The story of the girl without hands is found in many cultures. How the girl comes to lose her hands varies. In some versions, she cuts them off herself to make herself repellent to her father or her brothers and thus avoid their unwanted sexual advances. In other versions, her father has made a bargain with the devil whereby he will be made rich in exchange for his daughter, but the girl is so pure that the devil can’t come near her. To prevent her from cleaning herself, the father chops off her hands (in some stories, of his own volition; in others, the devil makes him do it). But her tears wash her clean and the devil is still unable to take her. After this terrible event she wanders out into the forest by herself, where she meets a king who falls in love with her and makes silver hands for her to wear. More complications follow, but eventually either her hands regrow on their own or the silver hands turn into real ones.
Robert Johnson, a Jungian psychologist who writes beautifully clear books about the psychology of men and women, wrote extensively about the story of the Handless Maiden in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden. He sees the story as a metaphor for how both men and women can get cut off from their own true feelings. Clarissa Pinkola Estés devotes an entire section of her book Women Who Run with the Wolves to the story. She finds many layers of meanings in it, including how women can be severed from their own wisdom and power.
For many years, I made my living as a science writer. This career required me to be very much in my left brain most of the time. Shortly before I quit this work to go back to school for my doctorate, I had a dream that terrified me. In the dream, I was walking down a trail when I came across what at first appeared to be a sculpture of three hands, severed at the wrists and with blood painted on the stumps. But then the hands moved, walking on their fingers, and I realized in the dream that they were still alive. “Who has done this awful thing?” I cried out, and woke, but I could not shake the image of the bleeding, severed hands. I took the dream to a Jungian analyst who refused to interpret it for me. “It’s too personal,” she said. “You have to figure out what it means for yourself.”
In my first quarter at school, I took a class on dream interpretation where we read James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld. Hillman is not a proponent of “interpreting” dreams; instead, he suggests that one simply sit with the image exactly as it appeared in the dream. (Hillman once gave a lecture on dream interpretation in which he said only, “If you dream about a dog, stay with the dog,” and sat down again.) We were given the assignment to pick a dream image of ours and work with it in any way that seemed right to us. I thought of the severed hands, and the idea came to me to make a sculpture of the image. The terror I had felt whenever I thought of the image immediately dissipated. Instead, the time that I spent working on this sculpture was filled with joy.
The sculpture took a month to complete. About halfway through, I felt compelled to stop working on it and take time to make beaded bracelets for everyone in the class. When I finally finished the sculpture, I realized what the dream meant. I had become cut off from my creativity, from work done with the hands. Even the writing I had been doing was directed by other people. The bracelets I had made—which go around the wrists—were my way of reconnecting the hands. Once I “connected” the images with what was going on in my life, I could write what I wanted to say.
The 2013 animated film Frozen, a retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Snow Queen,” features a princess who has a strange power: she can create snow and frost through her hands. Her younger sister loves this power and encourages the princess to use it, but her parents are terrified that she will only cause harm. They lock her away from others, including her sister, and teach her to fear her own power. They make her wear gloves all the time, turning her into a Handless Maiden.
When the king and queen are drowned on a voyage, the ice princess becomes queen. At her coronation, she must take off the gloves. As she fears, her power immediately manifests. Because she has never learned how to embrace and manage this power, she is helpless to stop herself and brings eternal winter down on the kingdom. It is only after she learns from her innocent, nonjudgmental sister how to wield her power with love instead of fear that she can harness it and put it to good use.
How many people are Handless Maidens, cut off from their creative power by fear? How many need to learn how to reconnect their hands and be the creative persons they are meant to be?