Allen S. Maller

A seal skin coat marriage fable from Iceland

“The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 found that interfaith marriages are three times as likely to end in divorce” writes Naomi Riley in an op-ed essay in the June 16, 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

Riley’s recent survey found that interfaith couples have surprisingly few conversations about the religious identity of their children. She found that more than half of the couples didn’t talk about how they would raise their children before they married (and that’s not counting the couples who said they didn’t intend to have children, many of whom will change their minds in later years).

Although all sociology surveys over the last sixty years have found similar high divorce rate results, the awareness of the problems that cross religious/cultural marriages encounter goes back many centuries; as can be seen from this old Icelandic folk fable: A Seal’s Skin: An Icelandic Folktale retold by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Once in the south of Sweden a man walking along the cliffs on the seashore came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.

Later he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He had brought cloths so she could dress herself, and comforted her and brought her home with him. She became attached to him, but did not get on with most of the others. She often sat and looked at the sea.

Some time later the man married her. They lived together for a few years. She still often sat and looked at the sea. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in a chest and had the key with him wherever he went.

One year the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin were gone.

She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation to return to her former life and she had put on the skin and plunged into the sea.

They say the man grieved so much for her after that for months afterwards, when he went fishing, he often saw a seal swim round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes; but her husband was never willing to jump into the sea and join her in her family home.

© 2008 The Viking Rune, translation from Icelandic

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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