‘The Tale of the Hands of God’ by Rainer Maria Rilke: Short Story Analysis
‘The Tale of the Hands of God’ is a highly lyrical prose narrative with a folktale-like quality. It has been penned by Bohemian-Austrian or Prague writer Rainer Maria Rilke who was a famous literary personality of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In this tale, Rilke tells the story of God’s hand and how humankind came to be. In all of Rilke’s stories about God, he has always tried to show that we, as humans, want to know God better, but even God wants to get to know us better, his creation. He highlights these, especially in his 1899 book ‘Stories of God’, where each story is a narration in a mystical folktale fashion of the different aspects of God. ‘The Tale of the Hands of God’ is steeped in symbology, mainly pertaining to Christianity, Gnosticism, and the places Rilke traveled throughout his life. In this story, a neighbor of the writer complains about her young daughters who have reached the age when they have started asking her searching questions about God.
Rilke listens carefully to the woman. He has already planned it in his mind that he would convert the neighbor to his line of thinking with symbols, parables, and gnostic elements of time and place. When she mentions in the course of the conversation that her daughters had asked her what God’s hands were like, Rilke stops her amidst her long complaining narrative. He has decided that he will tell her the parabolic story of ‘God’s Hands’ to train her to think more deeply about God and the relationship between God and man. The conversation takes place in a long monologue interspersed with questions from the neighbor, including an interruption from another female neighbor, Frau Hupfer. The neighbor with the young daughters turns out to be astute, attentive, and quite curious with a lot of questions about God just like her children.
Rilke retells the story of ‘Creation’ in the book of Genesis from the Holy Bible. He tells his listener that the story contains the key to the answers she can give to her children. At first, the neighbor finds the story stale and something she thinks she already knows. But when Rilke gives her a new take on the story, the neighbor listens attentively. The core of the story is in three parts:
- When God was interrupted during his creation of animals and man by the voice of an angel singing ‘Thou who seest all,’ He accidentally gives wings to one bird which flies away towards the Earth.
- When God was yet again interrupted during his creation of man by the presence of the same angel who mouths the words ‘Thou who seest all,’ He gets into a quarrel with his favorite saint, Saint Nicholas, and because of the dispute, Saint Nicholas leaves heaven.
- When God was creating man and his hands, both left and right, He accidentally drops man towards the Earth, as man was in too big a hurry to live.
Where the flight of the bird is concerned, that could be representative of the Holy Spirit floating over the face of the Earth in the mood to create life on Earth. That was the only form of consciousness present on the Earth.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” —Genesis 1:1-2
The Spirit of God usually is always symbolized as a white dove in Christianity. It contains eternity in it. It is symbolized in Gnosticism as the ‘thought’ of God getting ready to fall and form everything in creation. Saint Nicholas is the saint who is considered to be the reason for the creation of the fictional character of Santa Claus. He seems to disagree with God regarding the ‘haughty lions’ of God who can be symbolized as the androgynous angels’ highly regarded by God, the rich demigods, and everybody who in Theosophy and Gnosticism are considered to be a part of the ‘Force’ of God. They do not have the qualities of compassion, mercy, and empathy as they feel they are perfect creations. They think they are better than the terrier who represents loyalty, honor, and love. God rebukes Saint Nicholas. God, who is harsh and very blunt, unlike the dove, tells Saint Nicholas that if he did not like the lions that God had fashioned, he should leave and try to make the lions himself. Saint Nicholas leaves heaven and goes to the Earth to reside there. We must remember that Saint Nicholas was the Christian Saint, who stood up for righteousness, goodness, and charity during a tough time in history. Maybe Rilke was trying to indicate that now compassion would be sent to the Earth through the medium of Saint Nicholas, who was an indirect gift from God to the Earth’s people. In Saint Nicholas, we would see the generosity of God.
Lastly comes God’s hands that are hot and trembling, and working with molten clay. They accidentally drop their form of a man on the Earth. That moment in the cosmos is taken to be a million years. When God, after rebuking his hands moves them away so that he can see what man looked like, he was disappointed because:
- Man was wearing clothes.
- God did not like the fashion of the clothing of man.
- He did not like the distortions in man’s faces
- He was disappointed that there were so many men of this kind on the Earth.
- He got a wrong impression of man.
Notice that the ‘force’ of God is disappointed with his creation. That is because in Gnostic, Essene, and other metaphysical writings, we are told that a deformed version of God twisted creation called the demiurge that created a very paradoxical form of human beings. The real God whose hands were shaping man was distracted from his work, his hands dropped man, and the ‘fall of man’ took place. It took a lot of time before God moved his hands away to see his creation, but he did not like humans because although our spirit is from this true God, everything else is part of the demiurge, which is a distortion of what is good.
That is why humankind is not only trying to unite their souls to their spirits to reach God but also God, the true God, who has no calumny in him wants to learn more and more about humankind – maybe for eternity. There is a story told in my country that a devotee of Lord Krishna once said that when he saw the Hindu god before him, the devotee acknowledged that his life was incomplete without Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna then hugged the man and said with tears in his eyes, that even God is incomplete without the love of his true devotee, man. Therefore, man has to learn the ways of God, and God has to learn the Creation that was both his and not exactly his.
As you can see, this story is quite a googly. There are many elements, just like the parables of Lord Jesus and Lord Buddha, that we cannot understand without explanation. However, we know that when you have both an inclination to understand and the right knowledge, your ‘ear’ is opened as well as your ‘eyes’, and you begin to understand. Rilke was not telling this story for his neighbor’s children to understand but for the neighbor herself. She listens to him and tells four other people about this story. They all get converted to Rilke’s way of thinking, and she, the neighbor, writes a note to Rilke asking him to come to explain more about his stories of God to them. He makes an excuse saying that he could not come, that they would concentrate on his form and not on the substance of his speech, and then lose the value of what he had to say to them. We too as human beings, are unable to look beyond the form of God to the real Spirit, and until we unite body, soul, and Spirit to God and are born again into a new person, fashioned this time by both the ‘thought’ and ‘force’ of God, we will always be incomplete.
“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” —John 3:5-8
Ascended Masters and enlightened beings have gone before us to light the way. They teach us about God and answer some of our most searching questions about God, the Spirit, and heaven. People claim all the time to have an answer to everything. But sadly, they cannot even master earthly matters. They cannot also answer innocent children when they ask something so basic that humans should have thought about more than anything else – who we are, where we come from, who made us.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” —John 3:11-12
In Rilke’s story, whatever we do without God, with only his creative powers (His hands), we will always not achieve perfection. It is perpetually the last day of the week on Earth, the seventh day, for God is still resting as he is angry with what his hands have done to man. We are foolish and deluded humans according to ‘The Tale of the Hands of God’. We bend on our knees to do penance when it is actually by our ‘hands’ that all evil has been fashioned and created to the dismay of God and human beings.
“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” —Matthew 5:30
I have tried to the best of my esoteric ability to interpret this very folktale-like story for your reading pleasure. However, the thoughts expressed in this post are mine and highly subjective. By the way, I am a sort of nihilist, so pardon this human woman’s fascination with conjecturing. It is not that I am a hypocrite. It is just that I read too much and ask too many questions.
I was delighted to analyze Rilke’s short story for you. I hope to read more of him soon. He fascinates me, as does the folklore of Prague.
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