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.