Perhaps one of the most notable mythical sea creatures in Irish and Scottish legends are the Selkies who are also called Seal Folk. They are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin.
Most of the myths involving selkies recount the tales of female selkies who were forced into relationships with humans by someone stealing and hiding their sealskin.
There is a famous legend in Scottish folklore that revolves around a selkie wife and her human lover. According to the tale, a man finds a female naked selkie on the seashore, so he steals her skin and compels her to become his wife. Throughout her captivity, the wife longs to return to her true home in the sea and always gazes longingly at the ocean.
Although she may appear to settle into her human life and may even have children with her human husband, as soon as she can find her skin, she will immediately flee and return to the sea.
The story varies from place to place, as some say that she discovers the whereabouts of her skin, and some others say that one of her children comes upon it by accident. Some also say that she had a first husband from her own kind.
In some versions of the story, the selkie revisits her human family on land once every year, but in most versions of the tale, she is never seen again by them.
One version states that although the selkie wife was never seen again in human form, her children would sometimes witness a large seal approaching them and greeting them wistfully.
Are Selkies Male or Female?
Although most stories revolve around female selkies, there are also tales of male selkies who are said to have very handsome human forms, as well as seductive powers that are irresistible to human women.
As the tales go, the male selkies usually seek those who are dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If these women wish to contact their male selkies, they would shed seven tears into the sea.
The number seven shows up in the stories once again as some say that the selkie could only assume human form once every seven years because they are bodies that house condemned souls. They are also thought by some to be either human who had committed sinful wrongdoing or fallen angels.
What about Selkie Children?
Not only are they abandoned by their selkie parent, children born between man and seal-folk may have webbed hands or feet and that trait can be passed down to their descendants.
The Pinocchio Effect
We’ve all heard the story of Pinocchio, the young wooden boy who wishes he can be human and is finally granted his wish. Well, some legends say that selkies could turn human every so often when the conditions of the tides were correct.
Just like any other supernatural tales in Scotland, there are several superstitions related to selkies. For example, it was thought that killing a seal would bring misfortune for the perpetuator.
Tales From All Over the World
The selkie-wife tale had its version for practically every island of Orkney. In one tale, a confirmed bachelor falls in love with a selkie and steals her skin. When he’s not around, she searches the house and finds her seal-skin thanks to her youngest daughter.
In Shetland, some stories bring us tales of selkies luring islanders into the sea where the lovelorn humans never return to dry land. The sea-folk were also believed to revert to human shape and breathed air, but they had the ability to transform into seals as well, using their seal-skin, each of which was unique and irreplaceable.
The Scottish ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry details the shape-shifting nature of selkies:
‘I am a man upo’ da land;
I am a selkie i’ da sea.
An’ whin I’m far fa every strand,
My dwelling is in Shöol Skerry.’
In Iceland, Jón Árnason published the folk-tale “Selshamurinn” (which translates to “The Seal-Skin”) that revolves around a man from Mýrdalur who forced a seal woman to marry him after stealing of her seal-skin. She finally discovers the key to her husband’s chest and is reunited with the male seal who was her betrothed partner.
Another famous selkie story comes from the Faroe Islands and is titled The Legend of Kópakonan, as Kópakonan means “seal woman”.
The story tells of a young farmer from the village of Mikladalur who, after learning about the local legend that seals could come ashore and shed their skins once a year on the Thirteenth Night, goes to see for himself.
The farmer takes the skin of a young selkie woman, who, unable to return to the water without her skin, is forced to follow the young man back to his farm and become his wife.
The two stay together for many years, even producing several children. The man locks the selkie woman’s skin in a chest, keeping the key to the lock on his person at all times, so his wife may never gain access.
However, one day the man forgets his key at home and comes back to his farm to find that his selkie wife has taken her skin and returned to the ocean.
Later, when the farmer is out on a hunt, the man kills the selkie woman’s selkie husband and two selkie sons. Enraged, the selkie woman promises vengeance for her lost kin. She exclaims that “some shall be drowned, some shall fall from cliffs and slopes, and this shall continue until so many men have been lost that they will be able to link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy.” Deaths that occur on the island are thought to be due to the Selkie woman’s curse.
Origins of the Selkie Myths
You might wonder where these strange stories of selkies and fairies came from and how they came to be. Before the advent of modern medicine, many physiological and physical conditions were unexplainable and physicians were unable to treat them. Consequently, when children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairies.
The MacCodrum clan of the Outer Hebrides claimed to be descendants from a union between a fisherman and a selkie sp they became known as the “MacCodrums of the seals”. This was an explanation for a hereditary growth of skin between their fingers that made their hands look like flippers.
Children born with “scaly” skin were also thought to be the descendants of Selkies.
In Popular Culture
Selkies have appeared in numerous works of pop culture, such as novels, songs and films, including A Stranger Came Ashore, a young adult novel by Scottish author Mollie Hunter.
The plot takes place on the Shetland Islands in the north of Scotland, and it revolves around a boy who must protect his sister from the Great Selkie.
The Secret of Roan Inish, a 1994 American/Irish independent film based on the novel Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry, follows a young girl who uncovers the mystery of her family’s Selkie ancestry.
A 2000 Australian made-for-TV film titled Selkie also portrayed the story of a teenage boy who begins to notice changes in his body, such as growing scales and webbed fingers, that suggest he is somehow connected to a legendary line of Selkies.
Perhaps our favourite adaptation is Ondine, a 2009 Irish romantic drama film starring Colin Farrell. The film was shot on location in Castletownbere, Ireland, and it discusses the possible existence of the mythological selkies through the story of an Irish fisherman who comes upon a woman in his fishing net and how his precocious daughter begins to believe that the mysterious woman might be a selkie.
The legend of the selkies has been around for hundreds of years and maybe we’ll never find out if there a trace of truth to them, but just like the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, people will never stop looking into it and searching for the truth behind the legends.
In the meantime, the stories you can find are totally fascinating and can be found everywhere around Ireland, Scotland and many countries in Northern Europe.
Since most myths are based on realistic stories, I guess we can assume that the myths of the selkie folk can have a basis in reality as well. Whether due to mysterious illnesses or unexplained disappearances, the stories of the selkies might be more realistic than we think.
Have you ever heard of the Legend of the Selkies? Let us know in the comments below.