maiden," inspired by the fairy tale :

"The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimms' version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself -- as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child. 

"I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

"Fairy tales are journey stories," says Ellen Steiber (in a beautiful essay on the fairy tale "Brother and Sister"). "They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side."

In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance — but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young heroes encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Fairy tales are, as Ellen says, maps through the woods, trails of stones to mark the path, marks carved into trees to let us know that other women and men have been this way before.

Diary by Jeanie Tomanek

Though they warn us to steer clear of gingerbread houses and huts that stalk the woods on chicken's feet, they also show the way to true shelter, sanctuary, and places of healing deep in the forest. (The real lesson here, it seems to me, is to learn to tell the difference.) Think of the hut in "Brother and Sister," for example, where the siblings set up housekeeping in the woods, far from the everyday world (and their stepmother's malice), adapting to the rhythms of the forest, of self-sufficiency, and of the brother's enchantment.  Or the woodland cabin in "The White Deer," where the deer-princess sleeps safely each night.  Or the cottage (or cave) where Snow White finds shelter with a band of rough forest-dwelling men (the metal-working dwarves of Teutonic folklore in some versions, outlaws and brigands in others). Even the Beast's lonely castle deep in the woods is more sanctuary than prison...a place where captor and prisoner both transform, in true fairy tale fashion.

Envoy by Jeanie TomanekThese places are linked not only by their woodland settings, but by the temporary nature of the sanctuary provided. The curse is broken or the secret revealed, or the magical task finished, or the trial survived; transformation is complete, and the hero must now return to the human world. Traditionally, rite-of-passage ceremonies are designed to propel initiates into a sacred place and sacred state (the realm of the spirits, gods, or ancestors; the place of vision, instruction, and metamorphosis)...but then to bring them back again, back to the tribe or community and to ordinary life. We're meant to come out of sweatlodge, down from the Vision Quest hill, home from the Moon Hut, back from the sacred hunt, bringing with us new knowledge, new dreams, a new status, a new name or role to play....intended not just for the sake of personal growth but in service to the whole tribe or community. Likewise, we're not meant to remain in the circle of enchantment deep in the fairy tale forest -- we're meant to come back out again, bringing our hard-won knowledge and fortune with service to the family (old or new), the realm, the community; to children and the future.

Unless, that is, we stay in the woods and take on a different role in the story...not a hero this time, but one of the forest dwellers who aids (or hinders) another's journey: the woodwose, the hermit, the sage, the mad prophet...the men and woman who run with the wolves...the femme sauvage with her herbs and charms... the conjure man with his beehives and songs....

But those are stories for another day, and another journey into the woods.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia, near Atlanta."My all-time favorite folktale is 'The Handless Maiden," she says. "It is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. This tale encompasses many of the archetypical representations of women. My 'Everywomen' portray the mothers, daughters, lovers, and crones. Strong, wise women who will survive.  These are filtered through my own experiences many times." All rights to imagery here are reserved by the artist.

Words: I am grateful to Midori Snyder for allowing me to quote such a long passage from her Armless Maiden essay.  I urge anyone interested in the tale to please read this insightful essay in full. All right to text above, included quoted passages, are reserved by the authors. Further reading: The Handless Maiden: an art project by Nomi McLeod.


Thank you for reposting this article, Terri. The depth and application of its messages fit so well for me, and for these times. Rereading the messages I am tapped. The scars pulse with memories. It's good to know their history. But even better to know how to tell new stories growing from them. Stories with room for unexpectedly transformative endings.


How many faces have you worn
In how many places?

How many arms have been severed
By how many well-placed words?

How many ghosts have you chased
Down slippery trails/
Marmalade tea parties/
Gold plated promises?

How many?
Not too many
But some.

Thank you Terri for calling up my essay on the Armless Maiden -- especially this quote which is quite timely: ""To follow the example of the armless maiden," Midori concludes, "is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us." We will be moving from Tucson in a couple of months to set out for Colorado -- and I can't wait to spend time in the Flat Irons and Rockies, hiking with my daughter and grandchildren, surrounded by the remarkable beauty of those places as inspiration for a return to my long neglected love of making textiles -- weaving especially. My loom will just fit in our new very small house. Emergent and re-emergent indeed. Thanks again for the post.

I think when we are in pain or our loved ones are in pain, we can find comfort, hope or inspiration in the open space or the wild space. If one is not physically available, such as living in the city or a crowded housing community, there is the sky with all its vastness, hidden miracles, untold stories and light. I am a great believer in the coordination of the mind and the body to heal. What affects one affects the other. And if we envision something and believe in its presence, its power, I think it can also help the wound to heal, the broken bone to mend, the pain to dissolve faster or at least offer a temporary sanctuary of relief. The following poem expresses this theme -- a wife connected to nature, visionary healing and her need to help alleviate her husband's sciatic discomfort or at least in some way to help him cope.


Stillness in the desert sky
was not still but rather impulses of light
running through The Big Dipper. The ladle
not a spoon in suspension

but your leg stretched out, the foot flexed
and the stars, pressure points that glimmered,
glossed the night with myth. If I ran my hand
along your hip and limb where the hurt throbbed most,
they would assume the pain, make its fiery ache their own.

The blue sparks would ignite as an affliction blessed. Absolved.
And for the moment, they were there,
inside the ancient bear, this new constellation,
because when you turned in agony
I prayed. You envisioned it.

Thank you Terri
for this inspirational and beautiful post. I have always loved the story of the "Handless Maiden" and art work and the essay are fantastic. Something that resonates so deeply with me.

Take care


It takes time not magic,
to heal, that small growth,
a finger's length.
Who has not heard that story?

It takes a packing of moss and mud,
a turn of cloth around the stump,
prayers in the darkest woods,
fine stitching of gold.

I lost my innocence to a man
who bound my mouth.
He called it love,
I called it severance.

But I wed the next one
because he set me free
My hands grew back
like the lizard's tail

till I could write with fingers
shaped like stories,
and a mouth that could
sing with the phrases of birds.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Even the "some" leave scars. It's how we wear those scars that counts.

Thanks for the poem.

That envisioning is the true healing. Been there. . .

Thanks, Wendy.


Hi Jane

This is beautiful, absolutely beautiful! The essence of time and the ability to grow into self discovery, realization that something must change, that the body and the spirit all need patience and determination to heal and evolve. This poem touches deeply and the last two stanzas captivate with their truth and their eloquent language.

But I wed the next one
because he set me free
My hands grew back
like the lizard's tail

till I could write with fingers
shaped like stories,
and a mouth that could
sing with the phrases of birds.

Yes, a significant other can help to set a his or herpartner free as well as act as the supportive catalyst that invokes their inner strength and talents. I can relate to this, as my partner has done something similar for me! Love, love how "that mouth could sing with the phrases of birds" YES!!

Take care,

Thanks so much Jane

For your understanding and for reading my poem! I deeply appreciate it; and yes, the healing is in the envisioning, the ability to see beyond the moment, to conceptualize the pain and the skill to cope.

Again thanks!
Take care,

Hi Mokihana

A very intriguing poem that question some pertinent questions --

How many ghosts have you chased
Down slippery trails/
Marmalade tea parties/
Gold plated promises?

How many?
Not too many
But some.

I think we have all followed those ghosts and those slippery trails ending up with gold plated promises that turned to rust. And they leave their stain, they wound and yet we have that wonderful part of the human condition that allows us to come back, to revive our strength to move beyond and maybe evolve into a stronger person. Thank you for this!

My Best

This is such a beautiful and wise post, I may have to print it off so I can read it again in any moment. I have read other old tales similar to The Handless Maiden where the heroine's marriage is only the halfway point - stories where the queen and her child are transformed into birds, or drowned, and must be rediscovered.

I know the idea at the end of a transformative journey is to return home, but I personally love the idea you mentioned at the end of this post of remaining in the dark forest as a guide and helper. I have a story like that in one of my books - I never intended for it to be the conclusion of the tale, but it just felt right. I think infact many who have been through the dark forest find beauty in it and find their heart's most beloved purpose in helping others, and choose to stay in some way or another as lantern bearers, pathfinders, protectors.

Great poem Wendy. I can relate to it completely being a sciatica sufferer myself. I love the idea of pain 'absolved' and transformed/translated into light.

OMG, I followed the link at the top of this post to your essay-memoir about Donkeyskin despite your warning that it would be dark, and now I am an emotional wreck. Dark yes - but also one of the most beautiful things I've EVER read. I guess I can see why you didn't post it outright as your post about your favorite tale but I also wish it was right out here for people to read. Such a stunningly beautiful piece of writing.

And now I need a strong cup of tea.

Thank you, dear Terri. I mean that sincerely. That was a remarkable essay. The art is beautiful too.

Yes, even "some" leaves scars.

I love this place, this blog, where meaningful words and the art of life being lived is expressed. Like handwritten letters to people who (can) wait while the words travel in a paper case, with a stamp, in other hands of modern Pony Express, we are fed. My hands grow back, my face ... becomes my own, again and again.

Thanks Jane.

Your essay(s) are wonderful, rich with metaphor and mirrors. The definition and expansion of 'Endurance' is powerful " We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something." Yes!

Thank you, Midori

Sharing the burden and envisioning 'different' through the diagnosis of 'Sciatica.' I too relate.

Thanks Wendy.

Here too, I relate to marriage. How many times? Twice. And in the space of this common ground, this blog, I appreciate how my experience rings in harmony with yours.

I did marry a foreigner to put distance from a native place grown too tight for exploration only to find the first husband didn't want my transformation. The second does. And I can put that story here, and there. Many places.

Thank you for the ringing bell, the hands, fingers, the mouth ... yours Jane.

Hi Stuart

You have my understanding and empathy as my husband suffers from it along with the occassional kidney stone flare-up. thank you so much for reading and commenting. I deeply appreciate your input!

My Best

Thanks Mokihana

I appreciate your perspective and always am very grateful when you read and comment on my poems!

Please take care

That binding was by someone I almost married. He became a psychiatrist. He wanted to define who I was, wanted to put his words in my mouth. Ghanks goodness I married the man who set me free to define and redefine myself all thorugh ut long, loving, and productive life together. Consider the bel rung, Mokihana.


I don't always reveal actual details. But this is a true poem and am glad you saw it that way, Wendy. With loving thanks.


Lovely. (And someday...I am going to write that book we talked about. Silver. Someday.) Hope you're doing well. <3

And thank you too for this very nice compliment!

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