Selkies and Why Women Can’t Have It All

One of my favorite legendary creatures since childhood is the selkie. A selkie is very much like a mermaid, except he or she looks like any other seal in the water until they take off their magical sealskin on land. Then, they look like any human being you might see on the beach. Growing up in a household obsessed with Scottish tales and spending much of my time dipping into the various bodies of water Florida had to offer, selkies were very romanticized for me as a child. Looking back as an adult, I realize the social implications almost every story about selkies involves.

Before diving into the legends of selkies, I want to give a little background information. Selkies are creatures that belong to Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. It is thought by many that the tales originated by watching foreigners arrive dressed in furs and in canoes made of skins. Different sources give different ideas of who these people could have been. They could have been Spaniards that washed ashore. It also could have been the Saami or Inuit coming from Greenland or other Scandinavian countries.

A great deal of research has gone into figuring out why so many different cultures would tell stories about such unusual creatures. I have found very little thought, in my personal study, given to why the stories are so similar in theme. There are two standard stories told about selkies and the, most significant difference between them is whether it’s about a male selkie or a female selkie. That sets the premise for everything.

Male Selkies – Lotharios of the Sea

Male Selkie

All selkies were considered incredibly attractive, male or female. Boy howdy did the male selkies know it. They would come ashore, take off their magical sealskin, and go on the hunt for ladies. They definitely had a type: unsatisfied women. Are you the wife of a smelly fisherman who is often out on a boat for days at a time with his buddies? Here comes Mr. Sea-Stud to show you a wild night of passion. If you happen to have a child with webbed fingers, later on, you can blame it on the fact that you live in a small seaside village where everyone is probably married to a cousin or something.

Most of the time, these turned out to be one night stands. Occasionally, women would call for their dream lovers by crying into the waves, which doesn’t usually work for me. Typically, when I start crying, it does the opposite of make me sexy. Selkies apparently dig it, though. Sometimes, a woman would disappear, and people would just chalk it up to a selkie hook up that got serious. You get the idea, though. Male selkies are all about a good time. Female selkies not so much.

Female Selkies – Wife Material

Female Selkie

Imagine you want to layout on the beach under the moonlight, but you can’t do it until you take this pesky magical sealskin off. You’re just laying there, being a total babe, enjoying the moment, and some selfish yokel steals your sealskin binding you as his wife. Does that sound like the beginning of a fantastic marriage to you?

Every story about female selkies I’ve found includes a man hiding a sealskin from a beautiful selkie, so she is forced to stay as his wife. Sometimes, the selkie actually has feelings for her captor, maybe even before he steals her ticket home. However, the entire time they’re together, she just wants to go home. She’s a legendary creature of the sea, not a housewife. She’ll have his children, and typically, it’s one of these poor kids that discovers her sealskin. As much as she may love her completely inconsiderate husband and the children they had together, she always chooses to go back to her watery home. Unfortunately, by making that choice, she is forbidden from ever seeing her family ever again. The story of female selkies is always tragic.

It’s Not Just About Romance at Sea

“Kópakonan” statue in Mikladalur, a village on the northern Faroese island of Kalsoy

What I’m immediately struck by, when comparing the two types of stories out there about selkies, is that male selkies are rewarded for their sexuality, and female selkies lose everything. It really doesn’t seem fair, and I may have taken it far too personally during my research. It didn’t take long for me to realize why it bothers me so much about what happens to female selkies. What happened to them in the stories, happens to countless women all over the world every day.

If you think about the seal skin metaphorically, it’s the selkie’s identity. When they’re out of that skin, they are completely naked and vulnerable. Without their skin/identity, they can’t be where they truly belong, the sea.

When you fall in love, you leave yourself vulnerable and, if the relationship isn’t a healthy one, it’s easy to lose your identity. You become who your lover wants you to be. For many women, when they get married, they lose themselves entirely. They become a wife, a mother. They are no longer the women they were before. They only exist as the roles they fill for others. They may seem happy, but there’s something missing, and it’s themselves.

Women routinely have to make choices that men simply don’t. They have to choose between love and their identities. They have to choose between their children and their dreams. The moment they want more than to be a support system for others, they are punished.

I wish I had a victorious or at least a tidy conclusion to this. I wish I could give some sort of inspirational message that would solve this problem. There isn’t anything to say, except even now, a woman has to risk everything to get anything. There is no way to have it all. We still have to choose, and that will never be enough.

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