The Legend of the Selkies | Ultimate Mythology Blog – Top Selkie Facts
Updated On: June 24, 2022
Perhaps one of the most notable mythical tales in Irish and Scottish myths and legends is the Legend of 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 who stole and hid their sealskin.
- Legend of the Selkies in Scottish Mythology
- Are Selkies Male or Female?
- Similar Creatures in Mythology
- What about Selkie Children?
- Tales From All Over the World about the Legend of the Selkies
- Origins of the Legend of the Selkies
- Legend of the Selkies in Popular Culture
- The Selkie meets High Fashion
- More on the Legend of the Selkies
- Frequently Asked Questions
Before we delve deep into the Legend of the Selkie, we must first ask ourselves what are Selkies? 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 is able to take off the seal skin on land and emerge as an irresistible human to land dwellers.
Legend of the Selkies in Scottish Mythology
There is a famous legend in Scottish folklore that 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, as soon as she can find her selkie 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 already been married to a selkie husband. Whatever the case, as soon as she gets the sealskin she returns to the ocean.
In some versions of the story of the Selkies, 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 of the legend of the Selkies 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.
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, as well as seductive powers that are irresistible to human women.
As the legend of the Selkies goes, 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 the male selkies, they would shed seven tears into the sea.
The number seven shows up in selkie mythology 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 humans who had committed sinful wrongdoing, 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 the traditional mermaids who transform their seal tail into human legs.
Selkies are much milder in personality than their mermaid or siren counterparts. While many of the tales surrounding selkies involve them as prey; female selkies captured by men against their will, or predators; male selkies who lure lonely women to the sea, there are also stories of Selkies and humans who loved each other, often the selkie would sacrifice their human form to return to the sea to save a human who was drowning. Stories about selkies differ drastically on the relationships between individual selkies and humans.
The depiction of mermaids has changes 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, beautiful but dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their doom with their mesmerising singing. they are often depicted as beautiful women with wings who try and lure sailors to their death, but are sometimes depicted more as mermaids.
Unlike selkies who can have good relationships with humans, sirens only goal seems to be to lure as many humans to their death as possible, there are many different reasons as to why in Greek mythology.
Found all over the world including Japanese and German folklore, swan maidens are very similar to Selkie folklore in that they use a swan skin to transform; the main difference being 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 step children 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 to be near his children.
Kelpies are aquatic shapeshifters in Scottish mythology. Like Selkies they usually take the form of animals usually humans. Found along rivers and streams the Kelpie has ill intentions towards humans and are something in folklore to be avoided.
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.
Superstitions surrounding the Legend of the Selkies
Just like any other supernatural tales in Scotland, there are several superstitions related to selkies; the same goes for Irish Selkies. For example, it was thought that killing a seal would bring misfortune for the perpetuator.
Tales From All Over the World about the Legend of the Selkies
The selkie-wife tale had its 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 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 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 Legend of the Selkies
You might wonder where these strange stories of 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 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 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.
Children born with “scaly” skin were also thought to be the descendants of Selkies.
Legend of the 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 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 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 Selkie Meets High Fashion
Kimberley Gordon, born in the UK, before moving to California, was inspired by the legend of the Selkie, so much so that she designed a collection.
Gordon was inspired by the idea of the selkie woman who was captured and forced to marry a human. The selkies eventual escape represented the idea of finding yourself in a trapped situation and finding 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 folkore.
More on the Legend of the Selkies
So, are selkies real? The legend of the selkies has been around for hundreds of years and maybe we’ll never find out if there 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, the stories you can find are totally fascinating and can be found everywhere around Ireland, Scotland and many countries in Northern Europe, such as 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 as well. Whether due to mysterious illnesses or unexplained disappearances, the stories 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). it is sometimes called the seal woman myth.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a Selkie in mythology?
The Selkie 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 Selkie Legend?
The Legend of the Selkie 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, the wife longs to return to her true home in the sea and always gazes longingly at the ocean, as she is determined to make her way home.
What does ‘Selkie’ mean?
The word ‘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, as well as seductive powers that are irresistible to human women. Unlike their female counterparts who are often captured by humans, male selkies intentionally lure humans to the sea usually.
What mythology does the Selkie belong to?
Selkies appear in Celtic mythology as well as Norse mythology. However a human that can change into a creature by wearing there skin is a common motif in folklore all around the world, including Germany, Iceland, Asia and North America.
Do Selkies have Powers?
Selkies have the ability to transform from human to seal by wearing a seal skin. Each skin is unique to the individual selkie. They are known for their irresistible looks when in human form. 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.
Is a Selkie a Mermaid?
While sharing some similarities, selkies and mermaids are distinct 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 the traditional mermaids who transform their seal tail into human legs.
Are Selkies Fairies or Fae?
Selkies are sometimes considered fairies or fae due to their supernatural abilities, though this is just one of many theories in Celtic and Norse mythology about how the Selkies came to be. They are also thought by some to be either humans who had committed sinful wrongdoing, or fallen angels.
Why is called a Selkie dress?
Kimberly Gordon was inspired by the Legend of the Selkie, when designing her fashion collection, especially the idea that one can rediscover their freedom when they overcome their challenging circumstances.
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 can 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