Selkies, silkies, selchies or seal-folk are shapechangers who can assume human form by removing their seal-skin like a coat. Like mermaids, we tend to gender selkies as female more than male, but the selkies of old were actually mainly depicted as men. Whichever superstition you choose to follow, the heart of all of these tales is a magical connection between seals and humans.
Origins Myths of the Selkie – Where Did They Come From?
Although perhaps most associated with the Orkney and Shetland, Selkies are also local to numerous other coastal areas of Scotland, Ireland, Norway and even Greenland. Accordingly, a taboo surrounds the killing of seals in many of these regions. But what is it about seals that accords this special treatment?
- Selkie Blood Lines – Certain families claimed heritage from selkies, especially the families of Conneely, O’Sullivan, O’Flaherty and Macnamara in West Ireland (MacGregor, 95). Similarly, in Scotland there are also particular families reportedly associated with seal-folk: the MacPhees of Colonsay island and the clan MacCodrum of North Uist (MacGregor, 97-8). Who knows where exactly these local legends took root – perhaps from a specific story or from a tendency towards webbed hands and feet in these families, an attribute often attributed to selkie blood.
- The Norwegian Monarchy – Other traditions associate the selkies with royalty, particularly the Norwegian Kings who once ruled over much of the Scottish islands. In the same vein as the Princess and the Frog, some traditions view ‘seals to be the children of kings under enchantment’ (Matthews, 146), who have been cursed by witches or sorcerers. Another tradition specific to the Hebrides recounts that ‘seals were royal attendants in the Palaces of Lochlann (Norway),’ (MacGregor, 98) sent by the King as messengers to the shores of occupied Northern Scotland and Ireland, where they transformed into humans and acted as spies, testing the people’s loyalty to the King.
- Witchcraft – As well as transformation into a selkie being a curse from a witch or sorcerer, a tradition from Aranmore island, Donegal indicates that witches could accidentally transform themselves into selkies. MacGregor recounts that in the late 19th century, islanders ‘could not be induced to attack a seal…being strongly under the impression that these animals were human beings metamorphosed by the power of their own witchcraft’ (102).
- Drowned People – Another common belief about the origins of selkies across Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia is that people who drowned at sea became selkies. Every so often, these people were able to shed their seal-skins and return to land for one night, before being forced to return to the sea at sunrise.
The Most Common Story Today – The Seal Woman and the Stolen Skin
In my experience, the most common storyline about selkies circulating today is that of a human man stealing the seal-skin of a selkie woman so that she will stay on land as his wife. In a post-#MeToo era many readers will interpret this action by the human man as coercive and abusive, rather than romantic. It was never going to work out, as he was holding her prisoner and forcing her to be with him against her will. Indeed, even in the most romanticised retellings of this tale, the relationship is doomed to fail as the selkie woman can never be content on land. In every tale, she eventually finds where the skin is hidden and returns to the sea, leaving her husband and children behind.
Now if you have also heard this telling of the story, you might be suprised to learn that in most of the traditional tales, it is seal men who appear more often.
Traditional Tales – Seal Men and Warnings Against Seal Hunting
A number of tales from different traditions tell of a sailor or fisherman meeting a strange man, with a distinctive scar, by the coast. The scar mirrors a wound they once inflicted upon a seal (either by accident or on purpose). In all of these variations the selkie-man knows and addresses them by their name and warns them against attacking seals in future.
The traditional folk ballads about selkies from the Shetland and Orkney, known commonly as ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’ can be interpreted as yet another warning against seal-hunting. The plot of these tales can be summarised as such:
A woman nurses a baby and laments that she doesn’t know where his father is (or who he is in some versions). A selkie man appears and claims the baby as his own son. He leaves the baby with the mother for a specified amount of time (12 months and a day or 7 years), before returning to take his son with him into the sea, compensating the mother with a bag of gold. Before he leaves the selkie prophesises to her that she will marry a gunner (hunter) who will kill both him and her son.
The Shetland version doesn’t specify a location other than ‘Sule Skerry’, an uninhabited island off the North coast of Scotland. Therefore a Scottish setting for this ballad has often been assumed. In contrast, the Orkney version sets the initial action of the mother and child in Norway, though the selkie still states his home to be Sule Skerry.
The Orkney version also adds another tragic detail at the end of the ballad. The truth of the selkie’s prophecy is confirmed when the hunters bring back a gold chain which the mother recognises as the same one she gave her son before he was taken.
Many contemporary writers and filmmakers have been inspired by selkie myths. One extremely recent adaptation is the 2014 Academy-Award nominated animation, The Song of the Sea created by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. The film’s gorgeous visuals and soundtrack featuring music by the Irish folkband, Kíla and vocals from Lisa Hannigan make it a rich and rewarding watch.
Bibliography and further reading
- MacGregor, Alistair Alpin.The Peat-Fire Flame: Folktales and traditions of the Highlands and Islands. Moray Press, 1957.
- Matthews, Caitlin and Matthews, John.The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology. Aquarian Press, 1988.
- Towrie, Sigurd. The Great Selkie o’ Suleskerry. http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/selkiefolk/sulesk.htm
- — Version 1. http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/selkiefolk/sulesk1.htm
- — Version 2. http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/selkiefolk/sulesk2.htm