Among the Grail legends is the story of the Fisher King. The Fisher King lives in the Grail Castle and has been wounded in the “thigh” and, as a result, his kingdom is a wasteland, barren and full of sorrow. Only when someone comes and asks “Who does the Grail serve?” will the King be healed and the land restored to abundance. This story is said to express not just one man’s wound, but a cosmic male wound that leads to despair and global destruction.
When we consider all that the location of the wound means – regeneration of life, feeling, separation from the Creator and so much more – we see how it is, indeed, representative of the wound that all men suffer when they are told not to cry and not to feel, when we give them toy guns and teach them to make war instead of dolls to love and nurture. It is clear how this wound does lead to despair and global destruction.
But, if that is the male cosmic wound, what is the cosmic wound for women? Where are the female versions of the Fisher King in folklore and literature?
The story of The Handless Maiden comes immediately to mind and has been paired with the Fisher King by others. In a version of this story beautifully retold by Clara Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves, a young woman is sold to the devil by her father. However, when the devil comes to collect her, he cannot get her because she has purified herself and stands in a chalk circle she has drawn. Even when she does not bathe so she may become impure, her tears run onto her hands, purifying her and she is still out of the devil’s reach. The devil insists that the father cut off her hands so that her tears will not run onto her hands and purify her. The father does as he is told but the devil is still rebuffed. When the defeated devil leaves, the father offers the handless maiden a home, but she, instead, walks off into the woods where she eventually meets a king who marries her and after a number of adventures, her hands grow back and they live happily ever after.
Many, many analyses of this story exist by people with more expertise than I have and some relate it to a cosmic wound. Like all meaningful stories, it has many levels and many possible interpretations and these interpretations are valid. However, I have another interpretation. As mysterious and meaningful as this story is, it does not feel to me that being handless is the female cosmic wound from which all other wounds come. It does seem like another, female, version of the Fisher King, in the sense that hands are the way we create and feel. Losing one’s hands is certainly a grievous injury and women do suffer from being severed from their creativity forces and emotions. But, to me, that is not the deepest wound I feel. Women have found ways to be creative and regenerate life, and are not considered to be unfeminine if they express caring and compassion. Also, the handless maiden’s regrowth of her hands is almost incidental to the story. It happens after she has already found happiness.
To me, the cosmic female wound goes beyond this. When women became wounded, the world became a place of barrenness and despair and so out of alignment with the paradise it was meant to be that the wound became almost unknowable.
While The Handless Maiden’s loss of her hands may not be the cosmic wound in my interpretation, I think the story does hold the key. The maiden’s fortunes begin to turn around when she walks away from her father. Until this point, she has passively accepted all that others have done to her. She has allowed herself to be sold and to have her hands cut off. She rejects her father’s offer of a home and walks away into the woods. It is at that point that her healing begins as she makes her own fortune. She is free.
To me, the cosmic woman’s wound is the loss of freedom: freedom to be who we are, freedom to do what we wish, freedom to live where and as we wish, freedom to marry or not and whom to marry, freedom to bear children or not, freedom to earn our living as we wish, freedom to dress as we wish, freedom to live in society or away from it as a hermit. I sometimes wonder if any woman on Earth really knows what true freedom is. Perhaps we have not identified it in terms like “the cosmic wound” because we don’t know what it is like to not be wounded.
Stories do exist that talk about women’s loss of freedom, especially those of mermaids or selkies/silkies who are forced to marry and live on land until they find some object, a pelt or bridle, that was stolen from them, leap back into the water and return to their lives of freedom in the sea. Water frequently does represent our deepest selves, especially as women, and being forced to live away from the water, or that place where we have the freedom to be ourselves, does indeed cause profound despair.
These are the stories that cause my heart and soul to ache. When I think about what other women have expressed to me as their deepest wounds, this loss of freedom is what I hear. I think of my grandmother who told me a story about her mother. Her mother would say “Oh, Gladys, you’ll do wonders” when my grandmother would tell her mother her hopes and dreams. Her mother was not encouraging her, but was rather saying “Don’t dream too high for you are sure to be disappointed. You cannot do all that you wish.” Eighty years after she was told that, the bitterness was still in my grandmother’s voice at the retelling.
Women can also be a great source of healing and freedom for other women, however. The other stories my grandmother told me were of her mother’s not remarrying for decades after my grandmother’s father died and my great-grandmother, instead, making her own way in life as a seamstress. Also, my grandmother told of how her mother supported her wish to go to college by moving near the college so my grandmother could attend. In these stories, she showed my grandmother a freedom that my grandmother, and my other female relatives, in turn, taught me.
Perhaps it is the task of this generation of women, and men, to name the wound and begin healing it before it is too late, before the Wasteland caused by all our wounds spreads to all of Earth. What would our world be like if women had never lost their freedom that so many ancient civilizations seem to have offered women? What would a world be like in which women, and men, were truly free to be the best, most caring and compassionate, creative, happy and joyful beings they can be? May our wounds be our guide to healing ourselves, each other, and the Earth.
~ Carolyn Lee Boyd