Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day: Selkie Folklore and Relationships

“How wrong it is for a woman to expect the man to build the world she wants, 
rather than to create it herself.” Anais Nin

This week a friend of mine is getting married. She has been a good friend of mine for several years now, and when we first met I was at a very difficult juncture of my life. My first career choice didn't appear to be working out, and I was feeling listless, restless, confused and unhappy. Eventually I ended up going back to university, and learning painting, creative writing, sociology and gender studies. During this time of transformation and adaptation, my friend was a pillar of insight and inspiration -- a dedicated artist, actress and scholar in her own right. She taught me that even when no one wants to pay you to do the thing that you want to do, you still have to go on, keep at it and do it -- because otherwise, you won't be being yourself. And I clung onto that.

Now that she is getting married she has taken off her academic hat, and even her artist hat, for an indefinite period of time, which has brought up some mixed feelings within myself. Life changes and takes you on strange detours and routes, and you just have to go with that. But still I am reminded of the Scottish folktale of the selkie -- a seal that can transform into a human being. In the stories, often the selkie is a female who sheds her sealskin and finds a human man to marry.

Sometimes she is captured from the beach and her sealskin is taken by the man. Other times she is quite independent and familiar with the human world -- and even has a job, or is a member of the community. In other stories, the selkie can also be a man looking for a human wife, or he is seeking revenge for a member of his seal family that was murdered by a fisherman.

But by far the most well-known type of selkie story is that of the lady selkie who falls in love with the human man, and so that they can always be together, her husband takes and hides her sealskin from her. One day in the future, her children discover the sealskin -- sometimes it's buried, at other times it is hidden in the attic or in a wardrobe -- and they unwittingly tell their mother. Unable to resist the pull of the sea, her original home, she takes the sealskin, and is never seen again.

There is an important message in here about relationships, love, and marriage. Many people get into relationships, and give up so much of themselves. Sometimes it is taken, but more often it is given freely, without realizing the implications. As a culture we believe that love is about giving -- giving up, and often giving in. We give to our partners, we give them our time, our attention, our bodies, our home, our family. We even give up the things that are most important to us -- the cello in the corner, the notebooks filled with songs and stories, the running shoes stained with spring mud. And then one day, we don't recognize ourselves anymore. Or worse, we don't like who we have become. We have lost our sense of self, and have no idea where to look.

What happens when we do rediscover that sense of self? Will we dive off the rocks into the grey ocean, like the selkie donning her mantle of sealskin? Will we leave our responsibilities, our mate and our home, for truth and purpose and wholeness? It's a painful and pain-causing way to find your freedom.

Neal Donald Walsch, spiritual teacher and author of "Conversations with God," suggests that romance, marriage and love be not about giving things to each other. Instead, relationships could possibly be about sharing. Give up the idea that you have to give to your partner for them to stay, for them to be happy, for them to love you. Imagine that you could both be happy, full and complete -- and simply see your relationship as an opportunity to share that happiness and completeness with each other.

It's a novel idea, but perhaps a more sustainable one? Perhaps an idea that doesn't require us to sacrifice our lives like a lamb on an alter to the one we love.

Today is Valentine's Day, and I fully intend to spend it demonstrating to the person I care about just how important, how special, and how unique they are in my eyes. It's a wonderful chance to give each other special memories, and remind ourselves of how much we are affected by the people we share our lives, our conversations and our beds with.

At the same time, maybe I will also take a few moments when I can to brush off my fiction notebooks (my sealskin, as it were) and revel in how much I love myself, too.


  1. Thought-provoking, Joel, and very wise.

  2. Hi Morag! Thanks for the comment, I am glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. Hi Joel - the first picture you have at the top of the article is one that I like a good deal. Could you tell me the name and artist? I have been searching online but haven't come up with much. I thought it was a pre-raphaelite? Thanks, Clare.

    1. Hello! Sorry for this late reply. I believe the illustration is by the artist Arthur Rackham, though I am not sure of the exact name for it.

  4. Nice. I just shared this on my FB page...



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