Updated: May 21
Selkies - Seal-People of the Icy Sea
Another post in the "Gather 'Round the Fable" series, today we are going to be exploring the myths of selkies. The word appears in Scottish, Irish, Gaelic and Icelandic folklore and it refers to stories of seal-people, a type of shapeshifter that lives primarily as a seal but can become human.
More than a fishy tale
The tales usually involve a human male finding the shed seal skin of a selkie woman who has shed her usual appearance to take on a human form on land. The human male hides the skin so she can't transform back and takes her for his wife. The tales usually involve the woman longing to return to the sea, even as she has a family with the human. Often she regains her sealskin and returns to her home, leaving behind the man and her children (though in some tales
she comes back for visits). The stories sometimes will say that children born of these unions have webbed hands or other traits that mark them as born of a selkie.
I've been drawn to stories of selkies for years - in fact, I recently found a story I wrote probably fifteen years ago on that very topic (and I'll be sharing as a free story on the webpage).
There is something about the inability to return home, to longing for what you had once but can't find again, that really resonates with me.
Complex, haunting, full of yearning
These stories have layers of complexity; dominance of the male human over the female selkie, abandonment of children, giving up the past, yearning for what is lost. Perhaps because the themes of selkie stories can be so complex that we see selkies and variations on the theme (including mermaids) in so much written and visual art. One of my favorite pop cultural references to selkies is a charming Irish film called The Secret of Roan Inish (1994).
Sadness in the Song of the Sea
Certainly not as famous as their mermaid cousins, I think selkies and their stories are a bit sadder, a bit less ready for Disney-fication, and a bit richer in content. The motivations of both the selkie and the human, the conflict of the children born from these unions, and the decision to return to the sea are all fascinating and provide tons of fodder for creative souls looking for some sadness in their song of the sea.
Enjoy reading about myths? Check out the rest of the Gather 'Round the Fable series, including the post about Hobgoblins.