The Legend of the Selkies | Ultimate Mythology Blog – Top Selkie Facts

Woman Under Water_Legend of the Selkies

Updated On: May 01, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Perhaps one of the most notable mythical tales in Irish and Scottish mythology is the Legend of the Selkies, also called Seal Folk. These mythological beings are capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin.

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Most selkie myths recount the tales of female selkies who were forced into relationships with humans who stole and hid their sealskin.

Together, we will embark on a journey to unravel the layers of mystery surrounding the Selkies in Irish folklore and mythology. Join us as we delve into the origins of these enchanting creatures, their role in the cultural and emotional landscape of Ireland and beyond, and the enduring fascination they continue to evoke.

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Mysterious Female Selkie Under Water

Before we delve deep into the Legend of the Selkies, we must first ask ourselves what Selkies are. The Selkie myth is Ireland’s and Scotland’s take on a fabled marine creature similar to mermaids, sirens, and swan maidens in other cultures.

It is a creature that takes the form of a seal in the water but can remove the seal skin on land and emerge as an irresistible human to land dwellers.

The Legend of the Selkies in Irish Mythology

Irish folklore is a realm where the boundaries between the ordinary and the extraordinary blur and the natural world interlace with the supernatural. These Irish tales of enchantment and mysticism have thrived for centuries.

Among the rich history of Irish folklore and mythology, the legend of the Selkies is a captivating and enigmatic story with elements of both beauty and melancholy. These mythical beings, who can transform from seals into humans and back again, have charmed generations with their haunting songs, timeless tales, and elusive presence along the rugged coastlines of Ireland.

The Selkies, also known as “seal-folk” or “seal-wives,” are a prime example of the profound connection between the Irish people and the sea. The ocean, with its unpredictable tides and dark depths, has always held a special place in the hearts of the Irish, shaping their culture, livelihoods, and stories they tell.

Through the Selkies, the Irish have explored themes of love, loss, identity, and the eternal allure of the sea.

The Legend of the Selkies in Scottish Mythology

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Selkie Woman looking at other Selkies free in the Ocean

A famous legend in Scottish folklore revolves around a selkie wife and her human lover. According to the legend of the Selkies, a man finds a female naked selkie on the seashore, so he steals her sealskin 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, she will immediately flee and return to the sea as soon as she can find her selkie skin.

The story varies from place to place. Some say that she discovers the whereabouts of her skin, and others claim that one of her children comes upon it by accident. Some stories also say that she had already married a selkie husband. Whatever the case, she returns to the ocean as soon as she gets the sealskin.

In some versions of the Selkies’ story, the Selkie revisits her human family on land once every year, but in most versions, she is never seen again by them.

One version of the Selkie legend 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.

Legend of the Selkies

In the Legend of the Selkies, 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 and seductive powers that are irresistible to human women.

As the legend of the Selkies goes, the Selkie men usually seek those dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen’s husbands. If these women wished to contact the male selkies, they would shed seven tears into the sea.

The number seven appears once again in Selkie mythology. Some say that the Selkie could only assume human form once every seven years because they are bodies that house condemned souls. Some also think of them as either humans who had committed sinful wrongdoings or fallen angels.

Similar Creatures in Mythology


A big difference between Selkies and Mermaids is that when selkies leave the water, they shed their seal skin and become fully human. This contrasts with the traditional mermaids who transform their seal tails into human legs.

Selkies are much milder in personality than their mermaid or siren counterparts. Many tales surrounding selkies involve them as prey, with female selkies captured by men or predators and male selkies who lure lonely women to the sea.

However, there are also legends of Selkies and humans who love each other. Often, the selkie would sacrifice their human form to return to the sea to save a drowning human. Stories about selkies differ drastically on the relationships between individual selkies and humans.

The depiction of mermaids has changed drastically in media and mythology, from beautiful siren-like creatures with distinct human features to fish-human hybrids. Their motivations can be malicious, trying to lure sailors to their demise, or more genuine, hoping to befriend the people they meet and even wishing to become human.


Sirens are found in Greek mythology. They are beautiful but dangerous creatures who lure sailors to their doom with their mesmerising singing. Sirens are often depicted as beautiful women with wings who try to lure sailors to their deaths but are sometimes depicted more as mermaids.

Unlike selkies, which can have good relationships with humans, sirens seem to have only one goal: to lure as many humans to their deaths as possible. There are many different reasons for this in Greek mythology.

Swan Maiden

Found worldwide, including in Japanese and German folklore, swan maidens are very similar to Selkie folklore in that they use swan skin to transform. The main difference is the animals they transform into.

Swans are a symbol of love and fidelity in Irish folklore; Aengus or Óengus, the Celtic God of Youth and Love and member of the Tuatha de Danann fell in love with a woman who was turned into a swan, a prisoner of her father. He turned himself into a swan, and they flew away together.

Conversely, The Children of Lir is a sad story in Irish mythology about a jealous stepmother who turned her stepchildren into swans so she could be with their father by herself. The children were cursed to live 900 years as swans.

There are still themes of love and loyalty, though, as the wealthy father gave up his castle to live in a campsite on the lake near his children.

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Children of Lir


Kelpies are aquatic shapeshifters in Scottish mythology. Like the legend of the selkies, they take the form of animals, usually humans. Found along rivers and streams, the Kelpie has ill intentions towards humans and is something in folklore to be avoided.

What about Selkie Children?

Selkie children occupy a unique and poignant place in Irish folklore and mythology. According to legend, when a Selkie sheds its seal skin and transforms into a human, it may enter into romantic relationships with humans.

These unions, however, often lead to the birth of Selkie children, who inherit a dual heritage of both the terrestrial and aquatic realms. The origin of Selkie children highlights the interconnectedness of the natural and supernatural worlds within Irish folklore and the theme of forbidden love that permeates many of these tales.

The Struggle for Identity

Selkie children grapple with a profound struggle for identity, torn between two contrasting worlds. On the one hand, they are bound to the sea, inheriting their parents’ affinity for it, and on the other, they yearn for the warmth and familiarity of human society.

This internal conflict is a central theme in Selkie folklore, reflecting the universal human experience of reconciling one’s heritage and individuality. The Selkie children’s quest for identity mirrors the broader Irish cultural narrative, where the sea plays a significant role in shaping the people’s sense of self.

The Enchantment of Selkie Children

Like their parents, Selkie children are believed to possess enchanting qualities, often attributed to their ethereal origins. They possess otherworldly beauty, charisma, and an innate connection to the natural world. In some tales, they inherit the gift of singing hauntingly beautiful songs, which can mesmerize those who hear them.

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Selkie children are surrounded by melancholy and tragedy.

This enchantment is both a blessing and a curse, drawing others towards them and making it difficult for Selkie’s children to lead ordinary lives. It underscores the idea that their existence is marked by a touch of magic, emphasizing their status as beings caught between two worlds.

The Tragic Fate of Selkie Children

The stories of Selkie’s children are often imbued with a sense of tragedy and melancholy. Their hybrid nature makes them vulnerable to the whims of fate, as they may be summoned back to the sea when their Selkie parent reclaims their lost seal skin.

This separation from the human world, their families, and their desires creates a bittersweet narrative of love and loss. The tragic fate of Selkie children underscores the themes of sacrifice and the inexorable pull of the sea, serving as a reminder of the unpredictability of life in the context of Irish folklore.

Additionally, children born between humans and seal-folk may have webbed hands or feet. That trait can then be passed down to their descendants. Not only are they abandoned by their selkie parents, but they can also be ostracised due to their inherited traits.

Selkie Children in Contemporary Culture

In contemporary culture, the concept of Selkie children continues to capture the imagination. These mythical beings are symbols of the enduring connection between the Irish people and their coastal heritage.

Selkie children have also found a place in literature, music, and art, where their stories are reimagined and retold, resonating with audiences worldwide. With their complex identities and timeless tales, Selkie children continue to be a source of fascination and reflection, highlighting the enduring power of folklore to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

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Tales of Selkie’s children are present in art, music, and written works.

Superstitions Surrounding the Legend of the Selkies

Like any other supernatural tale, several superstitions are related to selkies. Superstitions surrounding the Legend of the Selkies in Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology have long added to the mystical aura of these enchanting creatures.

These beliefs are deeply rooted in these countries’ cultures, reflecting the age-old connection between the people and the sea. With their shape-shifting abilities and otherworldly allure, Selkies have become a focal point for a wide range of superstitious beliefs that continue to intrigue and captivate.

Seal Skins as Powerful Artifacts

One prominent superstition associated with the Legend of the Selkies revolves around their sealskin coats, which are believed to hold powerful enchantments. In Irish folklore, it is said that if a Selkie were to lose or leave behind their sealskin, they would be unable to return to their aquatic form and would be bound to live as a human.

Thus, finding a discarded sealskin along the shoreline was seen as a rare and lucky event, as it bestowed control over the Selkie’s fate upon the finder. Such beliefs highlight the deep reverence for the ocean and its mysterious inhabitants.

The Perilous Consequences of Capturing Selkie Women

Another superstition warns of the dire consequences of capturing Selkie women, especially when possessing their sealskin. In these legends, humans who take a female selkie’s coat are often subjected to misfortunes, such as storms at sea, illness, or a lifetime of melancholy.

This superstition serves as a cautionary tale amidst the Legend of the Selkies. It reminds individuals of the importance of respecting the boundaries between the human and supernatural worlds and the potentially tragic outcomes of interfering with the lives of mystical beings.

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Selkies are believed to cause storms on the sea.

Selkies as Harbingers of Storms

Selkies are sometimes viewed as harbingers of storms and bad weather. Their appearance near coastal communities was often seen as an omen of impending storms or turbulent seas.

This belief reflects the close relationship between the natural world and folklore, where the behaviour of sea creatures was observed and interpreted as signs from the spiritual realm. The superstition surrounding the Legend of the Selkies as storm-bringers serves as a testament to the respect and fear that the unpredictable ocean inflicts.

The Pinocchio Effect

We’ve all heard the story of Pinocchio, the young wooden boy who wishes to be human and is finally granted his wish. Well, some legends say that selkies could turn human occasionally when the conditions of the tides were correct.

This superstition contradicts other legends that Selkies could transform at will or once every seven years. Instead, it connects the spiritual realm of these creatures with the ocean’s real-world impacts.

The Persistence of Selkie Superstitions

Despite the modernization of Ireland and Scotland and the decline of traditional superstitions, beliefs in the Legend of the Selkies and their mystical properties endure in various forms.

From charms and amulets fashioned from sealskin to tales of Selkie encounters passed down through generations, these superstitions persist along with an enduring fascination with the Legend of the Selkies.

These superstitions not only provide a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of Ireland and Scotland, but also serve as a reminder of the deep connection between their people and the untamed sea.

The Legend of the Selkies and its accompanying superstitions have shaped their beliefs and traditions for centuries.

Tales From All Over the World about the Legend of the Selkies

The old wives’ tales of selkies had their version for practically every island of Orkney. In one tale, a 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 tell of selkies luring islanders into the sea, where the lovelorn humans never return to dry land. The seafolk were also believed to revert to human shape and breathe air, but they could also transform into seals. They did this using their seal skin, each unique and irreplaceable.

The Scottish ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry details the legend of the selkies’ shape-shifting nature:

‘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 her seal skin. She finally discovers the key to her husband’s chest, finds her seal skin, and is reunited with the male seal, her betrothed partner.

A similar selkie story from the Faroe Islands 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.

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The legend of the Selkies says the creatures appear as Seals in the water

The farmer takes the skin of a young female selkie. She cannot return to the water without her skin and 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 Legend of the Selkies

You might wonder where these strange legends of the selkies and fairies came from and how they came to be. The Selkie origin is fascinating. Before the advent of modern medicine, many physiological and physical conditions were unexplainable, and physicians could not 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 of a union between a fisherman and a selkie, so 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.

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Selkies inhabit the shores of Ireland and Scotland.

Children born with “scaly” skin were also thought to be the descendants of Selkies. These theories help root the legend of the selkies in reality.

The legend of the Selkies has 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 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 Rosalie K. Fry’s novel The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, 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. The changes suggest he is somehow connected to a legendary line of Selkies.

Perhaps our favourite adaptation of the Legend of the Selkies 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. One day, he encounters a woman in his fishing net, and his precocious daughter begins to believe that the mysterious woman might be a selkie.

The Selkie Meets High Fashion

Kimberley Gordon, born in the UK before moving to California, was inspired by the legend of the Selkies, so much so that she designed a clothing collection.

Gordon was inspired by the idea of the selkie woman who was captured and forced to marry a human. The selkie’s eventual escape represented the idea of finding yourself trapped and regaining your freedom by starting again. The dress has become a viral hit, hopefully allowing more people to learn about the fascinating marvel that is Celtic folklore.

More on the Legend of the Selkies

So, are selkies real? The legend of the selkies has been around for hundreds of years. Maybe we’ll never find out if there is any 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, mythological stories are totally fascinating. They can be found everywhere around Ireland, Scotland, and many countries in Northern Europe. Other intriguing stories, like the legend of the selkies, are those about Ireland’s most powerful supernatural race, the Tuatha de Danann, or the fairies and monsters they encountered.

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. Whether due to mysterious illnesses or unexplained disappearances, the legend of the Selkies might be more realistic than we think.

Note: there are many different spellings of ‘Selkie’ including, selkie folk, selkie fowk, seilkie, sejlki, selky, silkey, silkie, saelkie, sylkie. In Irish Gaelic, Selkies are sometimes referred to as séala (seal), murdúch (mermaid) or merrow (anglicized version). They are sometimes called the seal woman myth.

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Captured selkie women yearn to return to the sea.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Legend of the Skelkies

What is a Selkie in Mythology?

The legend of the Selkies is Ireland’s and Scotland’s take on a mythological marine creature, similar to mermaids, sirens and swan maidens in other cultures. It is a creature that takes the form of a seal in the water but is able to take off the seal skin on land and emerge as an irresistible human to land dwellers.

What is the Legend of the Selkies?

The Legend of the Selkies tells the tale of a female selkie who washed to shore. A human man found her and stole her seal skin, trapping her in a human form. The selkie marries the man, and throughout her captivity, she longs to return to her true home in the sea. The selkie woman always gazes longingly at the ocean, determined to make her way home.

What does ‘Selkie’ mean?

‘Selkie’ derives from the Scottish word selch, which means grey seal.

Can Selkies be male?

Although most stories revolve around female selkies, selkies are not only female. There are also tales of male selkies who are said to have very handsome human forms and seductive powers that are irresistible to human women. Unlike their female counterparts, whom humans often capture, male selkies intentionally lure humans to the sea.

What Mythology does the Selkie Belong to?

Selkies appear in Celtic and Norse mythology. However, the human who can change into a creature by wearing their skin is a common motif in the folklore of cultures worldwide, including Germany, Iceland, Asia, and North America.

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The Legend of the Selkie is known in Celtic and Norse mythology.

Do Selkies have Powers?

Selkies can transform from human to seal by wearing seal skin, each unique to the individual selkie. When in human form, they are known for their irresistible looks. They also have all of the traits and abilities of humans.

Where do Selkies Live?

Selkies are typically found along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland in mythology.

Are Selkies the Same as Mermaids?

While they share some similarities, selkies and mermaids are distinct creatures in mythology. A big difference between them is that when selkies leave the water, they shed their seal skin and become fully human. This contrasts with the traditional mermaids, who transform their seal tails into human legs.

Are Selkies Fairies or Fae?

Selkies are sometimes considered fairies or fae due to their supernatural abilities. However, this is just one of many theories in Celtic and Norse mythology about how the Selkies came to be. Some think they are either humans who have committed sinful wrongdoings or fallen angels.

What is a Selkie Dress?

When designing her fashion collection, Kimberly Gordon was inspired by the Legend of the Selkies. She was especially partial to the idea that people can rediscover their freedom when overcoming challenging circumstances.

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Selkies are also called seal-folk.

The Legend of the Selkies Lives on Today

In Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology, the Legend of the Selkies showcases the enduring power of storytelling and the deep, mystical connection between humanity and the vast oceans that border these lands.

Through centuries, captivating tales of the Legend of the Selkies have told stories of enchantment, love, tragedy, and transformation. They provide a glimpse into the hearts and souls of those who call the rugged coastlines of Ireland and Scotland their home.

The Selkies, with their ability to seamlessly navigate between the worlds of seal and human, are metaphors for the complexities of identity and belonging. In the Legend of the Selkies, we find reflections of our desires, our yearnings for freedom, and our sacrifices for love.

The tales highlight the enduring magic of folklore, where stories passed down through generations continue to captivate and inspire. They remind us that even in a world increasingly dominated by science and technology, there is a deep human need for mystery, wonder, and a connection to the natural world.

The Legend of the Selkies persists as a testament to the resilience of cultural heritage and the power of storytelling to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

Have you ever heard of the Legend of the Selkies? Let us know in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this blog on the Legend of the Selkies Mythology, you could find more Mythology Blogs by ConnollyCove here: Fairy Glen | Irish Legend of the Children of Lir | Leprechauns Ireland | The Myth of the Clurichaun | Scáthach: The Most Infamous Warrior

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