The Silkie Wife
Those in the Shetland and Orkney Islands who know no better, are persuaded that the seals, or silkies, as they call them, can doff their coverings at times, and disport themselves as men and women.
A fisher once turning a ridge of rock, discovered a beautiful bit of green turf adjoining the shingle, sheltered by rocks on the landward side, and over this turf and shingle two beautiful women chasing each other. Just at the man’s feet lay two sealskins, one of which he took up to examine it. The women, catching sight of him, screamed out, and ran to get possession of the skins. One seized the article on the ground, donned it in a thrice, and plunged into the sea; the other wrung her hands, cried, and begged the fisher to restore her property; but he wanted a wife, and would not throw away the chance. He wooed her so earnestly and lovingly, that she put on some woman’s clothing which he brought her from his cottage, followed him home, and became his wife.
Some years later, when their home was enlivened by the presence of two children, the husband, awakening one night, heard voices in conversation from the kitchen. Stealing softly to the room door, he heard his wife talking in a low tone with someone outside the window. The interview was just at an end, and he had only time to ensconce himself in bed, when his wife was stealing across the room. He was greatly disturbed, but determined to do or say nothing till he should acquire further knowledge.
Next evening, as he was returning home by the strand, he spied a male and female seal sprawling on a rock a few yards out at sea.
The rougher animal, raising himself on his tail and fins, thus addressed the astonished man in the dialect spoken in these islands, “You deprived me of her whom I was to make my companion; and it was only yesternight that I discovered her outer garment, the loss of which obliged her to be your wife. I bear no malice, as you were kind to her in your own fashion; besides, my heart is too full of joy to hold any malice. Look on your wife for the last time.”
The other seal glanced at him with all the shyness and sorrow she could force into her now uncouth features; but when the bereaved husband rushed toward the rock to secure his lost treasure, she and her companion were in the water on the other side of it in a moment, and the poor fisherman was obliged to return sadly to his motherless children and desolate home.
A Selkie (or Silkie) is not quite a mermaid, but a seal-human creature that is found throughout Celtic and Norse stories. In places surrounded by water, sea-based people were a rich source for use in stories. The next story is a similar type of story from Japan.
The Feathery Robe
On the coast of Suruga, at Miwo, there once lived a fisherman by the name of Hakurioo. One day when he was resting from his work on the bank in the sunshine he saw a brightly glistening white robe lying before him, delicate and translucent and entirely woven from feathers. At the place where the shoulders would fit on the wonderful robe there hung two wings.
He eagerly picked it up, wanting to take it home and carefully put it away, when a beautiful girl appeared before him. She sobbed aloud and demanded the return of her robe.
Hakurioo was at first not at all willing to give up his find. But then the girl said, amidst endless sobs and tears, that she was a heavenly goddess, and that she would have to remain miserably on earth as long as she did not have her feathery robe, that she had taken off while bathing, and which had thus wrongly come into his hands.
Moved by compassion, the fisherman said, “Very well, I will give your robe back to you, if in return you will dance the heavenly dance for me with which you daughters of heaven soar through the clouds.”
The maiden replied, “Yes, give me my robe, and you shall behold the most beautiful dance that I am able to dance.”
The fisherman considered for a moment and said, “No, dance first, and then I will give you your robe.”
With this the heavenly maiden grew angry and said, “Shame on you, that you doubt the words of a goddess! Quickly, give me my robe, for without it I am not able to dance. You will not regret it. That I promise you!”
Thereupon Hakurioo handed her the feathery robe. She immediately put it on and rose into the air. True to her words, before the fisherman’s amazed eyes she performed the most magnificent dance that one can imagine, at the same time singing the most beautiful, sensuous melodies, until Hakurioo did not know what was happening to him. In more and more beautiful loops she rose higher and higher, but it was a long time before she disappeared from the enchanted fisherman’s view, soaring into a light cloud that was drifting toward Fujiyama’s summit, with the last sounds of her godly song sounding in his ears.
Source: David Brauns, Japanische Märchen und Sagen (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Friedrich, 1885), pp. 349-50. Translated from the German by D. L. Ashliman. © 2008.
Can you think of a reason why stories of this type might be present in very different parts of the globe?