The forest holds an ancient power. Its gods can be vicious, unforgiving and greedy, taking souls for pleasure and not necessity. But they can be kind to those who know them. There have been some occasions in folklore throughout the world where forests have been known as a place of sanctuary rather than as a place to be feared. The mystery of forests has caused people to wonder at what their depths might hide, what magic could be tucked within the trees’ branches. The ancient Greek story of Daphne and Apollo showcases the forests’ mercy, while the story of the Handless Maiden demonstrates people’s faith in some sort of magic existing in the forest.
Daphne, a nymph and follower of Artemis, had enjoyed the forest all her life. She knew the creatures and flowers as if she had been born with the knowledge, and existing in the forest was as natural to her as breathing. She cared for it like a child and never felt the reverence towards the forest that others felt, never heeded their warnings because she had never felt unsafe there. The rough bark of the trees was as familiar to her as the smooth and worn varnish of a banister, the damp moss as comforting beneath her feet as warm socks. It was a cruel fate that would drive her to hate the forest.
Apollo, the god of the sun, made the mistake one day of taunting Eros, the god of love. In vengeance, Eros shot Apollo with one of his arrows and shot a lead arrow at the unsuspecting Daphne. Apollo was filled with the greatest desire for her, and Daphne filled with loathing for him. She fled through the forests and kept running for days. They seemed to provide no shelter from the god; the sanctuary she had once had there could not be found. The moss that had before cushioned her steps was replaced with thorns and spikes, and her feet were cut so that she could barely walk. Eros, in his cruelty, helped Apollo overtake Daphne, and when she saw that there was no longer any escape for her, she called to her father, a river god, to help her.
At once, her limbs began to elongate into branches, her hair turned into leaves, her torso into a trunk, and her feet became roots. The form that had caused her to be pursued by Apollo was no more—in its place stood a laurel tree. However, this did not stop Apollo’s pursuit, and he melded his flesh with that of the tree. Daphne’s branches drooped in sorrow; she would never be able to enjoy the forests again, instead forced to only watch the thing she had once so enjoyed thriving in.
Possibly even stranger than the story of Daphne and Apollo is that of the Handless Maiden, also known as the Girl Without Hands, which was recorded by the Brothers Grimm. This story tells that a poor miller was out in the woods one day chopping wood when a strange man approached him and promised him great wealth in exchange for whatever was behind the miller’s house when he got home. The miller could think only of an old apple tree that grew behind his house and so agreed without hesitation. The strange man said he would return in three years to collect his payment. However, when the miller returned home, he found his young daughter behind the house and realised that in three years she would be taken away by this strange man.
Three years passed and the girl grew, knowing that one day she would be taken away by this man, whom she believed had to be the devil. The night before she was meant to be taken, she washed herself thoroughly, purifying herself so that the devil could not take her, and stayed within a circle she had drawn in chalk. When the devil arrived, he was furious and said that the girl was to be kept in the circle and away from water so she could not wash. However, the girl found a way of purifying herself by crying and using her own tears to bathe. When the devil came back the second time, he demanded the miller to cut his daughter’s hands off so that she would be unable to wash completely. This he did, but this did not stop the girl, who cried so much that she was still able to bathe herself in tears. When the devil came a third time, he still could not touch her, and he went on his way, with revenge in his heart.
After this traumatic event, the girl decided she could not stay at home, so she tied her hands to a string around her neck and set out into the woods. She walked until she reached the edge of a king’s garden, where she found an apple tree. She shook the tree and ate its fruit and slept within a hole in the trunk of the tree. After three days of this, she was caught by the king’s guards and was accused of theft of the king’s fruit. As punishment, the king had wanted to banish the girl, but his son suggested that she be made to tend to the chickens. As time went by, the prince fell in love with the girl, and eventually they were married. Still more time passed, and the prince became king and had to go off to war, leaving his pregnant wife at home.
After all this time, though, the devil had not forgotten the promise of the miller, and when the queen wrote to the king of the birth of her son, he switched the letter for one that said that the baby was a changeling and abnormal. The king, being a good man, wrote back that he did not mind, but that he would love it the same. The devil intervened again and exchanged the letter for one that said that the queen must leave the kingdom with her child as soon as they could. The queen set out with her child and put her faith in the forest, which had given her so much luck since she had left the miller’s house. She came to a stream and met an old man, whom she asked to help her breastfeed her son, as she could not hold the child without hands. This he did, and he also told the queen of a tree nearby which would bring her good fortune if she hugged it. She wrapped her arms around the tree and instantly her hands grew back.
The old man also directed her to a house where she and her son could shelter. While the queen and her son were living in the cottage, the king had returned home and uncovered what the devil had done. He set out at once to find his wife, but when his guards came to the queen’s cottage, he could not believe it was her, as his own wife did not have hands. However, he and his guards needed shelter from the forest, so they knocked on the woman’s door. When she opened it, he knew it was indeed his wife, and on the next morning the king, queen, and their son all returned to the kingdom. The tree and house which had helped the queen in her time of need disappeared as if it had never been there at all.
Across folklore and religious mythology from around the world, forests have been places of great power and mystery, and these stories demonstrate how this power is not always something to be dreaded. If people put their faith in the forest and live a good life, they may be rewarded by the powers that reside there. The forest is a place of shifting realities and deception, shown through the devil’s activity there, but also a place of healing, as Daphne finds before she is pursued by Apollo. The forest is a realm of both extreme good and bad, and it is this precariousness which keeps people away–a fear that the scales may just tip the wrong way on their next visit.
Written by Megan Crutchley
Chainey, D.D., and W. Winsham. 2021. “Fearlessness in the Forests.” In Treasury of Folklore, Woodlands and Forests, by D.D Chainey and W. Winsham, 153-164. London: Batsford Ltd.
Sutherland, A. 2016. Forest In Ancient Beliefs: Powerful Realm Of Good And Evil, Ghosts, Gods And Monsters. May 19. Accessed February 24, 2022. https://www.ancientpages.com/2016/05/19/forest-ancient-beliefs-powerful-realm-good-evil-ghosts-gods-monsters/.