Selkies: The Call of the Sea

One of the most haunting and romantic tales to come out of Irish folklore is that of the selkies–half human, half seal, and eternally caught between land and sea.

A woman on a beach gazes into a wicker cradle.
One of the most well known modern selkie stories is the Irish film The Secret of Roan Inish. In the scene pictured above, a selkie woman sends her son out to sea in a wicker crib attached to a rope. It is said that the children of selkies will always feel drawn to the ocean.

The selkie is a creature of magic. They live most of their lives in the sea as seals, but if the whim takes them they may shed their skin to become human. Like many of the fey, selkies are often fickle, sometimes dangerous, and nearly always beautiful.

In one typical selkie story, The Seal-Woman of Mikladalur, the selkies gather on a beach one night every year to dance and celebrate. On one of these nights, a young man spies on them from behind a rock, and spots a woman who he takes a fancy to. During the revelry he steals her sealskin, leaving her stranded and alone on the beach when morning comes. The man offers her help and companionship, and so she goes home with him. He locks her sealskin away, and eventually the two marry and have children.

Selkie stories never end in happily ever afters, though; although the selkie woman makes a good wife for many years, she is always drawn back to the sea.

One day, the man returns home to find the hearth cold, his children alone on the beach, and the sealskin–along with his wife–gone.

Years later, the men of Mikladalur make plans to go on a seal hunt. The night before they are set to leave, the selkie appears in the man’s dreams and begs him to have mercy on her true husband and their two sons. The man ignores the dream and sets out early the next morning. Alongside his friends, he slaughters every seal he can.

After a day of hunting, the man comes home and cooks a generous dinner of seal meat for himself and his children. Just as they are sitting down to eat, though, the seal woman returns. She curses the man and the village in revenge for the murder of her husband, and then vanishes.

A statue of a woman standing on a cliff over the ocean.
A statue still stands on the shore of Mikaldalur in memory of the mythic seal-woman and her curse: “Here lies the head of my mate and the hands and feet of my sons. You have had your revenge – and now revenge shall be visited upon the men of Mikladalur. Some will drown at sea, others will fall from the cliffs, and so it shall continue until as many have perished as can link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy.” Image source: Baron Reznik, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The motif of the animal wife is a common one, and not just in Celtic mythology. There is a very similar Croatian tale about a woman who wears the skin of a wolf, and a Japanese story about a girl in a robe of swan feathers. Although the animals change based on the culture, the same themes remain: a beautiful woman who still carries a touch of the wild, and a tragic kind of love story (albeit one that is tarnished by fairy tale sensibilities that read more like sexual assault today–a topic well worth discussing, but far too complex to tackle in this post).

It’s important to notice that selkies are not helpless creatures. They seem to have been thought to have some command of magic. After all, the seal-woman of Mikaldalur has the power to curse the village. Other legends tell of selkies with the power to transform ordinary humans into seals (see “The Seal Catcher and the Merman” from The Scottish Fairy Book, by Elizabeth Grierson), and according to legend, “when the blood of a selkie is shed in the sea a storm arises that is often fatal to shipping” (An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

These days, it doesn’t seem to make sense to portray seals as dangerous creatures. They’re fuzzy animals that we like to watch from the pier, and pose little to no threat to human life. But such was not always the case.

The seal is a remarkably expressive animal–to the point of seeming almost human at times.

In eighteenth and nineteenth century Ireland, seals were incredibly desirable prey for hunters. Their fur, blubber, and meat were all worth a good sum of money.

But seal hunting was a dangerous task. In his memoir on Celtic seal mythology, The People of the Sea, David Thompson recounts a story told to him by an elderly Irish man, about a hunting expedition with his father. As the story goes, the father and son set out in a small boat, with a horsehair net to catch the seal in. The weather that day was bad, and although they eventually caught a seal, she was much bigger than they had expected. The boat capsized, and the boy was washed to shore, but his father drowned.

The Irish peasantry couldn’t afford large boats or sophisticated fishing equipment. When the best you have is a small currach and a hand woven net, the sea and all its creatures–including seals–are something to be feared.

Still, the primary role of selkies in folklore was that of a temptress (or tempter). In their human forms they held a bizarre, otherworldly kind of beauty–in An Encyclopedia of Fairies Katharine Briggs describes them as “more beautiful than ordinary mortals, though… uncouth and shapeless as seals, their beauty only showing in their large, liquid eyes.”

“A Sea Nymph” by Bernard Evans Ward. Stories of female nature spirits (like the selkies) can be found around the globe.

Selkie stories were not an abstract kind of mythology, either–to many Celts, they were very real. Of the two species of seal living around Ireland and Scotland, grey seals and harbor seals, only the smaller harbor seal (also known as the “tang fish”) was acceptable to hunt. The grey seals were selkies, and therefore more human than animal. Their more anthropomorphic traits could be seen in their dark, soulful eyes and heard in their moaning calls. Fishermen sometimes even spoke or sang back to them.

A seal poking its head out of the water.
Two species of seal are known to live near Ireland and Scotland–grey seals and harbor seals. Grey seals have been known to attack humans when provoked.

I like to look at selkies as yet another of humanity’s attempts to anthropomorphize nature. We like to see ourselves reflected in the world around us. In part, that’s why we tell stories–to learn what it’s like to stand in someone (or something) else’s shoes.

So just like the Croatian wolf bride, the Celts took something dangerous and made it beautiful.

But why? What purpose does it serve to romanticize something deadly?

Perhaps it’s an attempt to rationalize the draw we feel toward nature. The ocean was–and still is–dangerous. But it’s also beautiful. There’s music in the waves and poetry in the salty air. It’s a kind of art that not many of us are able to express in plain terms.

Maybe we can express it through stories, though. Stories of beautiful women, women who draw us toward them despite the danger that lurks beneath the surface.

Or maybe it’s just that–a story.

A lovely, tragic, messy story, but just a story nonetheless.

Page Sources:

The People of the Sea by David Thomson

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

The Scottish Fairy Book by Elizabeth Grierson

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

Irish Folktales edited by Henry Glassie

Animal Brides: The She-Wolf by D.L. Ashliman

Swan Maidens: The Feathery Robe by D.L. Ashliman

The Seal-Woman of Mikaldalur

Scottish Natural Heritage: Seals

Experience: I was attacked by a seal by David Faid