(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'.
Selkie is a shape shifting faery that lives in the cold waters
off the coast of the Shetland and Orkney Islands in the United
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Ballad of the White Seal Maid
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.