Queen of Cups
The Selkie Wife
A sealskin, or swan wings, or a hagoromo shawl, left on the ground next to a maiden. A young mortal man spots such a precious sight and woos her.
Or he bends at a lake to quench her burning thirst, and she pops out of the crystal-clear freshwaters, but only up to the waist. Or he meets her at the village dance, dressed in a long-skirted gown. Gods know why, but she insists that he should never see her from the waist downwards.
Maybe she has webbed feet, like those of a duck or a frog. Maybe she is a nagini, a female naga, serpent from the waist downwards. Maybe she has really shapely, beautiful human legs from toes to thighs, but in between a cunt full of teeth, sharp rows of glistening incisors and fangs smirking within the labia (the lips of the nether region).
The fear of the toothy cunt among men is as justified as that of the piercing rod among women.
The hard rod that pierces and tears maidenheads, the mouthlike cunt that devours throbbing raw male members, both of these are interchangeable. Both males and females feel this irrational dread towards sexual intercourse.
He is smitten with love at first sight — smitten enough to commit several crimes against the very object of his desire for the sole purpose of keeping such a magical creature within his grasp. These crimes culminate in marriage and the attempted domestication of the wild, fantastical beast-maiden, turned into a family mother, subservient to the authority of her husband and the whims of their children. She maintains a modicum of her fantastic identity within the guise of a human wife; and the husband certainly benefits from her power. The taming of the shrew, one might say. So this is less a tale about young love than one about marital coercion and confusion.
Neither husband nor wife is on the same page; their union is at best a tenuous détente, made possible only by the husband's theft of the feathered wings, or the sealskin, or snakeskin, or whatever sign of her animality, forcing her to remain human and estranged from her own world. The husband has done nothing to earn such a powerful wife, and the maiden has no opportunity to choose her own fate. This is a marriage that cannot last in its fractured form. It must either go forward to find a level playing field for husband and wife, or it must end in miserable dissolution, whether it be violent tragedy or bloodless cold separation due to irreconcilable differences.
We can almost imagine the mother's sigh of relief to be herself again, her true fantastic self, and not the pale wife weighted down by domestic drudgery. Regaining, with her estranged animalistic nature, the creative potential she brings to the marriage. And yet, she offers a spark of hope for the future of the broken marriage, in the form of the offspring that connect her to her spouse, just before flying out the window.
"No matter how compliant a swan maiden or selkie or lamia may appear as a wife, there remains an unspoken anxiety and tension beneath the surface of her marriage. Her husband can never be certain of her affection, for it has been held hostage by her stolen skin. He offers her his cloak, but it is an exchange of unequal goods. Her feathered wings or sealskin or snakeskin are the sign of her wild nature, of her freedom, and of her power, while his cloak becomes the instrument of her domestication, of her submission in human society. He steals her identity, the very thing that attracted him, and then turns her into his most precious prize, a domestic ersatz pet, a pale version of the original creature of magic and the creative potential she brings to the marriage.
These stories suggest that there are marriages that will themselves to dissolution because of the inability of the pair to mature and to integrate into each other's world. In the human world, the beast-maiden loses her fantastic nobility and is subjected to the daily labors of a human wife – including childbearing, which is portrayed as so distasteful the wives often seem to have few qualms about leaving their children behind the moment they recover their skins. The husband either cannot find her world (and dies of melancholy, ie "a broken heart"), or, when he does succeed in arriving in her domain, he cannot accept the fantastical world on his wife's terms. These are, at best, temporary reunions... Added to this, the wife has now returned to her original form. She seems barely touched by her years of human marriage; once freed, she refuses to surrender her power again to a man not worthy of it. It is as though both husband and wife exist in a permanent adolescence.
"There was considerable renewed interest in these tales in Europe throughout the late 19th century. For the English Victorians it was the era of the 'Married Woman's Property Acts' and of the 'New Woman.' Marriage roles, divorce, and the appropriate role of a wife were being re-examined and questioned. The tamed maiden, with her ability to effectively fly or swim away from her marriage and her children, became a fascinating study for Victorian folklorists, who saw in the narrative the evolution of the institution of marriage. According to Carole Silver in her illuminating article 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon': Victorians and Fairy Brides, the interpretations of the tale varied widely, and depended on one's attitudes toward women's role in marriage, an imbalance of power between the sexes and women's sexuality.
The clipped-wing maiden as representative of a matrilineal society with 'easy and primitive' marriage bonds that could be more easily broken. Silver reports that Jacobs believed 'that the "eerie wife," in separating from her mate, forfeited the audience's respect; her behaviour... "the fickle, mysterious maid that leaves her spouse for the break of a taboo?" Victorial folklorists were expressing anxiety over the emerging institution of divorce, believing that the looseness of the marriage bond was a trait among 'savages.' Silver continues: 'Clearly, free and easy separation was associated with primitive societies and savage eras. Complex and difficult divorce, on the other hand, was the hallmark of a highly evolved society. . . By diminishing the claims to superiority of the faery bride, neutralizing her sexuality, and limiting or denying her right to divorce, Victorian folklorists rendered her acceptable to themselves and their society.'
In the Balkans, we come across a boisterous example of a tamed maiden known as a samodiva (another regional name for the veela). This Samodiva resolutely despises her forced domestication. At a party intended to celebrate the birth of their firstborn, her drunken husband Stoian asks her to dance. She agrees, but argues that the dance would be much better if she could wear her feathered gown. Her fool of a husband, intending to impress his fellow hunters, agrees and retrieves the hidden garment. Changed back into her original form, the Samodiva maximizes the humiliation of her husband by taunting him with a song:
Unlike other beast-maidens, who most frequently take French leave of their spouses and children, this samodiva or veela has the pluck to give Stoian the middle finger as a sign of their hostile parting."Hear my words, O Stoian; seek not
For thy wife a Samodiva —
Samodivas are not thrifty,
Know not how to tend the children.
Said I not to thee, O Stoian,
Samodivas are not housewives?"
If the selkie maiden in Victorian folklore studies was to be relegated to an outmoded and primitive expression of marriage and dreaded matriarchy, popular imagination found in her a powerful call to transformation. English women were jolted by the appearance of Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House (Et dukkehjem). Torvald, Nora's patronizing husband, calls Nora a "skylark," and an "elf." In a plot twisted by threats of blackmail, Nora tries to prevent Torvald from discovering the blackmailer's letter by putting on a ruffled costume kept in a closet and "dancing a tarantella" for her husband. It is a gesture worthy of a Samodiva, or of the Japanese crane wife whose dance mesmerizes her hapless husband as she tries to manufacture her escape. But Nora is not successful and, later, a frightened Torvald unfairly blames Nora for the blackmail, verbally attacking his wife and accusing her of being unfit to raise their children. When the blackmail is withdrawn, Torvald forgives his wife — but it is too late. The final scene is not one of reconciliation, but of the slam of the door as Nora leaves. It is the modern version of divorce selkie–maiden style.
Can we love this tamed and freed maiden? She seems to offer both an image of feminine power and feminine weakness: a girl who submits to the deceptions of a suitor and a wife who rejects the terms of an unfair marriage. She is at once a doting mother and one who will happily abandon her children, taking French leave of them, in favour of her own needs. Her ambiguous tale can be read as the suppression of women's rights and women's creative power through enforced domestication, but it can also show such a woman's resolve to not only survive a questionable marriage but to remain true to her nature. When given the chance, no amount of suppression can keep the maiden down. I want to shelter her from the routine ordinariness of her human marriage, given over to the demands of others. And I want to cheer, relieved and inspired, when she finds her own true self again, and rises to soar.