Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Returning the selkie skin: Divorce in folktales, in a positive light

I somehow ended up being the "positive divorce" storyteller on Twitter.
My parents divorced two years ago, in a friendly way, and ever since then I have been interested in traditional folktales that portray divorce in a different light. There are situations in life where divorce is absolutely the solution, even if it means a painful ending to something that had been good once.

Here are some of my favorite examples so far:

Why the Sun shines in the day and the Moon shines at night (Lithuania)

This story tell us about the mythic divorce between Sun and Moon, and how they decided to share custody of their child, the Earth. They decided Sun will keep an eye on her during the day, and Moon will do so at night. The arrangement seems to be working so far.

How Soslan married Kosher (Ossetian Nart saga)

The most famous of the Nart heroes, Soslan, fights for the hand of a lady who lives in a magic flying tower. After many adventures and some flirting, she agrees to marry him. However, eventually she grows bored of living in one place, and since Soslan won't leave the Narts, they decide it's better for them to divorce. They say goodbye, and she flies away in her tower.

The marriage of Sultan Hasan (Egypt)

A sultan is told he'll have seven years of bad luck, so he dresses as a beggar and goes into exile to keep his family from suffering. In a village he encounters a rich man who keeps divorcing and re-marrying his wife out of cruelty. According to law, after three divorces he can only marry her again if she's had another husband in between. So they marry her to the first random beggar (the sultan), hoping to divorce them the next morning. However, they take a liking to each other, and decide not to divorce. Instead, they live on in a much happier, harmonious marriage.

The selfish husband (Zambia)

During a time of famine a family moves into the wilderness. The husband finds a lot of wild honey, but doesn't give any to his wife and children. The wife sets out on her own and catches an antelope, but can't carry it home alone. People from a nearby village help her, and since she can now care for her children with the help of the community, she divorces her selfish husband.

The selkie wife (Scotland)

A fisherman who doesn't have anyone, and wears a birthmark on his face, meets a selkie. First he steals her skin so she can't return to the sea, but then he feels bad about it and gives the skin back to her. The girl decides to stay with him anyway. Fifteen years later, however, she grows homesick, and returns to the sea, telling her husband to follow in time. When their children are grown, the fisherman goes into the sea and turns into a seal as well.
(I don't know if this is divorce or separation, but it's the best selkie story I know.)

Red Roderick and the selkie (Scotland)

Also a selkie story, except here the wife steals back her own skin after the birth of three children, and walks into the sea, telling her husband not to hunt seals ever again.

Fallen men spoil virtuous women (Syria)

In this tale type that exists in East Africa and the Middle East, a man divorces his three wives because each has a character flaw. Another, kinder man decides to marry them, and discovers that "character flaws" are actually largely the result of how badly the women had been treated by their husband (e.g. the one called "gluttonous" never got enough to eat).

The man who spoke the language of animals (Eritrea)

A classic tale type, where a man can't tell his wife where he got his magic powers. However, here in the end instead of beating his wife they simply divorce over their differences - and thus divorce is introduced to the world for the first time.
(This divorce saves the man from dying, and the woman from a dishonest marriage.)

The three little eggs (Eswatini)

Not as much divorce as escape from an abusive husband, towards a better future. I wrote about this story in detail in the Feminist Folktales series (see link).

Skadi and Njörd (Norse myth)

The goddess Skadi accidentally marries Njörd, the old god of the sea. They are such an awful match, however, that they decide to separate, and Skadi goes on to fall in love with Ullr, god of archery, who is a much better match for her.

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