The Girl without Hands and the number Seven
Before considering the importance of the number seven, here is a story, taken from Household Tales, by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812) Margaret Hunt, tr., in which it features prominently. (This, however, is just one of a host of traditional tales that could have been used to illustrate the significance of the number).
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 the 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 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.
The miller said to her, “I have by means of thee received such great wealth that I will keep the 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. 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 King to whom the garden belonged, came down to it the 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, “Someone 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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, nor 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. At length he came to 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.
Thereupon the angel went into the chamber where the Queen sat with her on, 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 my 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.
The number seven plays such an important part in certain tales it could even be argued that they were constructed around it. “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”, and “the King travelled about for seven long years.” The Heptad, a group or series consisting of seven items, has long been of significance in myth and folklore for all sorts of reasons. First of all, let us consider the human body:—
The body has seven obvious parts, the head, chest, abdomen, two legs and two arms; There are seven internal organs, stomach, liver, heart, lungs, spleen and two kidneys; The ruling part, the head, has seven parts for external use, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth; There are seven inflections of the voice, the acute, grave, circumflex, rough, smooth, the long and the short sounds; The hand makes seven motions; up and down, to the right and left, before and behind, and circular; There are seven evacuations;—tears from the eyes, mucus of the nostrils, the saliva, the semen, two excretions and the perspiration. (We could also add that it is in the seventh month the human offspring becomes viable and that menstruation tends to occur in series of four times seven days).
Seven is a mystic or sacred number in many different traditions. Among the Babylonians and Egyptians, there were believed to be seven planets, and the alchemists recognized seven planets too. In the Old Testament there are seven days in creation, and for the Hebrews every seventh year was Sabbatical too. There are seven seven virtues, seven sins, seven ages in the life of man, seven wonders of the world, and the number seven repeatedly occurs in the Apocalypse as well. The Muslims talk of there being seven heavens, with the seventh being formed of divine light that is beyond the power of words to describe, and the Kabbalists also believe there are seven heavens–each arising above the other, with the seventh being the abode of God (Berman, 2008, p.122).
In the world of the shaman, the structure of the whole cosmos is frequently symbolized by the number seven too, “made up of the four directions, the centre, the zenith in heaven, and the nadir in the underworld. The essential axes of this structure are the four cardinal points and a central vertical axis passing through their point of intersection that connects the Upper World, the Middle World and the Lower World” (Berman, 2007, p.45).
As to the sacredness of the number 7, among the Hebrews oaths were confirmed by seven witnesses or by seven victims offered in sacrifice (cf. the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech with seven lambs, Genesis, chap. xxi. vv. 28, 21–28). The Persian Sun God, Mithras, had the number 7 sacred to him too.
The highest beings in Zoroastrianism, the Amshaspands, are also seven in number; Ormuzd, source of life; Bahman, the king of this world; Ardibehest, fire producer; Shahrivar, the former of metals; Spandarmat, queen of the earth (the Gnostic Sophia); Khordad, the ruler of times and seasons; and Amerdad, ruling over the vegetable world.
Sanskrit lore has very frequent reference to the number seven too:— Sapta Rishi, seven sages; Sapta Kula, 7 castes; Sapta Loka, seven worlds; Sapta Para, 7 cities; Sapta Dwipa, seven holy islands; Sapta Arania, 7 deserts; Sapta Parna, 7 human principles; Sapta Samudra, seven holy seas; Sapta Vruksha, 7 holy trees.
The Assyrian Tablets also teem with groups of sevens: — 7 gods of sky; 7 gods of earth; 7 gods of fiery spheres: seven gods maleficent; seven phantoms; spirits of seven heavens; spirits of seven earths.
The Moon passes through stages of 7 days in increase, full, decrease, and renewal, and in addition to the seven stars in the head of Taurus called the Pleiades, there are the seven stars which guided the sailors.
The Kabalists describe Seven classes of Angels: Ishim, Arelim, Chashmalim, Melakim, Auphanim, Seraphim and Kerubim. The Judaic Hell was given seven names by the Kabalists too; Sheol, Abaddon, Tihahion, Bar Shacheth, Tzelmuth, Shaari Muth, and Gehinnom.
Other heptads can be added to those above too:— The seven prophetesses in the Old Testament are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther; The 7 Catholic Deadly Sins are Pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth; The 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah xi. v. 2) are Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord; The 7 Champions of Christendom were St. George for England, St. Denis of France, St. James of Spain, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. David of Wales, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. Antonio of Italy.
We can also add the historic city of Rome to the list, which was built upon Seven Hills; the Palatine, Cœlian, Aventine, Viminal, Quirinal, Esquiline, and the Capitol (adapted from ‘The Heptad’ in Westcott, 1911, pp. 72-84).
Last but not least, mention should be made of what have been described as the seven basic plots (see Booker, 2004), and the suggestion that all the stories that have ever been written are based on these. The seven basic plot types Christopher Booker identifies are: Overcoming the monster, Rags to riches, The Quest, Voyage and return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. And The Girl without Hands is perhaps best described as a Voyage and Return that involves Overcoming the Monster in the form of the Devil.
Berman, M. (2007) The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Berman, M. (2008) Divination and the Shamanic Story, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots, London: Continuum Books.
Westcott, W.W. (1911) (3rd Edition) Numbers, Their Occult Power and Mystic Virtues, London, Benares: Theosophical Pub. Society. Scanned, proofed and formatted at sacred-texts.com, August 2009, by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the US because it was published prior to 1923.