Mythologies from various cultures have given us numberless tales where the world of humans and that of animals blend into each other. Shapeshifting or therianthropy is a common motif appearing in various nations across the continents where human beings possess the magical ability to metamorphose into other animals. From the 2nd BC century where Pausanias recounts the story of Lycaon, the first lycanthrope or werewolf, to the cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, and from the Irish cycle narrating the transformation of Lir’s children into swans to the Navajo’s tribal belief in skinwalkers, shapeshifting is deeply rooted in humanity’s imagined reality.
A particular form of therianthropy can be found in Gaelic accounts from the Northern isles (Orkney and Shetland) where narratives of the selkie folk abound. The selkie folk are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. The majority of these yarns centre on the love affairs between mortal men and female selkies.
A man steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife. But the wife always yearns to reunite with her brethren in the sea, and often stares with longing at the ocean. She usually bears several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she leaps into the sea, abandoning forever the children she once loved and took care of.
Sometimes, one of her children discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. Others it is revealed she already had a first husband of her own kind, from whom she was forced to separate. In some versions, the selkie wife is never seen again by the family in her human form, but the children are approached by a large seal, the animal “greeting” them plaintively.
Male selkies are rumoured to be very handsome as humans and invincible when it comes to seducing human women, usually seeking those dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands.
During the 19th century, in 1893, the Orkney antiquarian and folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, published in the pages of the Scottish Antiquary the semi-mythical yarn of an Orcadian woman who engages in an affair with a selkie man and gives birth to children with distinctive physical traits.
Dennison, reluctant to ”bring shame on the family and embarass her descendants” and willing to protect her honour and reputation, doesn’t disclose her real name. Instead, he calls her Ursilla.
Ursilla was the daughter of a laird belonging to one of the oldest families in Orkney.
She was handsome and pretty, but had a sternness of manner, and that firmness of features which often presents a masculine exterior in families of Norse blood, and often hides, as with a film of ice, a loving heart within.
Ursilla was not one to wait patiently till some one turned up to offer himself as her husband. Indeed, had any one presumed to approach her as a lover, she would have treated him with haughty disdain, regarding his bold presumption as sufficient ground for his rejection.
She determined not to be chosen, but to choose for herself.
Her choice fell on a young handsome fellow, who acted as her father’s barn-man. But she knew that any disclosure of her passion would mortally offend her old father and bitterly mortify his family pride and might lead him to disinherit her.
So she locked up her love in her own breast; kept watchful eye on the object of her love, and treated him to a full share of the scoldings she daily bestowed on the servants.
When, however, her father died, and her [dowry] was safe, she disclosed her passion to the young man, and commanded him to marry her—a command which he was too gallant to disobey.
Her marriage excited among the gentry great indignation; to think that one of their class should marry a farm-servant. Ursilla treated their contempt with indifference; she made a good housewife, managed her house well, and also, it was said, managed her husband and the farm.
Yes, Ursilla was married, and all went well and happily, so far as outward appearances showed; Yet Ursilla was not happy. If disappointed in her husband, she was far too proud to acknowledge it, knowing that the gentry would only say in derision, “She shaped her own cloth, let her wear her ill-fitting dress.”
Whatever the cause might be, there was a terrible want — a want that Ursilla felt bitterly.
And she was not the woman to sit down and cry over her sorrow; she determined to console herself by having intercourse with one of the selkie-folk.
She went at early morning and sat on a rock at high-tide mark, and when it was high tide she shed seven tears in the sea. People said they were the only tears she ever shed. But you know this is what one must do if she wants speech with the selkie-folk. Well, as the first glimpse of dawn made the waters grey, she saw a big selkie swimming for the rock.
He raised his head, and says he to her, “What’s your will with me, fair lady?”
She likely told him what was in her mind; and he told her he would visit her at the seventh stream [spring tide], for that was the time he could come in human form.
So, when the time was come, he came; and they met over and over again. And, doubtless, it was not for good that they met so often. Anyway, when Ursilla’s bairns were born every one of them had web hands and webbed feet, like the paws of a selkie.
And did not that tell a tale?
The midwife clipped the webs between every finger, and between every toe of each bairn.
“She showed the shears that she used to my grandmother.” So said the narrator. And many a clipping Ursilla clipped, to keep the fins from growing together again; and the fins not being allowed to grow in their natural way, grew into a horny crust on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And this horny substance is seen in many of Ursilla’s descendants to this day.
Whatever may be thought of this tale, its last sentence is quite true.
The horn still appears on feet and hands of some of the lady’s descendants. One, two, or three in a family may show the abnormal horny substance; while brothers and sisters are entirely free from the troublesome horn.
Some ten years ago, while engaging a harvest hand, I said to one of these men, “Of course, you can do all kinds of harvest work?”
“Oh na, sir,” said he, “hid’s nae use tae tell a lee aboot hid; but I cinno’ bind a sheaf wi’ this plaguid horn in me livs.”
Another of the same family told me that when, through the growth of the horn, he was unable to walk or work, he would, with hammer and chisel, cut off large slices of horn from the soles of his feet. This growth is by no means confined to those engaged in manual labour. I have felt it on the hands of one of the same race who followed a profession where manual labour was not required.
This curious phenomenon seems well worthy of careful investigation by the physiologist. Pity it could not be traced to the seal; we might then be in sight of the missing link.
Many wild tales were told of the offspring of such strange parentage who had webbed hands and feet; but the foregoing will serve to illustrate a once popular belief.
In his account, Dennison emphasised the distinction between fact and fiction, reminding his readers that the information provided until Ursilla’s marriage to her human husband was true but the second half of the account was merely “an imaginary tale, invented by gossips, in order to account for a strange phenomenon visibly seen on her descendants.”
Dennison himself lent no credibility to the fantastical elements sprinkled throughout the tale and only exposed it to the public to better ”illustrate one of the popular beliefs.” However, even though he disbeileved the folklore origin of this horny crust found on the hands and feet of some of Ursilla’s descendants, the condition at least was medically and scientifically verified.
In the end, what are we to infer from such colourful narration? Is the existence of selkies a charming but ignorant way to offer an explanation for a medical anomaly for which they couldn’t account back then? Do the selkies function as a symbol of sexual desire that must not be suppressed but satisfied? Are they an expression of longing for things beyond our mortal reach, for the forbidden, for what we term as ”the other”? Or are they a reminder of sin and loss of honour associated with spousal infidelity?
No matter the meaning we attach to it, one thing is certain: the call of the wild and the primordial still resounds in our collective unconscious, harkening back to millions of years when we ran alongside beasts and shared a home with them.