The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Girl Without Hands

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

A certain miller had little by little fallen into poverty, and had nothing left but his mill and a large apple-tree behind it. Once when he had gone into the forest to fetch wood, an old man stepped up to him whom he had never seen before, and said, “Why dost thou plague thyself with cutting wood, I will make thee rich, if thou wilt promise me what is standing behind thy mill?” - “What can that be but my apple-tree?” thought the miller, and said, “Yes.” and gave a written promise to the stranger. He, however, laughed mockingly and said, “When three years have passed, I will come and carry away what belongs to me.” and then he went. When the miller got home, his wife came to meet him and said, “Tell me, miller, from whence comes this sudden wealth into our house? All at once every box and chest was filled; no one brought it in, and I know not how it happened.” He answered, “It comes from a stranger who met me in the forest, and promised me great treasure. I, in return, have promised him what stands behind the mill; we can very well give him the big apple-tree for it.” - “Ah, husband,” said the terrified wife, “that must have been the devil! He did not mean the apple-tree, but our daughter, who was standing behind the mill sweeping the yard.”

The fairy tale symbolically begins with a mill. This whole world can be regarded as a mill, which slowly but surely grinds up the gross into something fine, because everywhere the opposites rub against each other like millstones. Our science also says that the Universe continues to expand and eventually all gross matter becomes light and energy again. We find something similar in the Mahabharata: “And like an oil mill crushes the sesame seeds, the world is oppressed and crushed by death in this wheel for good oiling.” [MHB 12.211]

And what is the poverty of the miller? He only has his life and the mill in which he has to work hard. What was then referred to as worldly poverty can scarcely be imagined today in rich Europe. But this poverty has only changed. For just as the devil used the miller’s poverty to gain power over him through wealth, today it is certainly not different. Just think of the funding devil who is now governing our economy. Worldly wealth creates binding. And for that, we often make huge sacrifices: our families break and the children suffer, we bear mental ill-health and burnout, but the worst sacrifice is our truthfulness. If we still lie for wealth, then the devil has undoubtedly a hold on us. And here, too, we should not consider the devil so much as an external being living out there somewhere, but as a part of us, that dominates us from inside. To seek the devil outside is very dangerous. Because in the next step you start a war against any persons or even entire nations, who are demonized for political or all sorts of other purposes. Unfortunately, we know this too well from our history. Let us think only of the great religious wars or the delusion of the Inquisition. That was certainly not the way to defeat the devil. On the contrary, he probably laughed scornfully, as in our fairy tale.

But what does it mean to commit oneself to the devil? The ’Devil Pact’ is a very old and famous symbol of a strange barter when man loses his soul for any riches, abilities or other worldly things. In the Christian environment, the devil pact became in time the epitome of the ideological betrayal of the ecclesial community and politically heavily abused. But the problem is actually much deeper. What makes this bartering so reprehensible that in the end you even claim that the devil would cheat you? It can only be talked of cheat when you get something of lower value for something more valuable by deception. So the question is, what is the real value of the soul of a living being compared to worldly wealth? And that’s really a big question in this fairy tale. It starts with the apple tree, which the miller would like to give without hesitation to the devil. We already know this symbol as a tree of life from other fairy tales. And just this apple tree becomes his own daughter. That is certainly no accidence. Because truly, our children are the tree of life, which continues to grow over the generations. And especially in the children you can still see the pure soul. What power such a pure soul has and how weak a sold soul is, we read below:

The miller’s daughter was a beautiful, pious girl, and lived through the three years in the fear of God and without sin. When therefore the time was over, and the day came when the Evil-one was to fetch her, she washed herself clean, and made a circle round herself with chalk. The devil appeared quite early, but he could not come near to her. Angrily, he said to the miller, “Take all water away from her, that she may no longer be able to wash herself, for otherwise I have no power over her.” The miller was afraid, and did so. The next morning the devil came again, but she had wept on her hands, and they were quite clean. Again he could not get near her, and furiously said to the miller, “Cut her hands off, or else I cannot get the better of her.” The miller was shocked and answered, “How could I cut off my own child’s hands?” Then the Evil-one threatened him and said, “If thou dost not do it thou art mine, and I will take thee thyself.” The father became alarmed, and promised to obey him. So he went to the girl and said, “My child, if I do not cut off both thine hands, the devil will carry me away, and in my terror I have promised to do it. Help me in my need, and forgive me the harm I do thee.” She replied, “Dear father, do with me what you will, I am your child.” Thereupon she laid down both her hands, and let them be cut off. The devil came for the third time, but she had wept so long and so much on the stumps, that after all they were quite clean. Then he had to give in, and had lost all right over her.

Yes, this ideal of purity sounds ridiculous today and is even banished into the drawer of superstition. Nevertheless, we now want to try to think a little deeper about this purity and its value. The girl knew that the devil wanted to fetch her and lived without sin for three years. We all have this chance to use our given time. But what does it mean to live without sin? This is a very difficult question, and generally it is said that one lives in such a way that one accumulates nothing in thoughts, words and deeds, which later develops into something painful. This at least corresponds to the principle that sin leads to suffering and merit to happiness. Therefore, the girl won a certain purity and finally meets three major tests, which are described here symbolically. The first test reminds one of the outer purity of the body, the second of the purity of action and the third of the inner purity of devotion.

Outer purity is a matter of order, honour and mindfulness in life. It works within certain limits like a protecting spell against vice and sin. The purity of action is a matter of motivation. Why do we act - for selfish or selfless reasons? And the purity of devotion is the greatest thing a human being can achieve in life, for it overcomes egoism.

And what are the tears of the girl? Tears are also an expression of cleansing. They don’t only cleanse the eye by their antibacterial effect, but also the soul through internal processes. So she passes all three exams, but in a way that we would not really consider as great happiness in life. This brings us to a sensitive point when it comes to what we personally understand by happiness and suffering in life. What seems relatively clear at first sight becomes more and more subjective on closer inspection, and in the end each person has a different idea of personal happiness. This is also what the miller experiences:

The miller said to her, “I have by means of thee received such great wealth that I will keep thee most delicately as long as thou livest.” But she replied, “Here I cannot stay, I will go forth, compassionate people will give me as much as I require.” Thereupon she caused her maimed arms to be bound to her back, and by sunrise she set out on her way, and walked the whole day until night fell.

This is typical: the miller has sold his daughter, who could also be considered as his own soul, for worldly wealth but still wants to keep her and thinks that he can now pamper her and make her happy with the acquired riches. Even if we do not want to believe it, it does neither work in ordinary life nor in our fairy tale. The miller had lost his daughter long ago, and in that sense his own soul. Therefore she leaves him full of pure devotion and confidence in her fate.

The chopped hands are of course a particularly memorable symbol. To strengthen it, she lets her arms tie on her back. Our hands are practically linked to action in this world. The cutting off of both hands was not in vain used as a punishment for gross theft. For many people, it is a terrible idea that they can no longer act. Because action is a major part of our personality. Especially for the ego, it is very important that “I” can do this or that. This results in our entire life story, with which we identify ourselves. In this way, action connects us with the world. But what is so important to our ego becomes a big problem when it comes to the salvation from these bonds to the world. Therefore one would need the freedom from action, which is expressed excellently in this symbolism of the voluntarily severed hands of a pure soul. She is no longer acting in this world, at least not personally, but still wears a sentient body that experiences happiness and suffering. This is hard to imagine, but is clearly described below:

Then she came to a royal garden, and by the shimmering of the moon she saw that trees covered with beautiful fruits grew in it, but she could not enter, for there was much water round about it. And as she had walked the whole day and not eaten one mouthful, and hunger tormented her, she thought, “Ah, if I were but inside, that I might eat of the fruit, else must I die of hunger!” Then she knelt down, called on God the Lord, and prayed. And suddenly an angel came towards her, who made a dam in the water, so that the moat became dry and she could walk through it. And now she went into the garden and the angel went with her. She saw a tree covered with beautiful pears, but they were all counted. Then she went to them, and to still her hunger, ate one with her mouth from the tree, but no more. The gardener was watching; but as the angel was standing by, he was afraid and thought the maiden was a spirit, and was silent, neither did he dare to cry out, or to speak to the spirit. When she had eaten the pear, she was satisfied, and went and concealed herself among the bushes.

The used symbolism is probably very similar to the biblical story. The pure soul prays to God, and an angel appears who fulfils her wish without her having to act personally. And just as in the Old Testament, Moses divided the deep sea to reach the Promised Land, so the girl reaches a Paradise Garden after passing a moat. It is probably the parody of the story that she also eats a fruit from the tree, which of course reminds us of the apple of Adam and Eve. But what is the difference? It is said that in the Middle Ages the pear tree was worshiped as a symbol of the Mother of God because of its pure white flowers, and the pear was considered a symbol of female fertility. Moreover, she cannot grasp the fruit with her own hands and shows no further attachment, but then she makes herself small and hides. She certainly does not eat the pear out of desire, but only to preserve her body. And so we also get an answer to the question of why such a pure soul without worldly attachment still tries to preserve her body. She still has a role to play in this world, and that is probably what the pear symbol stands for.

The King to whom the garden belonged, came down to it next morning, and counted, and saw that one of the pears was missing, and asked the gardener what had become of it, as it was not lying beneath the tree, but was gone. Then answered the gardener, “Last night, a spirit came in, who had no hands, and ate off one of the pears with its mouth.” The King said, “How did the spirit get over the water, and where did it go after it had eaten the pear?” The gardener answered, “Some one came in a snow- white garment from heaven who made a dam, and kept back the water, that the spirit might walk through the moat. And as it must have been an angel, I was afraid, and asked no questions, and did not cry out. When the spirit had eaten the pear, it went back again.” The King said, “If it be as thou sayest, I will watch with thee to-night.”

Who believes in angels today? Well, hopefully a few children. But basically that’s not so unbelievable. Such spiritual beings exist in all ancient cultures as personifications of all kinds of powers that one can experience in spirit and in nature on different levels. And just as the gods and demons in India all descended from the same father, so did the angels descend from the Great Father, each one plays a definite role, and one even became the devil. This is actually completely normal, because all the forces that work in nature have to work in opposites, otherwise this world would have lost its balance long ago and collapsed. But how can one see these spiritual beings? Well, as far as they have an effect in nature, we can all perceive them. It is only a question of how careful and sensitive we are in this direction. That a pure soul can see the angel is obvious. But that also the gardener and the king can see the angel points to no ordinary king.

When it grew dark the King came into the garden and brought a priest with him, who was to speak to the spirit. All three seated themselves beneath the tree and watched. At midnight the maiden came creeping out of the thicket, went to the tree, and again ate one pear off it with her mouth, and beside her stood the angel in white garments. Then the priest went out to them and said, “Comest thou from heaven or from earth? Art thou a spirit, or a human being?” She replied, “I am no spirit, but an unhappy mortal deserted by all but God.” The King said, “If thou art forsaken by all the world, yet will I not forsake thee.” He took her with him into his royal palace, and as she was so beautiful and good, he loved her with all his heart, had silver hands made for her, and took her to wife.

As we watch how the connection between the king and the girl develops, we remember the male role of the mind. That the pears are counted is probably not stinginess, but a symbol of intelligence, which provides for the order in nature. He even gives the soul artificial hands, since the mind can create all sort of tools or even an artificial world. This fits in with the saying: “If you are abandoned by all the world, I will not leave you.” For, even if everything material and physical leaves us, the spirit remains.

On the other hand, the girl says, “I am not a ghost, but a poor girl, abandoned by all except God.” This recalls the famous beatitude of Jesus, which says, “Blessed are you poor, for the kingdom of God is yours...” What kind of poverty is meant here? There is no selfish possession in true bliss, not even in thought. Every “Mine” and “Yours” has become one, and that is the kingdom of God. Sounds good, but:

After a year the King had to take the field, so he commended his young Queen to the care of his mother and said, “If she is brought to bed take care of her, nurse her well, and tell me of it at once in a letter.” Then she gave birth to a fine boy. So the old mother made haste to write and announce the joyful news to him. But the messenger rested by a brook on the way, and as he was fatigued by the great distance, he fell asleep. Then came the Devil, who was always seeking to injure the good Queen, and exchanged the letter for another, in which was written that the Queen had brought a monster into the world. When the King read the letter he was shocked and much troubled, but he wrote in answer that they were to take great care of the Queen and nurse her well until his arrival. The messenger went back with the letter, but rested at the same place and again fell asleep. Then came the Devil once more, and put a different letter in his pocket, in which it was written that they were to put the Queen and her child to death. The old mother was terribly shocked when she received the letter, and could not believe it. She wrote back again to the King, but received no other answer, because each time the Devil substituted a false letter, and in the last letter it was also written that she was to preserve the Queen’s tongue and eyes as a token that she had obeyed.

Well, since the devil did not get control over the pure soul, he has a try on the next generation and starts to intrigue again. The king himself gives the opportunity because he has to act and fight in the world outside. The falsification of messages is a very common symbol for the devil. It is not for nothing that people misunderstand each other so often that even a well-meant message turns into the opposite and becomes the cause of strife and separation. Even though both parties have great confidence in each other, the devil manages to separate man and woman, so to speak reason and soul.

But the old mother wept to think such innocent blood was to be shed, and had a hind brought by night and cut out her tongue and eyes, and kept them. Then said she to the Queen, “I cannot have thee killed as the King commands, but here thou mayst stay no longer. Go forth into the wide world with thy child, and never come here again.” The poor woman tied her child on her back, and went away with eyes full of tears. She came into a great wild forest, and then she fell on her knees and prayed to God, and the angel of the Lord appeared to her and led her to a little house on which was a sign with the words, “Here all dwell free.” A snow-white maiden came out of the little house and said, “Welcome, Lady Queen,” and conducted her inside. Then they unbound the little boy from her back, and held him to her breast that he might feed, and then laid him in a beautifully-made little bed. Then said the poor woman, “From whence knowest thou that I was a queen?” The white maiden answered, “I am an angel sent by God, to watch over thee and thy child.” The Queen stayed seven years in the little house, and was well cared for, and by God’s grace, because of her piety, her hands which had been cut off, grew once more.

When the soul is separated from reason, it goes back into the great wilderness of nature. But our pure soul does not despair of it, and willingly abandons the wealth she has enjoyed with the king. She obeys her destiny and weeps the cleansing tears that we already know from the beginning of the story. Because of her purity, she finds the “house of grace” in the depths of nature, where everyone can live freely. For nature nourishes every being, and as far as one is free from debts, so far one does not have to pay for it. Thus, the pure soul is received by a pure angel who cares for mother and child quite differently than the devil with his wealth. And here in nature even her natural hands grow again. Because Mother Nature gives us not only the physical food, but also the physical ability to act. And when the divine grace is added, then action reaches a much higher and selfless level. Even this great trust in nature and mind is certainly a priceless value of a pure soul.

At last the King came home again from the war, and his first wish was to see his wife and the child. Then his aged mother began to weep and said, “Thou wicked man, why didst thou write to me that I was to take those two innocent lives?” and she showed him the two letters which the Evil-one had forged, and then continued, “I did as thou badest me.” and she showed the tokens, the tongue and eyes. Then the King began to weep for his poor wife and his little son so much more bitterly than she was doing, that the aged mother had compassion on him and said, “Be at peace, she still lives; I secretly caused a hind to be killed, and took these tokens from it; but I bound the child to thy wife’s back and bade her go forth into the wide world, and made her promise never to come back here again, because thou wert so angry with her.” Then spake the King, “I will go as far as the sky is blue, and will neither eat nor drink until I have found again my dear wife and my child, if in the meantime they have not been killed, or died of hunger.”

Thereupon the King travelled about for seven long years, and sought her in every cleft of the rocks and in every cave, but he found her not, and thought she had died of want. During the whole of this time he neither ate nor drank, but God supported him.

The king keeps his promise that he will never leave his female half, and goes on a great search. What does it mean if he did not eat and drink for seven years? That sounds like a fairy tale, but makes sense if you look at the king as a symbol of the spirit. Then it is a time of severe asceticism, when the spirit renounces all external food and lives only from God. Through this cleansing for seven years, he also reaches the pure place where the pure soul lives.

There are already many theories about the number seven. Practically, it is very popular in spiritual matters. The Bible begins with the story of God creating the world in seven days, reminiscent of the cycle of our seven-day week. Similarly, a child comes to school at the age of 7, youth consecration is at 14 and at 21 adulthood begins. So here, too, a development cycle could be meant that had an important meaning for the king. Because:

At length he came into a great forest, and found therein the little house whose sign was, “Here all dwell free.” Then forth came the white maiden, took him by the hand, led him in, and said, “Welcome, Lord King,” and asked him from whence he came. He answered, “Soon shall I have travelled about for the space of seven years, and I seek my wife and her child, but cannot find them.” The angel offered him meat and drink, but he did not take anything, and only wished to rest a little. Then he lay down to sleep, and put a handkerchief over his face.

When it comes to spiritual development, it’s all about finding knowledge. The cloth on the face could symbolize the veil that hinders our true vision, and sleep lets us sink into illusion and unconsciousness.

Thereupon the angel went into the chamber where the Queen sat with her son, whom she usually called “Sorrowful,” and said to her, “Go out with thy child, thy husband hath come.” So she went to the place where he lay, and the handkerchief fell from his face. Then said she, “Sorrowful, pick up thy father’s handkerchief, and cover his face again.” The child picked it up, and put it over his face again. The King in his sleep heard what passed, and had pleasure in letting the handkerchief fall once more. But the child grew impatient, and said, “Dear mother, how can I cover my father’s face when I have no father in this world? I have learnt to say the prayer, ’Our Father, which art in Heaven,’ thou hast told me that my father was in Heaven, and was the good God, and how can I know a wild man like this? He is not my father.” When the King heard that, he got up, and asked who they were. Then said she, “I am thy wife, and that is thy son, Sorrowful.” And he saw her living hands, and said, “My wife had silver hands.” She answered, “The good God has caused my natural hands to grow again.” and the angel went into the inner room, and brought the silver hands, and showed them to him. Hereupon he knew for a certainty that it was his dear wife and his dear child, and he kissed them, and was glad, and said, “A heavy stone has fallen from off mine heart.” Then the angel of God gave them one meal with her, and after that they went home to the King’s aged mother. There were great rejoicings everywhere, and the King and Queen were married again, and lived contentedly to their happy end.

Much has happened during the seven years, so it is no wonder that the king did not recognize his wife at first, especially because the artificial hands had suddenly become natural again. And when asked who she is, the soul answers this time: “I am your wife, and that is your son Sorrowful.” The mind attains knowledge, the soul knows who she is, and in the end are spirit, soul, and Mother Nature happily united. That may be the mystical wedding that so many ancient scriptures speak of, as well as the famous Song of Solomon in the Bible.

What may still confuse us on this happy ending is the name “Sorrowful” that her son wears. One might first think of Jesus or his mother Mary, who are often worshiped as “rich in pain” (German: Schmerzensreiche). But maybe, we are even meant, since we have not won this great fight yet and have not yet reached the high goal. Do we know our true father? Or do we always put the cloth on his face, so that he sleeps and cannot see anything? And our pain and suffering, not just our own, but the suffering of all our ancestors that we inherited - is that perhaps our real wealth? Because honestly, when it comes to true knowledge, cleansing and learning, suffering is a much better teacher than all the short-lived happiness that we enjoy on earth without knowing the deeper truth.

And that leads us back to the questions that we asked ourselves in the beginning: What is the value of a pure soul and what do we consider to be happiness in our lives? It is sometimes a great comfort when we start to sense that all suffering in life does not happen to us in a purely accidental or meaningless way, but has a deeper meaning to be comprehended and used.

Rapunzel - (topic: spirit-soul-illusion)
Faithful John - (topic: overcoming opposites through reason)
The Wonderful Musician - (topic: The great harmony)
The White Snake - (topic: The ring of true love and connectedness)
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs - (topic: soul-desire-ego)
The Girl Without Hands (topic: The path of suffering to salvation)
Briar-Rose or Sleeping Beauty - (topic: The rigor mortis of nature)
Our Lady’s Child - (topic: The divine sense of nature)
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry - (topic: spirit-nature)
Sweet Porridge - (topic: poverty and abundance)
Cat and Mouse in Partnership - (topic: reason-ego)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014,
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /