Saturday, June 11, 2011

"The Girl Without Hands." Physical disability as a "Divine mark" -- monstrosity versus humanity.

Once upon a time, there was a miller who'd fallen on hard times, and the only thing he had to support him was his mill and the apple tree that grew behind the barn. A mill isn't much good if no one comes to grind their grain, and a single apple tree will leave you hungry, in the end. And so the miller had to resort to being a woodcutter, and try to earn his bread that way.

One day while he was out in the forest, he met a strange man who said to him: "I'll give you all the wealth you'll ever need, if you just promise to give me what's standing behind your mill in three years' time."

The miller thought to himself: "That's nothing but the old apple tree." And so he readily agreed, thinking the bargain more than fair.

When he got home at the end of the day, his wife met him at the door. "When I came into the kitchen, this afternoon, there was a bag of gold coins on the table. How did they get there?"

And so the miller told her about the man he'd met in the forest, and about the bargain he had struck.

"You fool!" his wife said. "That was the Devil you bargained with -- and it was our daughter behind the mill -- sweeping the yard!"

And so, for the next three years, the girl prayed to God every day, and lived entirely without sin. And on the night that the Devil came for her, she washed herself well, and drew a chalk circle around her, on the floor, so that he could not touch her.

The Devil was furious, and he ordered the miller to remove all water from the house, so that the girl could not bathe, and he would be back for her the next night.

Terrified, the miller did as he was ordered. But the girl wept into her hands, and so they were again clean, and again, the Devil could not touch her.

This time, he ordered the father to chop off his daughter's hands.

At first, the miller refused -- there was no way he could do that to his own daughter. But then the Devil said that if he did not, it would be the miller himself that the Devil would drag off to Hell.

When the miller told his daughter what the Devil had said, she replied: "I am your child, do with me what you will." And she put her hands on the chopping block, and let her father chop them off.

But still, she wept onto her stumps, and washed them clean, and so, that third night, when the Devil came for her, he could not touch her. And after that, he had no more power over her. And he went away empty handed.

After that, the miller said to his daughter: "You have saved my life and my soul. And because of you, I have great wealth. From here on, I will make sure that you live the rest of your life in splendor, and have everything you desire."

But the girl said: "No. I cannot live with you any longer. Bind my arms behind me, and I will go forth into the world. I shall rely on strangers to give me just what I need."

And so, her arms were bound behind her, and she went into the world.

She walked all the long day, and when the evening fell, she came to a king's orchard, filled with beautiful fruit trees. But the orchard was surrounded by a moat of flowing water, and she could not enter. She had been walking all day without a single bite to eat, and she felt that if she could not have some of that fruit, she would die of hunger.

So she fell on her knees, and prayed to God. And an angel of the Lord appeared beside her, and closed the head gate, which stopped the moat from flowing, and she was able to cross over and into the orchard. She ate a pear straight from the tree with her mouth, while the angel stood by her. And when she had finished eating the pear, and was full, she crawled into the brush, and fell asleep.

The royal gardener was keeping watch, for all the pears had been counted, and were ready for harvest in the morning. But because the angel was with her, he thought the girl must be a spirit, and was afraid to call out to her.

The next morning, when the king came down to oversee the harvest of the pears, he noticed that one was missing, and he asked the gardener what had happened. So the gardener told him how the angel of the Lord had come down, and closed the head gate, to stop the moat from flowing, how the girl who seemed to have no arms ate the pear off the tree with her mouth, and how he'd been afraid to call out or talk to her, as she might be a spirit.

The king was intrigued. He called for the harvest to be postponed, and that night, he joined the gardener to watch and see if pear-eater appeared again. He brought the royal priest with him, to speak with her, in case it was a spirit, and the three of them sat down under the pear tree.

When darkness fell, the girl again came out from the brush, and the angel of the Lord was with her, and closed the head gate.

As she approached the tree, the priest spoke up and asked her: "Are you a spirit? Or a being of this mortal Earth?"

"I am a mere mortal," the girl replied, "abandoned by all the world, but not God."

When the king heard that, he said: "Although the world has abandoned you, I shall never abandon you." And he took her to his palace, and had silver hands made for her. And because she was beautiful and good, he fell in love with her, and made her his wife.

After a year, when she was with child, the king was called away by royal duties to travel over the world. He gave orders to his mother to look after her well, and send him news by messenger when the baby was delivered, and let him know whether or not all was well.

In due time, his wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. And the king's mother sent the news by messenger to the king.

But the journey was a long one, and after a time, the messenger stopped to rest under a tree. And he fell asleep. That is when the Devil (who was still trying to get his hands on the girl) took the true note from the messenger's pocket and replaced it with another that said his wife had given birth to a monster.

When the king received that note, he was deeply troubled, but he wrote a reply that they should both be looked after well until he returned.

But the journey back to the palace was still a long one, and the messenger fell asleep in the same spot. And again, the Devil replaced the true note with a false one, demanding that both the child and his wife be killed.

The king's mother was horrified when she read the reply. She immediately sent another note, asking if that was his true desire. But because the Devil always substituted a false reply for the true one, the message came back that the order stands -- and further more, that his wife's tongue and eyes should be kept as proof of the deed.

The king's mother was terrified of disobeying the king. But she could not allow such innocent blood to be shed. So she ordered a wild doe to be killed in the girl's place, and its eyes and tongue be kept.

Then she said to the girl: "It is no longer safe for you here. You must leave this place forever." And she strapped the baby to the girl's back. And the girl ran away into the forest.

She wandered a long time until she came to small hut in the center of the darkest part of the forest, with a sign above the door: "All who approach may freely enter here." An angel of the Lord was there, and welcomed the two of them in, and he gave them food, and held the babe up to the girl's breast, so she could nurse.

Meanwhile, the king returned home, and his mother brought him the tongue and eyes, as proof that his order had been carried out.

When the king cried out: "What have you done?!" his mother realized that the order she'd received had been a false one. And she consoled him, saying that she could not bring herself to really kill the girl, but killed a doe in her place, and sent mother and child into the world.

The king left immediately to search for them, vowing touch neither food nor drink until he found them, or died trying. And though he kept that vow, it was with the power of God that he was kept alive and searching.

Seven years passed, and the girl and her child (whom she named "Sorrowful") continued to live in the hut in the forest with the angel of the Lord. And in due time, because of her purity and devotion to God, the girl's natural hands grew back.

Then, one day, the king stumbled upon the hut, and saw the sign that read: "All who approach may freely enter here," and he went in. The angel of the Lord appeared before him, and offered him food and drink. But the king declined, saying that he only wanted to rest a moment, because he was so tired. And he lay down on a bench, turned his face to the wall, and draped his handkerchief over his face.

And the angel went into the other room, and said to the woman and her son: "Go into the other room, for your husband and father is here."

So she and Sorrowful went into the other room, and saw the king lying there, as if asleep. But the handkerchief had fallen from his face. "Sorrowful," she said, "pick up the handkerchief and cover your father's face again."

But the boy grew impatient. "How can I?" he asked. "You taught me to pray: 'Our Father, who art in Heaven...' And you've told me I have no father on this Earth. How am I supposed to know this wild man as my father?"

The king heard this and sat up. "Who are you?" he asked.

And she answered: "I am your woman, and this is your son."

The king shook his head. "But my wife had silver hands," he said. "I had them made for her myself."

"By the Grace of God," she said, "My natural hands have grown back again.

Whereupon the angel brought him the silver hands he'd had made for her, as proof that she was speaking the truth.

And he rejoiced, and kissed her, and proclaimed: "A heavy stone has fallen from my heart."

Then they ate and drank together, and he brought her home to his elderly mother. There was much rejoicing throughout the land, and they had a second wedding.

And they lived together happily, until their happy deaths.

Although this story is of Germanic, northern European, origin, it nontheless reflects the ancient Roman belief that those with missing or abnormal limbs were oracles sent by the gods (monstrum, in Latin) .1 I have not done research on this point, but it would not surprise me if this belief traces back to the Indo-European root culture of both the Romans and the Norse.

The heroine of the story is not born with her deformity, yet she is still marked by it, and thus, made a pawn of Cosmic Forces. This tale also reflects the belief, perhaps a survival from our Indo-European anscesters, that physical deformity is the mark of sin -- if not of the child's sin, then sin by the parents. Nor was she fully embraced by her society, and welcomed back as fully human, until her own, flesh and blood, hands had grown back (at first, the story says, merely, that the King "took her as his wife;" it wasn't until he brought her, healed, back from the wilderness, that there was any mention of public celebration of their wedding).

And this is not simply "an old superstition." Even today, in this modern, urban-centric culture, those with visible disabilities are routinely approached by strangers, and exhorted to pray to God for a cure; I, myself, am among that number.

It is perhaps too easy, with the Devil and the angels so central to this story (and life sustained without food or water, and magical regeneration), to see the entire narrative as dreamlike and symbolic, and not relating to real-world experience at all. But I cannot help but be struck by the dilemma faced by the king's mother: torn between Government decrees that deformed infants and children be abandoned (or put into institutions) so as not to be "a burden on the State," and a love of family members, and the innate knowledge that they have done no wrong.2

Citation links and footnotes:

This is my own interpretation from Google's auto-translate of the original German (here: 31. Das Mädchen ohne Hände ). There is also an English translation by D. L. Ashliman, here: The Girl Without Hands

1I discussed the origin of the word "monster," and how it relates to our narratives about Disability, back in April, here: Monsters: a key motif, and a symbol of disability

2For more on this topic this blog article is a good place to start: Researching Disability in Ancient Greece


  1. It would be good if you found out about the Indo-European cultures and their attitudes to disability/infirmity.

    And that "family" conclusion is really powerful, especially as cast up by the choice.

    Two things I wondered as I was reading the fable "Are her hands going to grow back?"

    And it is a very grounded tale.

    So the King made prosthetics and her faith grew her hands back.

    And abandonment is a big thing in this story.

  2. Thank you for presenting this.

  3. @Adelaide: Yes, it would be good to find that out. Of course, "Indo-European" is the umbrella-term for the ancient culture (or cultures) that no longer exist, but from which our own, American, culture (among others) come. So it's not something that can be found directly in history, but has to be pieced together and puzzled over. Of course, if that means a lifetime of learning and reading new stories, I don't mind!

    One thing I wondered was: "Why did she ask that her hands be bound behind her back?

    @xjenavivex: Thank you. It's not what I consider a "happy" story, but it sure is a meaty one!

  4. I think she might have had her hands tied behind her back because they might have been a source of temptation to her.

    Or she might well still pleasure herself.

  5. @Adelaide Dupont -- Well that certainly fit with the sin and purity theme. But it's still disturbing and dehumanizing :-/

  6. Useful info. Fortunate me I found your website by accident, and I'm surprised why this accident did not took place in advance! I bookmarked it.

    My web blog; top web hosting company

  7. Excellent beat ! I wish to apprentice whilst you amend your site,
    how can i subscribe for a blog web site? The account helped me a applicable deal.
    I have been a little bit acquainted of this your
    broadcast provided vivid clear idea

    my blog post ... laser hair loss therapy

  8. I was curious if you ever considered changing the
    page layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures.

    Maybe you could space it out better?

    My weblog manic panic hair dye

  9. Hi, I log on to your blogs on a regular basis. Your humoristic style is awesome, keep
    it up!

    my page; dedicated managed ()

  10. Hello! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering
    if you knew where I could find a captcha plugin for my
    comment form? I'm using the same blog platform as yours and I'm having problems finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

    Also visit my homepage hair shine

  11. Hi there everybody, here every person is sharing these
    kinds of knowledge, therefore it's pleasant to read this weblog, and I used to go to see this web site all the time.

    Here is my blog options md review