Selkies, Sirens, Swan Maidens and Otherworldly Brides
A common motif in British folklore is that of an otherworldly female, who is somehow captured or charmed by a mortal man to be his bride. The females are often therianthropes, that is shape-shifters, who seem to be part human and part animal, but their main attribute is always as an entity from a metaphysical otherworld, interacting with consensus reality in order to bridge the gap between the natural and the supernatural.
The Fishermen and the Siren by Knut Ekwall (1843–1912) (Public Domain)
These therianthropic females take many forms, such as Selkies (humanoids masquerading as seals), mermaids, and swan-maidens, and can also appear as magical women without any animal attributes, such as the lake faeries, but they are always found in bodies of water, a configuration that proves important in any attempt to interpret these folkloric motifs. The standard scheme of the stories is that the female is lured from her watery existence by a male, either through a ruse or by charm. They are married and will usually have children together. But at some point, a taboo is broken or the female is mistreated, and she deserts her husband to return to the water, which always seems to represent the portal between the physical world and a non-material reality.
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As always with folklore, any deeply embedded motif such as this is designed to impart some timeless wisdom; allegorical, philosophical and psychological. The stories were always meant to be a good fireside yarn, but more importantly they were plugging into fundamental aspects of the human condition, as well as recording belief-systems that were disappearing into the past. The origins of these stories are usually medieval (although possibly even older), and sometimes appear in chronicles. But most were transmitted through an oral tradition and were not recorded in detail by folklorists until the 18th and 19th centuries.
The statue of the selkie, Kópakonan, in Mikladalur, Faroe. (CC BY-SA 2.O)
Selkies and Sea Maidens
The folklore of Selkies comes mostly from northern Scotland, especially the islands of Shetland, Orkney and Faroe, although the theme is also found in Ireland, Scandinavia and Iceland. The name is derived from Selch, the Scots for grey seal.
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Top Image: The Sea Maiden by Herbert James Draper (1894) (Public Domain)
By Neil Rushton