Scottish Stories: The Selkie Folk of Orkney

North of Caithness, on the islands of Orkney, the ocean is a magical place. The seals are its people. Those angels, who fell from heaven and landed amongst the waves.

Sometimes they come ashore to moult or have pups. Sometimes, on the night of the solstice or during a full moon, you will catch a glimpse of them dancing upon the sand.

Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Westray. Image my own.

Their sealskins will be laid upon the rocks, and their bare, human skin will shimmer in the half light. You will probably hear their laughter before you see them; soft and mellifluous, like the tinkling of seashell wind chimes.

Find somewhere to hide. Hush, now. Watch them dance. Hands clasped, damp, salt-matted hair flowing. The deceptive, lithe grace of their legs could make you believe they always had them.

But the selkie folk always return to the water…

Seals on Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Westray. Image my own.

Maybe you will fall in love, and be tempted to snatch one of their skins…

Aye, peedie selkie. Come with me, to my house, on the land…

You reach out and grasp the closest one, clutching it to your chest. But the selkie folk have seen you… they scatter, and within seconds have disappeared into the ocean. All except one. She searches, spinning around and around, looking under the rocks and amongst the seaweed.

Oh, where is it? My skin, my precious skin!

Then she sees you.

Come with me…

And of course she will come; what other choice does she have? In time, she will learn to be content. She will cook and clean and sew, and be a good mother. Although be warned, your bairns may have webbed fingers and toes.

But let me warn you, such marriages never have happy endings…

Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Westray. Image my own.

No matter where you hide it, one day that selkie wife will find her sealskin. Then she will run, out of the house and along the beach, her last human footsteps pressed into the sand the only trace of her left to follow. They will lead to the shore, where she will stand and gaze upon the place of her human life. She will smile; a smile which is a thank you and a goodbye and an I love you all at once.

Then, she will slip into her sealskin. Even after so many years, it’s still a perfect fit. Hands and feet turn into flippers. Eyes turn glossy black and beady. A splash, and she is gone. The selkie folk are the people of the sea, and they always return to the water.

Later, there will be two of them, reunited, frolicking in the sunset-stained waves. You will stand on the shore with the children, watching. Smiling.

Thank you. Goodbye. We love you.

 

Sources

Japanese Stories: Ise Grand Shrine and the Thankful Dog

It is said that dogs are our best friends, and if this story is to be believed then that is certainly true. In the city of Ise, on the south east coast of Japan in Mie Prefecture, you will find many shops selling little charms in the shape of dogs. You will also see people walking their dogs along the path to Ise Grand Shrine, and well-kept water bowls outside most establishments.

These things are homage to the Okage Inu (thankful dog) of local legend, who it is said made a pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine in his master’s stead. Whilst visiting Ise, I found a small booklet of this story and managed to translate it into English (Japanese reading skills level up!) Generic writer disclaimer – I have added some of my own details to flesh things out, since the translations are very basic and more like a list than a story. So this is my own version of it. As far as I can see, this story is not well-known outside of Japan. So I am happy to share it!

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog
Image my own

犬のおかげ参り – The Dog’s Thanks

What to do, when you live deep in the country and your husband is gravely ill? When you want to visit the shrine to pray for his health, but you cannot leave his side? When your old bones creak when you walk, and the shrine is so far away…

A wag of a tail. A sloppy, affectionate lick on his master’s feverish cheek.

ワンワン!ワンワン!*  I will go, I will go!

Send the dog. Problem solved.

Carrying a banner proclaiming his mission, the faithful dog set out for the shrine. Not just any shrine, either. He was bound for Ise Jingu, the soul of Japan, the most sacred Shinto shrine of them all. It is there that Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun and the Universe, is enshrined.

It was a long journey, but that is not a problem for a Shiba Inu’s spirit. His enthusiasm and loyalty would carry him all the way.

Shiba Inu
Shiba Inu Kazumi by Maja Dumat. CC BY 2.0

He did not stray from the road – no chasing rabbits, or exploring thickets (I’m sure that those of you who have walked dogs will know what a feat this is – their attention spans are not always the most reliable…)

On the way, the Shiba Inu befriended many travellers. For who doesn’t want to stop and pet a sweet, lonesome dog? People donated money to help him, too. He was given a meal, and somewhere to stay for the night.

Finally, he reached the city of Ise. On he padded, through the streets, beneath he torii gate, over Uji Bridge, and along the gravel path all the way to Amaterasu’s house. He bowed (but of course he couldn’t clap, as it is customary to do at Shinto shrines. I am sure Amaterasu understood) and barked his prayers, and in return he received an ofuda (paper amulet) to take home.

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog
Image my own.

With his mission complete, it was time to begin the homeward journey. Maybe this time he stopped off for some celebratory rolling in grass, or something else dogs do for fun (if it had been my dog, she would not have made it out of the city for stopping to lick everyone’s feet…)

Upon arriving back home, after being made a great fuss of, he presented the ofuda to his master and mistress. Soon his master’s health improved, and the three of them lived peacefully once more. Although, after such a long trip, I am not sure that the Shiba Inu asked for a walk ever again!

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog
Image my own.

* Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a dog makes, pronounced like ‘wan wan!’ In English it would be ‘woof woof!’

Read more about Ise Grand Shrine and regional Japanese folklore in my article about the ama divers and sea demons on #FolkloreThursday.

 

Update

So thrilled that this story has now been published by the lovely folks over at Do You Know the Story? and is accompanied by an beautiful illustration by my friend Kimberley Ford. Support them by following on Facebook and Twitter to discover and share amazing stories and artwork from around the world.

Ise Grand Shrine thankful dog

 

Japanese Ghost Stories: Himeji Castle and Okiku’s Well

Where there are castles, there are also stories. Himeji is no exception. This vibrant, serene city is also home to one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories.

Japan has hundreds of ghost stories, known as 怪談 which is pronounced kaidan. Living near Himeji made it was impossible not to learn a kaidan called ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Its English title is ‘Okiku and the Plates,’ and there are many versions of it throughout Japan. It is often performed as kabuki, which is a traditional style of Japanese theatre.

Himeji castle is one of the most commonly cited locations for ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ Let me take you there, and introduce you to Okiku…

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DISCLAIMER:
As I have said, there are many different variations of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki.’ The one I have written here is taken from the plaque in the grounds of Himeji castle, which I visited and studied myself. In no way do I claim that this is the ‘proper’ version, or that it is my own.
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Himeji castle has many names. For over 400 years it has stood, dominating the cityscape with its calm, gleaming white walls. It is called ‘white heron’ or ‘egret’ for its beauty, and ‘miracle’ for its longevity. But for all their majesty, castles are dangerous places for love. They are filled with secrets, and peril. In the 16th century, Himeji was no exception.

Himeji castle
Himeji Castle is famous for its beautiful white walls. Image my own.

Like any good tragedy, this story begins with love. Love between a brave warrior, called Kinugasa Motonobu, and a servant, the beautiful, honest Okiku.

Okiku served a powerful, influential samurai named Aoyama Tetsuzan. He was also the regent of Lord Norimoto, the true ruler of the castle. One day whilst working, Okiku overheard Tetsuzan discussing a plot to kill Lord Norimoto and seize the castle for himself.

Maybe it would have been better if she had never learned of this plot, or if she had ignored it. But when life gives you such choices, you either let them slide and what will be will be, or you take action. And Okiku was not a woman to let anything slide. In that moment, she knew she had to do something. She confided in her lover, Motonobu, and his allies, and they promised her things would be well and that the plot would be foiled.

And indeed it was.

Lord Norimoto was warned of the attack, and he fled the city. But although he was safe, Himeji castle and our lovers were not. In Lord Norimoto’s absence, Aoyama took control. He was furious that Lord Norimoto had escaped, and sought out the traitor. Secrets, secrets in his midst. Who to trust? No-one, no-one.

The only thing awaiting the traitor was death.

Okiku ema boards at Juunisho-jinja
The ema at Juunisho-jinja in Himeji feature pictures of Okiku. Ema are small wooden plaques which people write prayers on and hang in the grounds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Image my own.

Fearing for their own lives, one of the warriors betrayed Okiku. They informed Tetsuzan’s accomplice, a man named Danshirō, of her role in foiling the plot.

It was her, the servant girl. Because of her, Norimoto escaped!

Danshirō was a devious, possessive man. He saw Okiku’s beauty, and planned to make her his own. Instead of informing Tetsuzan of the traitor’s identity, he confronted Okiku himself. Secrets, secrets.

Beautiful Okiku, marry me, and your life will be spared.

But Okiku had already given her heart to Motonbu. She refused Danshirō over and over again.

No, no, I will not marry you!

Not a man to give up, Danshirō tried one final time to gain Okiku’s acceptance. He stole one of 10 valuable plates which were treasured heirlooms of the Aoyama family.

It is easy to frame a servant for theft…

All of the plates were here this morning! Who has been in?

Only the servants, my Lord.

What were they doing?

Cleaning, my Lord. They always dust the plates…

Who dusted the plates today?

Okiku, my Lord.

And where is she now?

Okiku was running. From the otemon gate to the honmaru. In the West Bailey, and in all of the yagura. Through the gardens and every kuruwa, and to the moat and back. Running, searching. She crept into Tetsuzan’s rooms and counted over and over again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

Always nine. The missing plate was nowhere to be found.

Okiku's ghost
Painting of Okiku by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1890. Image in the public domain – source

Seeing Okiku so desperate, Danshirō seized his chance.

Marry me, Okiku. This is the last time I will ask you. Marry me, and I will return the plate and clear your name.

But how could anyone agree to such a proposal, when they are already in love with another? Okiku’s love for Motonobu was true, and she was fearless. The reckless kind of fearless which only the strongest love can bring. She took a deep breath…

No, Danshirō. I belong to another, and I will never, ever marry you.

Danshirō’s jealousy and rage overcame him. This woman, who had foiled their plans and defied him, and still refused his affection no matter what he tried. This woman who dared to risk her own life for her love. Well, she need risk it no longer…

Danshirō drew his sword. One swipe was enough. He was fast; so fast that Okiku didn’t have time to scream or run. By the time she realised what he was going to do it had happened, and her blood was spilling out of her.

Where to hide a body? Somewhere deep, which daylight never shines upon and no human eyes ever glimpse…

Somewhere like… a well?

Yes, the well!

Okiku's well at Himeji castle
Okiku’s well in the grounds of Himeji castle. Image my own.

Danshirō gathered Okiku’s body into his arms, and with a last, wistful look at her beauty, a lament to that which he would never own, he threw her into the castle’s well.

Secrets. Leave them to rot in the sombre, damp underground.

Okiku’s absence raised no questions. After all, everyone believed she had stolen the plate and they knew that Tetsuzan took no prisoners. Only Motonobu and his companions continued to fight Tetsuzan. Eventually they were successful. He was overthrown and Lord Norimoto returned to Himeji, and Danshirō’s terrible crime was discovered.

In tribute to her love and bravery, Okiku was enshrined at Jūnisho-jinja. This modest, tranquil shrine is tucked away down a side street, quietly emitting its charm into the city.

Juunisho-shrine, Himeji
Jūnisho-jinja in Himeji. ‘Jinja’ means ‘shrine.’ Shrines are Shinto places of worship. Image my own.

As for the well…

Once the sun began to set and the shadows lengthened, people started avoiding it. There was talk of hearing strange sounds, like whispers, from within, and glimpses of the ethereal figure of a woman.

For the few who dared to venture to the well in the darkest hours of the night, if they listened carefully, they would realise that the whispering voice coming from the well was counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

Only to nine, never 10. One missing plate. One restless spirit eternally searching for it, counting every night. Never leaving her watery grave.

 

Japanese Ghost Poetry

For another take on Okiku’s story, have a listen to my poem about her.