Women of the Ocean: What the Tale of the Selkie Tells Us About Consent

by K.P. Kulski

If I had to sum up the tales of the female selkie, it would go something like this….

Dear Mythological Fisherman,

Please don’t assume a woman you stumble upon (whether she is clothed or nude) wants to become your wife/girlfriend/lover. Maybe ask next time or you will only cause yourself and those around you a lot of heartache.

I happen to love stories of the seal people, known as selkies in Scottish lore and there are many ways we can analyze them. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to stick with

792px-Elisabeth_Jerichau_Baumann_havfruen
Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

one interpretation that discusses the importance of consent. If you’ve never heard of the selkie, let me start with an overview of the tale. Keep in mind there are some variations, including stories of male selkies, but we’re (of course) taking a good look at the traditional story that features a female selkie.

A fisherman is lonely. One day he ventures to the beach, in a state of sorrow and there he spots a beautiful woman perched on a rock and nude. He falls in love and although she is strange, he doesn’t ask too many questions. Questions that most people in healthy, whether they be supernatural or normal relationships might ask…

Why are you naked?

What are your dreams?

I’m interviewing for the position of wife. What are your short term and long term goals?

Or even maybe,

“Hey wanna get married?”

L_143534
(Image © Responsible Travel)

He loves her so much that he whisks her away, believing he is saving her, after all she was naked and alone and clearly wants to marry him. (Because why else be naked on the beach, isn’t that the usual husband getting method?) Eventually they have children. At some point, she begins to pine for the ocean and becomes very sad. The fisherman who’s known all along that his wife is not human and is in fact, a creature known as a selkie, returns her seal skin to her. Without the skin, she remains trapped in human form. Once she gets the skin back she immediately transforms into a seal and returns to the sea. In most tales, she is never seen from again.

There are variations on this tale that can be found in Orkney, Shetland and Faroe, as well as some Scandinavian lore. Sometimes the fisherman doesn’t return the skin, but hides it, or doesn’t even know about it. But she ultimately finds it and returns to the sea. Not all tales make mention of children as products of the human-selkie union. In some, she returns to visit the children at specific intervals and for only a short time.

It’s a lovely tale, no matter the variation until we look at it closer. What could this tale really be telling us? I spend a great deal of time examining the myriad of symbols used in mythology concerning women. I’ve written quite a few Unbound articles on this, particularly highlighting Greek mythology. But the Celtic tale of the selkie is something else entirely. Unlike the Ancient Greeks, this is not a warning of what a beautiful woman can do to harm, mislead or even kill a man. The tale of the selkie is certainly a warning to men, but a warning concerning female consent.

Seal-D12822
(Image © Scottish Natural Heritage)

We don’t get the selkie’s side of the story, sometimes she isn’t capable of even speaking. Her nudity tells us she is vulnerable. That vulnerability is intensified with the inability for her to return to her form as a seal without her skin and therefore is perpetually unable to return home. She lives life for the fisherman as he would wish her life to be, not a life that she chooses for herself. The fisherman seems to get everything he wishes. The beautiful wife he loves, children and the removal of loneliness… or has he? There continues to be a sense of solitude about the fisherman and he spends a good deal of his time attempting to prevent his selkie wife from obtaining her skin. There is little sense of other players and that loneliness from the beginning of the story that launches him forward into marrying the selkie in the first place remains despite this.

In fact, her lack of choice in the matter is a big problem. This is a story of inevitability.

The selkie is from another world, her hopes and desires are not considered and she is thrust into a domesticated life with little to say on the matter. It is no wonder she looks to escape back into the wild of the ocean with the sense that she was never meant to be bound to the human world in the first place.

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