The Handless Maiden is a powerful fairy tale known by a number of names in cultures around the world: The Girl With No Hands, The Girl With Silver Hands, and The Armless Maiden, among others. In this Guest Post, mythic artist Nomi MacLeod discusses the genesis of the extraordinary work you see here. If you're unfamiliar with the Handless Maiden story, you can read the Brothers Grimm version online on the SurLaLune Fairy Tales site. - Terri
by Nomi McLeod
I first encountered the Handless Maiden when I was 29, and
pregnant for the second time.
It still strikes me as odd that I was
an adult before I encountered the tale; I sat thinking, 'How is it that I've never heard this before?' The imagery reminded me at once of Shakespeare's Lavinia from Titus Andronicus -- raped, mutilated
and left (seemingly) utterly powerless: she can neither
speak nor write, lacking both
tongue and hands.
The particular version I sat
listening to was delivered by storyteller Martin Shaw. After hearing his rendition, I sought out written versions of 'The Handless Maiden' and discovered many variants. Some of them spoke to me even more clearly, some less so.
Like Lavinia, who finds a way to spell out the names of her attackers, the Maiden of the story gradually regains her power. Her hands grow back -- gradually, in Martin Shaw's re-telling, and by a sudden miracle in other versions.
What for me was particularly poignant was that the Maiden's hands, and therefore her autonomy and power, are restored after she becomes a mother.
As I first sat listening to the story, I was almost 20 weeks pregnant. This was the exact gestation at which my first baby, a little girl, had died in my womb. To say her death and stillbirth left me wounded does little to convey my grief, nor the psychic disturbance the events caused me. The loss of my unborn child made me starkly aware of how little control a woman has over the processes of gestation and birth. For me, the imagery of the handless mother resonated perfectly with my experience of pregnancy after the loss of my first baby. As well as being an awe-inspiring, often beautiful experience, pregnancy has a darker side, one often not spoken about. Whether or not a woman has lost a baby, during pregnancy she is highly likely to experience times of fear about this possibility, and anxiety about birth, her body, her change in status, her relationship to a partner and/or the world at large.
After my second pregnancy resulted in the birth of a healthy daughter, I was overjoyed. Yet all I experienced remained unresolved. To explore my feelings, I made a puppet of the Maiden and her baby, which you can see here on Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Puppet Challenge blog.
The image of the Maiden, mutilated, handless (read: powerless) with her child, spoke deeply to that part of my mind which responds to symbols and magic.
I found I could not stop with just the one puppet. I began to make more images from the story, using mediums I rarely use (oils, printing, sculpture), and even materials I had not considered before, such as prints on birch bark...
...as I explored the symbolic nature of the Maiden's wanderings in the forest.
My image-making culminated in a representation of the moment when the young mother's hands miraculously grow back. In the version of the story which spoke most strongly to me, she has been exiled to the woods with her newborn child. Breastfeeding, and thirsty, she attempts to stoop to a river and drink. Her baby slips from her handless grasp and falls into the water. Forgetting her mutilation in her panic and despair, she plunges her stumps into the water. Her hands grow back and she saves her child.
I could not save my first baby. But through the mothering of my second, and the making of art, I find that, slowly, slowly, my hands are growing back.
About the artist: Nomi McLeod is a multi-media artist and aerialist who lives here in Devon, on the other side of our village, with her partner (musician and author Andy Letcher) and their child. "I work a lot with self portraiture," she writes, "imagining, dreaming and reflecting on my life and my place in it. The natural world, mortality and the connection between these two are a constant source of inspiration." To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her Air and Parchment blog -- or, if you're anywhere near Bristol, UK, you can also see it in the "When Death Comes" exhibition, which runs through Sunday. Please note that all rights to the text and art above are reserved by the artist.
About the fairy tale: For more information on The Handless Maiden (and its variants), see my previous post, "The Armless Maiden and Forest Sanctuary," and Midori Snyder's very fine essay, "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey."