Skinning Stories in Folklore

by Laura Brueckner

Skinning stories are gruesome, but they’re everywhere: all over the globe, there exist folk tales and fairy tales where a character is separated from their skin—voluntarily or not. Other skinning stories feature figures who wear the skin of some other being—again, voluntarily or not. On the surface, these stories are fantastical, vivid, and surreal in their violence and sheer weirdness. On a deeper level, they offer ways to examine, in narrative form, the profound power (and price) of transformation.

In skinning stories, the skin itself often represents identity, whether it’s one’s own identity, or a new identity adopted for safety, power, or status. Unsurprisingly, the process of removing one’s skin/identity can be horribly painful, but this trauma can also open up paths to new life—crucially, change always comes at a cost. Taken as a group, skinning tales explore our hunger to gain control over who we are, how the world sees us, or what resources we have. Here are some examples that demonstrate this bond between skin and transformation/rebirth.

Selkie (Ireland, Orkney & Faroe Islands): Probably the most famous skinning legend, thanks to the film The Secret of Roan Inish. These shapeshifting seal-creatures can painlessly take off their sealskins and walk the land as humans, then return to their skins and the sea again. The trouble only starts when a human gets hold of the empty sealskin and uses it to trap the wandering selkie. In the most common version of the tale, a human fisherman finds a selkie-skin on the beach one night; he grabs and hides it, forcing the shivering female to seek shelter with him on land. They “marry” (in some versions, the selkie is agreeable to this, and sometimes she’s a miserable, abused captive) and she produces two children. One night, alone in the house, she finds her sealskin in a hidden part of the building—under floorboards, in a box, or stashed in the roofbeams—and, even in versions where she loves the fisherman and her children, she swiftly puts on her sealskin and dives back into the water and freedom.  

The Old Woman Who was Skinned (Italy): This fairy tale also looks at skin as identity, but it’s nowhere near as positive. Two old, wrinkled, spinster sisters live near a king’s castle. (Yeah, old-school misogyny, ugh.) One day, one of the sisters amuses some wandering fairies, making them laugh; as a thank-you, they turn her young and beautiful again. The king soon spots her, and falls madly in love; they resolve to marry. At the wedding feast, the gorgeous young bride’s still-wizened sister—who had no help from fairies—gets wildly jealous and harasses her sister for the secret to her youth. Annoyed, her dewier sister lies to her, replying that all she had to do was skin herself to become young again. The aged sister limps out of the castle and finds a barber, pays him handsomely, and demands that he skin her. He tries to refuse, but she insists and berates him; then, he does his best—and she dies of blood loss. (Fairy tale by Giambattista Basile, published 1634, from folkloric sources.)

More info on the Basile collection Tale of Tales, which pre-dates the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen:

Lappish Breeches/Corpse Breeches (Iceland): Do you despair of poverty? Do you long to become rich? Look no further than a pair of corpse breeches. Getting hold of a pair of necropants is a complex process, however: first, the enterprising individual must get another person (who must be male) to voluntarily sign over their skin before death. Once the donor dies and is buried, the skin’s new owner must dig up the bod; remove the skin from the waist down; tuck into the “pocket” (scrotum) a piece of paper containing a magical sigil (symbol) and a coin stolen from a widow; then step into the resulting garment. The pants will make the new owner rich, because the “pocket” of the breeches will always be replenished with money. This explores skinning, transformation, and renewal in whole new ways. (J. Simpson, J. Árnason, Icelandic Folktales and Legends.) 

Skinwalker (Dineh/Navajo): Skinwalkers are so scary that folklorists working with Dineh people have noted that their sources were reluctant to even talk about them. In Dineh tradition, medicine knowledge can be either good or evil, used to help or hurt people—both types of powers are available, requiring each individual to choose for themselves which path to walk. A malicious person steeped in medicine knowledge can gain enough power to become a Skinwalker by killing a blood relative, at which point s/he gives up being human. The Skinwalker kills animals and binds their rotting skins to its body, allowing it to appear in the form of those animals (coyote, wolf, deer, bear, or bird). It can become invisible, fly, and curse humans, making them sick; their mere presence is malign enough to kill livestock. It can also assume the appearance of people, luring their friends into the dark or off of cliffs. The way to kill a Skinwalker—which shows again, how the concepts of skin and identity are related—is to learn its human name and shout it at them.

More on Skinwalkers, including accounts from Dineh sources:

Xipe Totec (Mesoamerica): Originally the “flayed god” of Olmec cosmology, Xipe Totec became a major god in most of the other major agricultural Mesoamerican civilizations as well. He was the god of spring and of seeds (as well as disease). In this version of the trauma/skinning/rebirth narrative, priests of Xipe Totec would carry out human sacrifice to ensure the rebirth of the crops after the long winter. Each spring, they would sacrifice war prisoners, who “were then skinned in symbolic imitation of the regeneration of plants and seeds which shed their husks.” The priests then dyed the skins with spots, and wore them as robes for the rest of the month before burying them under the temple. 

More on Xipe Totec here: