Mermaid and Bird Wives

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.

Source: Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, collected and narrated by Patrick Kennedy (London: Macmillan and Company, 1866), pp. 122-24.

The statue of the selkie in Mikladalur, Faroe Islands

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.”

watercolor, a man holds an elaborate robe of feathers while a woman kneels in the sand before him.  The ocean and Mt. Fuji are behind them

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?

18 thoughts on “Mermaid and Bird Wives

  1. One reason why Stories like Mermaid and the bird wives are present in different parts of the globe is because of Fishermen, people who hear these stories and share them with other people from their trips. These stories will often keep roaming in the air and are left with artifacts that future travelers will be able to go and visit. Travelers will often share stories as a way of communicating either warnings or places to see.

  2. i think the only thing it could be is that the fisherman would tell stories possibly to each other and pass it around whenever they would make trips. to possibly their children or wives or anyone else who would listen. Both stories talk about men wanting the women to be with them or dance with them. They were probably lonely as well and made up these stories for entertainment

  3. I believe that the story passed on towns to towns because Fishers transported their catches to small cities and then was passed down to the next generation.At the end both story make us believe that they are something under the sea that we don’t know

  4. Fairy tales differ among cultures and represent cultural differences and exciting folk beliefs. I think that stories of this type are present in different parts of the globe because of the people who will hear these stories and pass them around the world for the next generation.

  5. Stories of this type may be present in different parts of the globe as they are passed down from generation to generation, and are told and heard by others as they are shared with individuals from all over.

  6. The stories of this kind are seen from different perspectives. The fisherman had discovered these stories and are passed down from century to century with different ideas of it. To this day these kinds of stories are listened to and read about as they continue to grow and expand.

  7. Storytelling is universal and is done globally. One reason why stories such as this may be present in different parts of the world is because those who work near the water such as fisherman. They tell stories at sea and that is how they get passed on.

  8. I believe this is that kind of stories that get passed around between fisherman when they get together and every time its told it could be told in a different way. Al this is more than a story is folklore so there are no rules of how it’s told so it can vary from story to story around the globe.

  9. While fishermen travel from port to port seeking vessels to pilot or work on, they tell stories to one another that get changed and re-worked to fit the audience to whom they are being told. It is also interesting that both stories feature beautiful women, perhaps this theme is re-occurring because of how it was primarily men who would work on fishing vessels and go out on voyages where they would long for the company of a woman.

  10. I think that stories of this type are present in different parts of the world because its may have been spread by fishermen, who have always traveled the seas to different countries. I also think that the stories are altered depending on where they are spread, and the norms of that society

  11. Stories like this are passed down because as a fisherman, you would travel the seas and for entertainment you will often tell stories that will get passed down. Since fishermen were a big resource for nearby towns, the towns people will get to know the life on sea based on these stories.

  12. stories like the fishermen an be very dangerous for the portrayal of the relationship dynamic during those times. The connotation that lies behind simply leaving one for the other and ten leaving again to go back shows a lack of commitment. The short story provided her no dialogue which painted her as a prize, objectively to say the least. The ease of primitive or misogynoir in fairytales and old stories is very much important to point out.

  13. Stories like this might be around the globe because there are fishermen in every cultural society. They are gone for months at a time and learn to love the sea and see it in its truest form, for them it’s believing or creating stories like those.

  14. Stories like this might have been passed around by fishermen because they spend months on the sea and when they are on land they like to speak about what they saw while traveling to their families or strangers and all these people who heard these stories may have also spread it to the people in their lives.

  15. Stories like these might be present around the globe, because these fisherman may be lonely out in the sea for a long period of time. One can get lonely and want to be in a company of a woman. The stories are then passed around, like the stories we may hear from our ancestors that we pass on to our kids.

  16. Stories like this one are present around the globe for many reasons. First being they get passed down from generation to generation and depending on where that generation travels to depends on where the story is passed to. Second would be a common element of relativity. this is a type of story that not only may be familiar to many people but many can relate there own experiences to it and can relate to it no matter where in the world they are. Lastly, fisherman travel and this is definitely a fisherman tale so it has definitely been told around the world in many different ways.

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