My apologies for being MIA in the last few weeks – let’s just say I needed to replace my laptop.
Over the winter holidays, I chanced across an independent game called Heroine Quest – it’s a puzzle game in addition to having a warrior option for me to muscle my way through it. If you are hankering for something nostalgic and full of Norse-Mythos, I highly recommend it.
One of the characters is not all that she seems – towards the end of the game, you’ll have the option of returning her to original form if you can solve the puzzle. While I’m less familiar with the Norse version, the earliest interpretation of something similar came from a Shetlandic Source – the Selkie. For the sake of this article, we’ll go with the Animal Wife motif, but tons of legends allow for the male versions seducing human women as well, although in my reading experience it tends to be more towards a mythic booty-call then marriage. What this won’t cover is stories of metamorphosis that is not common to the creature. For example: Zeus had a habit of changing shape and turning nymphs into creatures to hide them from Hera’s wrath. Shapeshifting and lycanthropes can be covered in a future article.
The selkie was thought to be a seal that, when removing its animal skin, reveal a typically attractive human beneath. If human men could steal the skin, the maiden selkie would be forced to marry him and have his children. Typically in the stories, the wife would stare longingly at the sea and weep, and it was often her children that would return her skin to her – through a child singing a song telling her where to find the skin, or the child coming across the garment and not knowing the significance. She would then take the garment and return to her home/seal husband. Generally speaking in the story, she would avoid her human husband but go back and play/see her children.
There are numerous interpretations of the variety of animals seen in this motif – I’m familiar with the idea of an otter, but there’s the Icelandic Swan Maiden, African Buffalo-Maidens and Croatian She-Wolf. Some stories even mention faeries and spirits whose clothes are compromised and they become bound to the humans who see them. An interesting near-subversion would be the Japanese Kitsune, or fox-spirit, who were more dangerous then many of their other counterparts. Often times, if the kitsune chose to marry a human man, she would do so until he discovered her true identity. Given the crafty nature of kitsunes, it was probably a good thing for the poor husband if she merely ran off and didn’t cause trouble – but what kind of stories would those be?
Do you have a favourite story about an animal who shed their fur or feathers to become human? How about a tale of an ordinary human who found the skin – and had some unintended furry consequences?