Selkie Women

I had a sort of incomplete revelation the other day about selkies.

An incomplete revelation is where I realize something, but I’m not entirely sure what I’ve realized, how it works. But I generally know what it has to do with. In this case, it has to do with the otherness of the magical animal women in folk and fairy tales. It has to do with another way of looking at them.

It occurred to me that there have always been selkie women: women who did not seem to belong to this world, because they did not fit into prevailing notions of what women were supposed to be. And if you did not fit into those notions, in some sense you weren’t a woman. Weren’t even quite human. The magical animal woman is, or can be, a metaphor for those sorts of women. Perhaps my thinking on this issue was influenced by having just read John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, because Sarah Woodruff is one of those women. She is presented as not quite human, which could be seen as a problem with Fowles’ characterization. Or it could be seen as something else, the fact that certain women are perceived as otherworldly, are not understood, precisely because they cannot be understood according to prevailing codes.

I had gotten an idea, too, for a book about those sorts of women, like George Sand: the women who never quite fit into their societies. Perhaps Sand isn’t the best example, because she does not strike me as particularly magical. And I’m talking about women who are seen as incomprehensible, magical, fay.

Selkie women are the women you don’t understand. They are the women who know they belong to another tribe, in another element. And so they seem as though they don’t belong in yours — and they don’t. They are the women who live by other rules and values, because their rules and values are different from those of this world. They are the women who sometimes seem to be listening to other voices, or music you can’t hear, or the call of distant bells. There is a faraway look in their eyes.

Selkie women are the ones who look as though they came out of fairy tales, because they did. The ones who look at the sea longingly, who look at the sky as their home. They do not fear death. They only fear imprisonment.

Selkie women are the ones you can’t keep.

It is a very bad idea to hide their sealskins. They will always find them again, and then they will leave, specifically because you hid it the first time.

Selkie women are the ones who create things, but those things look as though they came from another world. Men fall in love with selkie women because they see them as conduits to something richer, stranger, more authentic. This is dangerous: wherever they came from, selkie women can’t get you there. You have to get there on your own.

There’s a story in all this, of course. I have so many other stories to write that it won’t get written for a while, and it’s still developing in my head. But now that it’s there, the idea will develop. Tonight, I need to write a rather ugly scene in my current story. That’s one reason I like writing this, about selkie women.

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25 Responses to Selkie Women

  1. Thank you for this post. I too am working on a book about magical females, but in my book-world, although they are appealing like all pretty women, they are also a bit scary, though not in a Goth way. Perhaps detached from normal human preoccupations. Anyway, it’s a difficult characterization to pull off without also detaching the reader.

  2. Runa Hauk says:

    This is lovely. I identify with this description very much. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. propertia says:

    Selkies have held my fascination for years. Please, do write about them.

  4. Evelyn says:

    That painting is absolutely beautiful, especially the waves.

    For a while I’ve thought, somewhat monolithically, that the stories about selkie woman and animal brides were simply metaphors for how women supposedly think/act differently from men and are consequently controlled. But in this case, the literal interpretation is just as fascinating. This post is giving me all sorts of ideas for characters and situations and other avenues of thought. Thank you.

    • I think powerful stories can always be interpreted in at least two ways. You’re right, stories about animal women are not necessarily liberating. But they can be, or we can rewrite them so that they are . . .

  5. helen says:

    What a fascinating take on selkie women! I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Hand’s Mortal Love, which does examine this very sort of woman (among other things).

    Good luck with your ugly scene.

  6. I completely agree, Dora. And I want to read this story of yours….

  7. Jane Yolen says:

    I have written a number of selchie stories and poems, and it seems to me that’s what is at play here is the longing for the Otherness, the desire to become one with the Ineffable that in latter centuries would be the women who become Hildegarde of Bingen, Georgia O’Keefe, Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson, Isak Dinesen.

    • These are all women I admire so much. In high school I wrote a
      paper on early women in theatre and encountered Hildegarde
      of Bingen in my research. In college I ran out of money and had
      to drop out. I discovered Isak Dinesen and realized it was no
      tragedy; it is good and useful to be an outsider.

  8. Love your take on the Selkie woman as the outsider, seeking freedom above pretty much everything else, longing for the sea. Look forward to reading the book. This entry just gave me such a feeling of familiarity with the subject. I did a painting called the Seal Wife and have always been fascinated by these stories.

  9. Is it possible that some women who are viewed as outsiders because they don’t mesh well or tolerate a way of defining either men or women based on skygods and patriarchy? If one views the world through a patriarchal lens, then much that is essentially balanced as nature or the gods intented is going to appear as “other.” In this light, I tend to see selkie women as the true normal.


  10. John Sayles film The Secret Of Roan Inish,” is a lovely Selkie tale. And much thanks
    for all who comment so beautifully on such women.

  11. Ramona says:

    What a delightful post, leaving me longing for these stories both alive and being born, yours and those of the commenters above. May I add my own selkie favorite: “The Nature of Water and Air,” by Regina McBride. Unmissable! This enthralling first novel made me swoon and later fling the book across the room only to pick it up and weep over it. A brave tale!

  12. Ill be waiting to read more of your words & thoughts on Selkie Women ! ~ try not to make us wait too long ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. triskelerose says:

    Thank you for posting, I am a GWRAGEDD ANNWN, not a selkie, but it is the same concept. โค

  14. faerianjane says:

    i have selkie blood in my veins and it is giving me a throbbing headach

  15. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    This is a beautiful essay, and more than that, it is germinative (new word?) It plants seeds in other writers’ minds. It deserves publication in its own right. Cabinet des Fees ?
    I, too, am eager for the story/book to emerge from this unfolding revelation.

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