the legend of the selkie

The Selkie mythology can be found in both Celtic and Nordic folklore. Long has therianthropy been an integral part of mythology and folklore in almost all global cultures. Selkie is the Orcadian word for seal, Orcadian being the language spoken by indigenous inhabitants of the Orkney Islands of Scotland. These selkie tales first show up off the northeastern coast of Scotland in the Orkney Islands. While the selkie legend is one that Ireland and Scotland share, there are dozens of varieties and hundreds of stories. Many scholars believe that the legend of the selkie is Ireland’s concept of a mermaid.

 

The selkie – also called the seal people or seal folk– is a marine legend that tells of creatures who are half seal and half human. In the water they are seals but on land they shed their skin and take on human form. They are irresistible to ordinary humans, who are prone to fall in love with them in their human form. Unlike mermaids or sirens, selkies have no natural antipathy towards humans. Also different from mermaids, they undergo a “full body transformation upon coming to shore” (Wilderness Ireland, The Legend of the Selkie) as opposed to transforming tails into legs. Popular on islands and rural coastal communities the legend of selkies have endured for centuries and though less often, there are still sightings even in contemporary times.

 

Some say that the origins of the selkie myth actually stem from Scottish and Irish ancient peoples coming into contact with Sami travelers who were thought to be selkies for their use of sealskin coats and canoes. If the boat became sodden and started to sink, the Sami traveller would be need to come ashore and dry their sealskin clothing and boat out before resuming their travels.

 

Though many stories begin with "once upon a time” almost all of the stories have a tragic ending. The folk-tales frequently revolve around female selkies being coerced into relationships with humans by someone stealing and hiding their sealskin, thus demonstrating thematic similarities to the swan maiden archetype. There are tales of Selkie males, but they are much rarer. In the case of male Selkies, there are variations of the stories where women summon a male selkie by “sending their tears to the sea.” (Women who run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes)

 

The stories were often meant to provide context for inexplicable loss unrelated to death. In other words, how do you explain a difficult concept such as abandonment to a child? Think of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other fables we often read aloud to children to impart creative life lessons, or explain painful, confusing events.

 

A common folk tale is that of a man who steals a female selkie's skin, finds her naked on the shore dancing with other selkies, falls in love with her, takes her skin and hides it, and by doing so, compels her to become his wife. The wife will often spend much of her time in captivity longing for the sea, her true home. Sometimes she becomes sickly the longer she is away from the ocean. She might go on to have several children with her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she will immediately return to the sea and abandon the children she loves. Sometimes, one of her children discovers the skin by accident, and this ends in confusion and trauma for the child who identifies as being the cause of mothers’ abandonment. This begs the question, who is really to blame? The selkie mother being unable to personally overcome all that is natural to her? Or the human husband who removed her from her natural habitat in the first place? In some stories, she already had a first husband of her own species. Although it can be found in some children's story versions that the selkie mother revisits her family on land once a year, more often, she is never seen again by them. In one version, the selkie wife in human form was never seen again by her husband, but the children would witness a large seal approach them and interact with them. In some tales, the selkie falls in love with the human as well and knowingly consents to the seal skin being hidden away. It must be understood that once the selkie is reunited with her skin she has no choice but to return to the ocean. Thus, it can be assumed that her abandonment of the family is far more complex than the way we commonly think of that kind of trauma. So far, we have not come across stories where a selkie had agency over not returning to the sea should she be reunited with her skin.

 

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