The Scottish myth of the selkie tells of a people of the sea who dress in seal skins. In one version of that story, a selkie woman is bound by magical forces to go home with a lonely fisherman when he steals her skin, trapping her in human form. On the album Shapeshifter, folk duo Violet Bell decided to examine the myth from a modern perspective. Their endeavor was well timed.
“It just happened to align with a lot of things that are going on in the world,” lead singer Lizzy Ross said. “The day we released (lead single) Fisherman’s Daughter was the day Roe vs. Wade was called back. This whole story is about bodily autonomy and it’s about getting to feel like you can be who you are in your body. It’s the idea of being empowered and having personal agency. And right now, those things are literally about to be on the ballot.”
The selkie and her unfamiliarity with the ways of controlling men make her an excellent stand in for young women in a modern context. Her path to escape or recourse is just as complicated and laden with danger as a human woman’s might be if she were involved with an abusive man. The drastic consequences for her moment of naked carelessness are just as painful and arbitrary as the consequences the Supreme Court majority would have a human woman face for doing the same, regardless of the circumstances. The fisherman, too, is a great representation of the type of man who sees his loneliness as a valid reason to take control of a woman or the type of voter who takes their fear and transforms it into an assault on the rights of those seeking to live by a different set of values.
“I think this story has been medicine for people who have felt captured in one way or another by a cultural construct,” Ross said.
When the two central characters argue on “I Am A Wolf,” the selkie’s fierce desire for freedom and a return home are on full display. The fisherman comes across as a monster in the song as the selkie sings about the way his gaze affects her and how the kidnapping has made her want to resort to violence.
That’s part of why I found myself struck by how much Ross and Ruiz-Lopez extend their sympathy to the fisherman. His loneliness also merits their concern, even after he’s gone and committed a kidnapping.
“He’s not just a villain,” Ross said. “To me he’s an expression of this force of fear that makes people feel like they have to steal in order to get what they need. That they have to be in control to be safe. That they could be unlovable. You realize that he’s coming from a place of an impoverished and fear-based existence.”
Personally, I can’t get past his actions. There’s a proper way to go about dealing with loneliness, and then there’s kidnapping. “Mortal Like Me” shows that he’s haunted by his actions, but it seems insufficient. She’s still a captive, her skin is still tied to a rock at the bottom of the sea, and now there’s a daughter involved. That certainly implies sexual assault.
In a similar way, I struggle to get past the actions of the forces the fisherman stands in for. I could feel for their fear if they were not using it as a weapon against more vulnerable populations. Omar Ruiz-Lopez, the other half of Violet Bell, gave a historical example that was quite relevant to his experience.
“I think of my indigenous ancestors in Latin America who had voices, had a language, and now Spanish is the predominant language, the language of the oppressor,” he said. “What stories have we lost? What knowledge have we lost through control of the other? I think we’re not getting the whole story of humanity and it’s painful to feel and witness”
“We don’t even know what we’ve lost,” Ross added. “The consequences are often quiet. The culture at large may not acknowledge those harms, but we do experience the deeper consequence of that loss.”
“It perpetuates fear and trauma,” Ruiz-Lopez said. “It’s hard to heal when you’re divided.”
Ultimately, the selkie offers to take the fisherman back to the sea with her. While I interpreted it as revenge or drowning, Ross said that mixed in with that threat is a genuine invitation to her world.
“The selkie is saying ‘let me invite you out of this paradigm that is so terrible for you.” Ross explained. ‘Let me invite you into this much richer and deeper world where you may not have as much control and you may not have the safety and clarity of your containers and categories, but you’re going to be so enriched and fed.”
There may be able to be a happy ending for the selkie and fisherman, at least insofar as the fisherman represents a fearful part of the self and not an actual kidnapper.
“What would it look like if the fisherman was able to find that love inside himself instead of capturing a selkie?” Ross wondered.
Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Lizzy and Omar and the songs we discussed, starting with Fish to Catch, which introduces the fisherman character. It’s also worth noting that their music is absolutely gorgeous. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://violetbell.net/truehome for more.