The Selkie

Selkies (also known as silkies or selchies) are mythological creatures in Faroese, Irish, Icelandic, and Scottish mythology.

They can transform themselves from seals to humans. The legend apparently originated on the Orkney Islands, where selch or selk(ie) is the Scots word for seal (from Old English seolh).One folklorist theory of the origin of the belief is that the selkies were actually fur-clad Finns, traveling by kayak As the anthropologist A. Asbjorn Jon has recognised though, there is a strong body of lore that indicates that selkies 'are said to be supernaturally formed from the souls of drowned people'.

The Selkie is a shape shifting faery that lives in the cold waters off the coast of the Shetland and Orkney Islands in the United Kingdom.

The Selkie appears as a seal, but with distinctly human eyes. When it removes its skin, it appears as a beautiful woman, or a handsome man.

It is said that the Selkie men make good lovers, and they are happy to please any of the unsatisfied women on the islands. Though they can be a bit mean, and don’t actually make very good husbands. If a woman desires a Selkie lover, all she has to do is go to the sea and cry seven tears into the water.

On occasion, a mortal man may desire a Selkie woman for his wife, for to have the love of a faery wife is to have heaven on earth. To do so, he must carefully watch the beach for a Selkie woman to remove and hide her seal skin cloak. Then, while she is distracted with dancing, playing or sunning herself on a rock, he must steal her seal skin cloak and hide it where she can never find it. She is then obligated to be his wife, and will do so faithfully, if not happily.

There once was a man who managed to gain himself a Selkie wife. They had three children together, and were married for many years, and though she was a faithful wife, her heart was filled with longing to return home to the sea. One day her children were playing and they found an old trunk that was unknown to the Selkie woman. At the bottom of the trunk was a mysterious skin, and the children took it to their mother, asking her if she knew what it was. Recognizing her seal-skin cloak, she took it to the seashore and disappeared into the sea.

Some say her husband died of a broken heart, for having once loved a faery woman, the love of a mortal woman can never compare. Some say that the Selkie returned to her home on the land on occasion to teach her children faery healing.

The story of the Selkie reveals to us the power of our connection to our homeland, and the homeland of our ancestors. No matter how much the Selkie loved her mortal family, her heart constantly called her back to the Sea. Somewhere in our past, the land of our ancestors calls to us, and we too, know the feeling of longing for home.

Selkies are able to transform to human form by shedding their seal skins and can revert to seal form by putting their selkie skin back on. Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them gone. Other times the human will hide the selkie's skin, thus preventing them from returning to seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one particular human for a short amount of time before they must return to the sea. They are not able to make contact with that human again for seven years, unless the human is to steal their selkie's skin and hide it or burn it.Examples of such stories are The Grey Selkie of Suleskerry, a ballad, and the movie The Secret of Roan Inish.

In The Secret of Roan Inish, a fisherman steals the selkie's pelt while she is sunbathing. She then returns to his house and becomes his wife and bears him children. He stashes away her skin and years later, one of the children mentions it and asks what it is. The wife immediately drops what she's doing, retrieves the pelt and returns to her former life as a seal.

The selkie legend is also told in Wales, but in a slightly different form. The selkies are humans who have returned to the sea. Dylan (Dylan Eil Don) the firstborn of Arianrhod, was variously a merman or sea spirit, who in some versions of the story escapes to the sea immediately after birth.

Male selkies are very handsome in their human form, and have great seduction powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their romantic life. This includes married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she has to go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea.

If a man steals a female selkie's skin, she is in his power, to an extent, and she is forced to become his wife — a regional variant on the motif of the swan maiden, unusual in that the bride's animal form is usually a bird. Female selkies are said to make excellent wives, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly to the ocean. If her skin is found she will immediately return to her home — sometimes, her selkie husband — in the sea.

Sometimes, a selkie maiden is taken as a wife by a human man and she has several children by him. In these stories, it is one of her children who discovers her sealskin (often unwitting of its significance) and she soon returns to the sea. The selkie woman avoids seeing her human husband again but is sometimes shown visiting her children and playing with them in the waves.

Selkies are not always faithless lovers. One tale tells of the fisherman Cagan who married a seal-woman. Against his wife's wishes he set sail dangerously late in the year, and was trapped battling a terrible storm, unable to return home. His wife shifted to her seal form and saved him, even though this meant she could never return to her human body and hence her happy home.

Some stories from Shetland have selkies luring islanders into the sea at midsummer, the lovelorn humans never returning to dry land.

Seal changelings similar to the selkie exist in the folklore of many cultures. A corresponding creature existed in Swedish legend, and the Chinook Indians of North America have a similar tale of a boy who changes into a seal (see the children's story The Boy Who Lived With The Seals by Rafe Martin). Jane Yolen incorporated such a changeling as a selkie into her picture book, Greyling.

The Ballad of the White Seal Maid

Lyrics: Jane Yolen ©1982 Curtis Brown Ltd.
Music: Lui Collins ©1984 Molly Gamblin Music/BMI
Untitled poem: by Ruth Moore ©1984 Ruth Moore
Vocal & Concertina: Mike Agranoff
Harp: Joanna Mell

I once saw a whale with a gold tooth
He riz right out of the sea,
And opened his mouth in the morning sun,
And showed that tooth to me

And once I was fishing the Deep Ground
With nigh six pound of lead
And I caught a cod as big as a man
And he had a man's head

O there ain't no end to what I'd tell
Once I was well begun
Like seeing the Devil rise from the sea
Instead of the rising sun;
Like sea-snakes lashing the moonlit sea,
With their terrible lollopins,
And the little mermaids with their diamond eyes
And solid silver fins,

For some have eyes to see strange sights,
And such a one I be,
But I ain't known as a honest man,
And nobody harks to me.

There's a fisherman sitting alone on the land.
His hands are his craft; his boat is his art.
A fisherman sitting alone on the land
A rock, a hard rock in his heart.

There's a silkie maid swimming alone in the bay.
Her eyes are the seal's; her heart is the sea.
A silkie maid swimming alone in the bay
And a pure white seal maiden is she.

She comes on the shore and she sheds her seal's skin.
She dances on sand; dances under the moon.
Her hair falls in waves down upon her white skin
And only the seal hears the tune.


Then standing, the fisherman takes her seal's skin
Staking his claim to a wife from the sea.
He raises his hand, holding up the white skin
Saying "Now you must come home with me!"

Oh weeping, she goes and still weeping she stays.
Her hands are her craft; her babes are her art.
A year, and a year, and a year more she stays,
A rock, a cold rock in her heart.

Ah, but what is this hid in the fisherman's bag?
It smells like the ocean; it feels like the sea
It's a bonnie white seal skin closed up in the bag
"Ah, and never a tear more!" cries she.

Goodbye to the house, and goodbye to the shore.
Goodbye to the babes that I never could claim
Ah, but never a thought for the man left on shore
For silkie's my nature and name!

She puts on the skin and dives back in the sea.
The fisherman's cry falls on water-deaf ears.
She swims in her seal skin away out to sea
And the fisherman drowns in his tears.