The selkies of Irish and Scottish folklore, as mentioned in songs by Frank Black and Tori Amos, are part of a larger tradition of shape-shifting animals marrying humans. The selkies are seal-people who live in the water but occasionally shed their skin in the form of a coat and take human form. They’re quite beautiful in this form, because supernatural creatures are pretty much always either super-hot or hideously ugly.
There are some tales of male selkies who seek out and seduce lonely women, but most of the stories seem to focus on men stealing the seal-skins of female selkies and forcing them into marriage.
If she ever managed to find the coat, she would return to the sea and never see her husband again. Sometimes the man and the selkie have children who locate the coat, and while the selkie will leave, she’ll sometimes come back to play with the kids. The story is rather tragic, what with the selkie forced into a marriage by coercion and the relationship only lasting as long as she discards a significant part of who she truly is. When she gets that part back, it appears that she has no choice but to leave. In other versions, there isn’t any duplicity on the part of the man. Instead, he is unaware that his wife is a selkie, and when he finds out she abandons him.
As I stated, there are many variations on this motif that use different animals. Swans are pretty common in much of Europe, doves appear in some Middle Eastern tales, and in Africa there are buffalo girls who might or might not dance by the light of the Moon. Japan has the story of the crane wife, as in the title of the Decemberists album and three of its songs.
Picture by Erin DeGroot
Basically, a man who wants to get married nurses a crane back to health. She then returns in the form of a woman, and they get married without his knowing her true identity. She makes brocade using her own feathers in order to make money for the family.
As she removes more feathers, she becomes increasingly ill, which carries over to her human form. Eventually, her husband finds out what is happening, and she leaves. I have to wonder if there have been any successful marriages between humans and skin-changers, or they’re all doomed to failure by their very nature.
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Regarding your question about whether it was possible for an Human and a Skinchanger to have a successful marriage in folklore,I don’t doubt that relationships based on trust rather than theft of a magical garment were reported,as folklore claimed several families around the Scottish and Irish coasts were descended from such a mixed marriage. Regarding actual legends, there was a story of three brothers who lived near Loch Duich in the North-West of Scotland. They went fishing on the Loch one night and saw the Selkies come ashore and enraptured by the beauty of some of the Selkie maidens, predictably stole their skins, compelling them to remain on land and claimed them as brides. However the youngest brother,moved by the distress of the lady he had chosen, returned her seal-skin and she returned to the ocean. Nine nights later, the Selkies returned and the two brothers locked their wives away, for fear of them being freed by the Selkies whereas the third brother gazed mournfully out to sea for his love. The Lady’s father, also a Selkie, appeared and told him that his Daughter was equally in love with him, and that as he showed kindness in returning his daughter’s skin, he would permit her to visit the man every ninth night.For the sake of completeness, I should mention that one of the seal maidens won her freedom when her child found her seal skin, but the other brother, fearing a similar outcome, burnt his wife’s skin, but the fire burned down the house, and his wife died in the fire. Long story short, I’ve no idea if they were married or ever had children but it would seem that in the case of romances based on kindness rather than exploitation, they can be successful, though this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Sorry for rambling, I just thought you might want to hear the story.
It’s nice to know such marriages aren’t always doomed to failure, just when coercion and trickery are involved. I guess that applies to marriage in general, even without the supernatural component.
I suppose you’re right. It’s a bit like the Newspapers – bad news sells. I guess failures stick in the human psyche more than successes, hence why most of these reported marriages seem to fail. I’m surprised people even tried to coerce Faeries/Skinchangers/Spirits in these legends, especially considering how they were supposed to be able to punish Humans even for slight misdemeanors. It would be interesting to know what the Marriage rituals actually involved, considering Faeries/Skinchangers/Spirits were generally adverse to Christianity, especially in the British Isles. Have you ever heard of the legend of Llyn y Fan Fach?
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