Selkies are beautiful Scottish sea creatures. JON KANEKO-JAMES says you can make wives out of them if you can find them without their skin
Take a look at the image at the top of the article here. It’s a woman, draped at the feet of a man wearing a cloak. It has a touch of the 1970s about it, like the cover of a fantasy novel that makes you wonder if the artist should have stopped for a cold shower. Except the closer you look at it, the more WRONG you see: for example, yes, she’s naked, but she doesn’t look happy… in fact from the way she’s grabbing onto his arm, it might almost be as if he’s dragging her by the hair. Oh, and then there’s her face: ‘not happy’ is an understatement, she looks like an early version of Munch’s The Scream.
So, who is this woman, what’s going on?
It’s simple: she’s a Selkie, a beautiful and innocent water spirit, what’s going on is that she’s being dragged off into a life of sexual and domestic slavery. Not the good kind of slavery, where there’s a safe word and lots of special equipment ordered off the internet, this is the full Fritzl: the Orkney Islands story of Goodman O’Wastness is a great example.
Goodman is a cold fish who shuns the local girls and goes on about how women are evil and Eve was the one who spoiled everything for Adam, so chicks are bad and no man should get married.
Except this great, standup, and totally non-misogynistic, guy is out walking by the seashore when he sees a bunch of Selkies playing by the waves. Unlike some other sea people the Selkies are pretty safe. When you capture them, blackmail them into having sex with you and keep them prisoners for 20 years, forcing them to bare your children, they just pine for the sea. They never, for example, cave your skull in while you’re sleeping, or cut your balls off and suggest that if you tell them where their skin is they’ll let you cauterise the wound with a flat iron.
No, they just pine for the sea, and that’s the thing: they need their seal skin to transform into their seagoing form, which means if someone can steal it the Selkies pretty much have to do anything they say.
That’s what the highly inappropriately named “Goodman” O’Wastness does: he sneaks up on the Selkies, takes a charge at them and manages to steal a skin from the slowest. He then throws the skin over his shoulder and marches inland, whistling.
Naturally, since he has a piece of her soul over his shoulder the Selkie has to follow him, and when she does he sees her crying and is overcome with… ‘love.’ Y’know, primal, pulsating, animal ‘love.’ ‘Love’ that makes him want to beat her into submission and take her against her will. Oh yeah. ‘Love.’ So, with a great spike of ‘love’ tenting his jeans, Goodman O’Wastness strikes a bargain with the Selkie that she’ll marry him and he won’t destroy the skin.
She takes this rubbish, down to the point of pretending she loves him in public and gives birth to seven of his children. Goodman has her chained to a post at night and a really secure hiding place for her precious seal skin, but here’s where he comes unstuck: children.
Offspring play an important part in all Selkie ‘Wife’ myths: in some, like Goodman O’Wastness, it’s the innocence of a child that gives away the secret location. In others a child, unsurprisingly, reacts with horror to finding out that their mother is a frightened slave, trapped by the fear that their husband will commit an act that basically amounts to mutilation, and gives her back the skin before running off to the sea with Mommy (and with good reason, if Daddy finds his wives by looking for a bunch of hot woman and kidnapping the slowes t…)
In the tale of Goodman O’Wastness, it’s their youngest daughter who gives away the game, and the mother runs off to the sea. Goodman O’Wastness sees her one last time, bobbing in the sea with her REAL husband. Seeing Goodman with his sons (HER sons) in the fishing boat, she says that she liked him well enough, but preferred her sea-husband. At least, that’s what Goodman told the cops.
JON KANEKO-JAMES has a new ebook, The Sleepless Man, which is a gritty urban fantasy exploring the suburban hell and squalid desire of the Selkie Wife myth. For more details visit here.