A miller fell
slowly but surely into poverty, until finally he had nothing more than his mill
and a large apple tree which stood behind it. One day he had gone into the
forest to gather wood, where he was approached by an old man, whom he had never
seen before, and who said, "Why do you torment yourself with chopping
wood? I will make you rich if you will promise to give me what is standing
behind your mill."
that be but my apple tree?" thought the miller. And so, he said yes, and
signed it over to the strange man.
however, laughed mockingly and said, "I will come in three years and get
what belongs to me," then went away.
When he arrived
home, his wife came up to him and said, "Miller, tell me, where did all
the wealth come from that is suddenly in our house? All at once all the chests
and boxes are full, and no one brought it here, and I don't know where it came
"It comes from a strange man whom I met in the woods and who promised me
great treasures if I would but sign over to him what stands behind the mill. We
can give up the large apple tree for all this."
husband!" said the woman, terrified. "That was the devil. He didn't
mean the apple tree, but our daughter, who was just then standing behind the
mill sweeping the yard."
daughter was a beautiful and pious girl, and she lived the three years
worshipping God and without sin. When the time was up and the day came when the
evil one was to get her, she washed herself clean and drew a circle around
herself with chalk. The devil appeared very early in the morning, but he could
not approach her.
He spoke angrily
to the miller, "Keep water away from her, so she cannot wash herself anymore.
Otherwise, I have no power over her."
The miller was
frightened and did what he was told. The next morning the devil returned, but
she had wept into her hands, and they were entirely clean.
Thus, he still
could not approach her, and he spoke angrily to the miller, "Chop off her
hands. Otherwise, I cannot get to her."
was horrified and answered, "How could I chop off my own child's
Then the evil one
threatened him, saying, "If you do not do it, then you will be mine, and I
will take you yourself."
the father, and he promised to obey him. Then he went to the girl and said,
"My child, if I do not chop off both of your hands, then the devil will
take me away, and in my fear, I have promised him to do this. Help me in my need
and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you."
"Dear father, do with me what you will. I am but your child," and
with that she stretched forth both hands and let her father chop them off.
The devil came a
third time, but she had wept so long and so much onto the stumps, that they
were entirely clean. Then he had to give up, for he had lost all claim to her.
The miller spoke
to her, "I have gained great wealth through you. I shall take care of you
in splendor as long as you live."
But she answered,
"I cannot remain here. I will go away. Compassionate people will give me
as much as I need."
Then she had her
mutilated arms tied to her back, and at sunrise she set forth, walking the
entire day until it was night. She came to a royal garden, and by the light of
the moon she saw that inside there were trees full of beautiful fruit. But she
could not get inside, for there it was surrounded by water.
Having walked the
entire day without eating a bite, she was suffering from hunger, and she
thought, "Oh, if only I were inside the garden so I could eat of those
fruits. Otherwise, I shall perish."
Then she kneeled
down and, crying out to God the Lord, she prayed. Suddenly an angel appeared.
He closed a head gate, so that the moat dried up, and she could walk through.
She entered the
garden, and the angel went with her. She saw a fruit tree with beautiful pears,
but they had all been counted. She stepped up to the tree and ate from it with
her mouth, enough to satisfy her hunger, but no more. The gardener saw it
happen, but because the angel was standing by her he was afraid and thought
that the girl was a spirit. He said nothing and did not dare to call out nor to
speak to the spirit. After she had eaten the pear, she was full, and she went
and lay down in the brush.
The king who
owned this garden came the next morning. He counted the fruit and saw that one
of the pears was missing. He asked the gardener what had happened to it. It was
not lying under the tree, but had somehow disappeared.
answered, "Last night a spirit came here. It had no hands and ate one of
the pears with its mouth."
The king said,
"How did the spirit get across the water? And where did it go after it had
eaten the pear?"
answered, "Someone dressed in snow-white came from heaven and closed the
head gate so the spirit could walk through the moat. Because it must have been
an angel, I was afraid, and I asked no questions, and I did not call out. After
the spirit had eaten the pear, it went away again."
The king said,
"If what you said is true, I will keep watch with you tonight."
After it was dark,
the king entered the garden, bringing a priest with him who was to talk to the
spirit. All three sat down under the tree and kept watch. At midnight the girl
came creeping out of the brush, stepped up to the tree, and again ate off a
pear with her mouth. An angel dressed in white was standing next to her.
The priest walked
up to them and said, "Have you come from God, or from the world? Are you a
spirit or a human?"
"I am not a spirit, but a poor human who has been abandoned by everyone
The king said,
"Even if you have been abandoned by the whole world, I will not abandon
He took her home
with him to his royal castle, and because she was so beautiful and pure he
loved her with all his heart, had silver hands made for her, and took her as
After a year the
king had to go out into the battlefield, and he left the young queen in the
care of his mother, saying, "If she has a child, support her and take good
care of her, and immediately send me the news in a letter."
She gave birth to
a beautiful son. The old mother quickly wrote this in a letter, giving the
joyful news to the king.
Now on the way
the messenger stopped at a brook to rest. Tired from his long journey, he fell
asleep. Then the devil came to him. He still wanted to harm the pious queen,
and he took the letter, putting in its place one that stated that the queen had
brought a changeling into the world. When the king read this letter he was
frightened and saddened, but nevertheless he wrote an answer that they should
take good care of the queen until his return. The messenger returned with this
letter, but he rested at the same place, and again fell asleep. The devil came
again and placed a different letter in his bag. This letter said that they
should kill the queen with her child.
The old mother
was terribly frightened when she received this letter. She could not believe
it, and wrote to the king again, but she got back the same answer, because each
time the devil substituted a false letter. And the last letter even stated that
they should keep the queen's tongue and eyes as proof.
The old mother
lamented that such innocent blood was to be shed, and in the night she had a
doe killed, cut out its tongue and eyes, and had them put aside.
Then she said to
the queen, "I cannot have you killed as the king has ordered, but you can
no longer stay here. Go out into the wide world with your child, and never come
The old mother
tied the queen's child onto her back, and the poor woman went away with weeping
eyes. She came to a great, wild forest where she got onto her knees and prayed
to God. Then the angel of the Lord appeared to her and led her to a small
house. On it was a small sign with the words, "Here anyone can live
virgin came from the house and said, "Welcome, Queen," then led her
inside. She untied the small boy from her back, held him to her breast so he
could drink, and then laid him in a beautiful made-up bed.
Then the poor
woman said, "How did you know that I am a queen?"
The white virgin
answered, "I am an angel, sent by God to take care of you and your
She stayed in this
house for seven years and was well taken care of. And through the grace of God
and her own piety her chopped-off hands grew back.
The king finally
came back home from the battlefield, and the first thing he wanted to do was to
see his wife and their child.
Then the old
mother began to weep, saying, "You wicked man, why did you write to me
that I was to put two innocent souls to death," and she showed him the two
letters that the evil one had counterfeited. Then she continued to speak,
"I did what you ordered," and showed him as proof the eyes and the
Then the king
began to weep even more bitterly for his poor wife and his little son, until
the old woman had mercy and said to him, "Be satisfied that she is still
alive. I secretly had a doe killed and took the proofs from it. I tied your
wife's child onto her back and told her to go out into the wide world, and she
had to promise never to come back here, because you were so angry with
Then the king
said, "I will go as far as the sky is blue and will neither eat nor drink
until I have found my dear wife and my child again, provided that in the
meantime they have not died or perished from hunger."
Then the king
traveled about for nearly seven years, searching in all the stone cliffs and
caves, but he did not find her, and he thought that she had perished. He
neither ate nor drank during the entire time, but God kept him alive. Finally,
he came to a great forest, where he found a little house with a sign containing
the words, " Here anyone can live free."
The white virgin
came out, took him by the hand, led him inside, and said, "Welcome,
King," then asked him where he had come from.
"I have been traveling about for nearly seven years looking for my wife
and her child, but I cannot find them."
The angel offered
him something to eat and drink, but he did not take it, wanting only to rest a
little. He lay down to sleep, covering his face with a cloth.
Then the angel
went into the room where the queen was sitting with her son, whom she normally
The angel said to
her, "Go into the next room with your child. Your husband has come."
She went to where
he was lying, and the cloth fell from his face.
Then she said,
"Filled-with-Grief, pick up the cloth for your father and put it over his
The child picked
it up and put it over his face again. The king heard this in his sleep and let
the cloth fall again.
Then the little
boy grew impatient and said, "Mother, dear, how can I cover my father's
face? I have no father in this world. I have learned to pray, 'Our father which
art in heaven,' and you have said that my father is in heaven, and that he is
our dear God. How can I know such a wild man? He is not my father."
Hearing this, the
king arose and asked who she was.
She said, "I
am your wife, and this is your son Filled-with-Grief."
He saw her living
hands and said, "My wife had silver hands."
"Our merciful God has caused my natural hands to grow back."
The angel went
into the other room, brought back the silver hands, and showed them to him. Now
he saw for sure that it was his dear wife and his dear child, and he kissed
them, and rejoiced, and said, "A heavy stone has fallen from my
Then the angel of
God gave them all something to eat, and then they went back home to his old
mother. There was great joy everywhere, and the king and the queen conducted
their wedding ceremony once again, and they lived happily until their blessed
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Das Mädchen ohne Hände," Kinder- und Hausmärchen,
gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm [Children's and Household Tales --
Grimms' Fairy Tales], 7th edition, vol. 1 (Göttingen: Verlag der
Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 31, pp. 162-68. Found at: (https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm031.html).
Fairy Tales from Grimm. Illustrations by Gordon Browne (1858-1932).
Sometimes an old story
is upsetting. It triggers you and brings
forth a host of unanticipated emotions.
Folktales are representations of life, but when the underlying issue is
taboo, it reads more like a metaphor. The tale lies beneath the conscious mind,
and we find it both unsettling and inexplicable. We just can’t put the pieces together;
nothing makes perfect sense. Such is true for the Grimms’ story “The Girl
without Hands.” It’s a horrific tale of
a young girl whose father cuts off her hands, and how she must fare in the
world without them. That’s the one
sentence description. Obviously, there
is more to the tale than that, but much in the story remains unanswered
It's a story with
many variants found throughout the world.
There is an equally large number of explanations to the story. Basically,
it is tale of dismembering and re-membering.
The how and why of that will be the nature of this blog. When I first heard the story, I thought it
was a piece of failed hagiography.
Hagiography contains the folk legends of the lives of the saints. Popular in the medieval time period, the
stories of female saints followed the pattern of the virgin martyr. These
stories are filled with violence towards women’s bodies to achieve spiritual
purity. To do so they often cut off their breasts to become less
desirable. Spurned suitors tended to
chop off their heads (which was often miraculously reattached). Today, these
stories are highly controversial. Female
saints are generally portrayed as vulnerable, innocent victims who were
tortured or disfigured to avoid forced marriages or sexual assault. They
triumphed over death as powerful victors, who were ultimately united in heaven
Hopefully, the reader could find in the story some similarity to hagiography as I have explained
it. On first glance, it does look at bit that way. But on further examination, it can be seen as
a failed attempt. The interpretation of saint Lives varies, for scholars have
conflicting views as to its importance. Some critics have argued that these
stories are misogynistic and even pornographic in the way they objectify women,
making them subject to male violence as a punishment for resisting male
desires. Others see these texts as victories of very strong women whose purity
is undaunted by any threat. Still others point out that the virgins’
adversaries tended to be authority figures and the saints’ disobedience may be
seen as a rebellion against tyranny generally.
While the story
of “The Girl without Hands” reads like hagiography, it is without its
core. The girl in this tale is pious and
pure but she never takes any action on her behalf. She is not righteous or good. By contrast, female saints speak out and
fight for their purity. They are
heroines not passive pawns in a tale.
Some believe they were role models for the more heroic female characters
that appeared later in the Middle Ages. This idea of piety is a Roman ideal
which Cicero describes as that “which admonishes us to do our duty to our
country or our parents or other blood relations.” The Girl without hands certainly matches that
ideal. She fulfills whatever mistaken
duty she has to her father by allowing him to cut off her hands (without any
resistance at all). But I’d argue this isn’t Christian piety. For in the book of Matthew Jesus criticizes
the Pharisees for engaging in spiritual practices that called attention to themselves. This girl’s piety certainly called attention
brothers recorded many different versions of this story. The first version (which we will discuss
later) was published in 1812. This story, however, was a 1857 mash-up of
several versions along with a new introduction.
I found myself angry and unsettled after reading it. Storyteller, Susan Gordon, in “The Powers of
the Handless Maiden,” writes that this story “suggest[s] that a passive,
helpless, asexual and submissive existence for women is the ideal.” And that’s what began to anger me. How many women over the years read this
seemingly religious story and thought that being a “good girl” meant that they
had to accept incest, rape or domestic violence.
If the reader is interested in seeing where my anger took me next, listen to my podcast "Hands Lost and Found" found on this site.