Long before man searched for intelligent life in space, he wondered about the ocean and what creatures roamed just below the surface. Lore about sea folk has been around for centuries, but selkies are perhaps the least mentioned in pop culture. In this episode, we'll walk along the rocky shores of Scotland and have the selkies tell us their story.
Promo: Deadtime Storiez
What is a selkie?
What is it about the sea that we find so mysterious? Lore about sea dwellers stretches back centuries and centuries. Could it be man’s desire to conquer that unknown world that makes him imagine human-like beings already there? Before we began searching space for intelligent life, we wondered about the ocean and what mythical creatures roamed below the surface.
Selkies or seal folk, as they are sometimes called, are mythological beings that change from seal to human by shedding their seal skin.
Their origins go back to the mythology of the Northern Isles in Scotland. There are about 26 inhabited islands and landscapes that make up the Northern Isles. The ground is rich and fertile, with rolling lush green knolls and a mystic rocky coastline. It very much looks like a place that would birth amazing stories, and is indeed, rich with folklore. Like all of Scotland.
Selkies, according to Orkney tradition, come from large seals like the Greenland seal or the crusted seal.
Selkies cannot turn into their human form without first removing their seal skin, and it’s only when they put the skin back on that they can return to the sea.
The legends regarding female selkies are similar to the lore of swan maidens. Swan maidens, shift from human to swan, while selkies change from seal to human. Both female selkies and swan maidens often fall prey to the hungry eyes of human men. They watch as the creatures bath or rest on the shore, naked without their mythical skin. In order to render the ladies helpless, the men steal their skin—leaving them helpless and unable to flee.
Like many stories about ladies in history, the tales of our lady selkies are sad. In many versions, the female is lured into relationships or marriages with human men, who are keeping their skins hidden so she will be forced to stay.
Sometimes, the female selkie has a mate that she has left behind—sometimes on purpose, but not always. Her human husband doesn’t usually show much concern for taking her old life away from her. She’s kept in a sort of bondage, not fitting into this world and never being able to return to the sea—her home.
It’s not uncommon in the bits of lore, like in the tale told by a resident of North Ronaldsay, that a bachelor falls for a lady selkie and steals her skin. Only for her children—which she shares with him—to someday find her skin. Possibly a strange looking coat in the attic?
Stories of the children finding her skin often lead to the selkie leaving her human family behind to return to the sea and the life she once had there.
In “Selkie Wife,” a Deerness parish version, the human husband locks her seal skin in a chest, but in this one, the selkie says that it was “better to keep her selkies days of old behind her.” She may have had good intentions, but as soon as she unlocks her skin, she leaves.
In the children's versions of the tales, the selkie mother sometimes returns to see the children. Or she's seen by them in her seal form, hovering and watching from the sea.
Male selkies, on the other hand, are not usually lured into such traps. In fact, they are the traps. They tend to prey on lonely women, both married and unmarried. Many of the married women encounter the handsome male selkies while on the shoreline, waiting for their fishermen husbands to return from the sea.
Unmarried women would often shed seven tears into the sea, in a sort of code to the selkies that a woman wanted their attention. Male selkies seem to have a similar story to the tale of Tam Lin, which we discussed in Fabled Episode 3, Pinafore & Foxglove.
They were thought to have magical seductive powers. 19th Century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, descried selkie males as “… often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life.”
There are instances where a woman would go missing, and it was then assumed that she’d followed her selkie mate to his home deep within the sea.
Or, if you’re a skeptic… she ran away with another human man. But it’s lots more fun to imagine a home under the sea.
As mentioned earlier, selkies and humans can produce children. These kids would have webbed hands and feet. In some cases, the skin would be rough and need clipping regularly.
But is there any truth to the idea of selkies? In early history, Finnish women would wear seal skin to keep warm, and they also used it to make rafts. These dark-haired, beautiful women often married Scottish men. Finnish women’s close connection to seals may have helped birth the folklore.
People have always reported standing by being in the ocean with a feeling of being watched, only to see these human-like eyes watching them from the shore. Even now, people still feel their eyes piercing on them as they walk, so it's not a stretch of the imagination to see why people of our past may have wondered why they were watching. This is how stories like these are born. It's our wondering, that strange, mysterious connection to something that births the best folklore.
While researching, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to how the female selkies must have felt to those of women who married foreign men and were moved so far from their families. I wonder how lonely and sad it would be to be so far removed from everything you know. I also wonder about those who were forced into marriages, loving your children, but finding it difficult not to resent the situation you suffered.
One thing lore tends to do is make monsters, or in this case, creatures of things to make it easier to talk about. It wouldn’t have been acceptable to talk to friends about you missing home so badly that you secretly wished you could pack your things and never look back. No, those are words we’d keep locked away in the chest of secrets in our hearts.
That’s what stories are for—to freely explore the things we’ve kept in the darkness.
This is why we create monsters. This is why we develop creatures—beings that are so far removed from us that our secrets are safe.
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