What are selkies exactly? Selkies are creatures from Nordic and Celtic folklore, who are said to live in the sea in the form of seals and on land in the form of humans. As you do. But the thing they’re best known for is the power to enchant anyone who looks upon them. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t do this intentionally. Actually, selkies try pretty hard not to be seen because human contact makes life pretty complicated.
Never heard of them? Yes you have. You’ve heard loads of stories and fairy tales based on ancient tales of selkie love, tales that have been retold and re-imagined all over the world, including by the brothers Grimm and even Disney.
It began with the indigenous people of the land once known as Finnmark (a much bigger region than today’s Norway or even Scandinavia) who became known as ‘Finnars’. Finnars didn’t adopt Christianity like everyone else but rather remained pagan, living apart from other Norwegians who considered them to be mystical with mysterious powers over the weather, healing and prophecy and even shape-shifting. As suspicion of these ‘others’ grew, so did the fear and eventually it actually became illegal to have contact with Finnar folk altogether.
When the Nordic sea people migrated to Scotland and the Orkney Islands, they took their traditions and stories with them and that is how Celtic selkie folklore found its roots; folklore that includes the concepts of mermaids and sea witches etc. But mermaids are so yesterday so we won’t dwell.
The word Selkie is derived from the Scottish word for seal: selchies. Most of the stories we are familiar with about selkies come from Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, some of them are hundreds of years old. The best known is the story of a fisherman who stumbles upon a female selkie chilling on a beach after shedding her seal skin. He sneaks up behind her and steals her skin, forcing her to become his ‘wife’. After years of marriage, she finds her skin and returns to the sea, leaving him heartbroken. It’s got everything really and people loved a good tragedy in the old days.
Selkies make dutiful and loyal partners but they always long for their true home in the sea and will always return if given the chance. As long as they are without their seal skin however, they can never return. So, in stories, forward thinking stalkers would hang around beaches and wait for the right moment to steal the selkies’ skin when her back was turned. Then they’d hide or even burn the skin in order to keep the hot new wife around.
I could say something about that being an extinct, patriarchal concept but I did read Fifty Shades of Grey (half of it anyway) and I have to say, there is a distinct whiff of sardine about that book so let’s not get too judgey about fairy tales.
Both male and female selkies are described as being extremely attractive in human form with impossibly strong seductive powers. Which seems only fair if you’re going to live half your life as a fat, stinky seal. Also, it was probably Nordic sailors bobbing about on half frozen oceans for months on end, living off salted fish with other sailors, who first looked into the big brown, human-like eyes of seals and clearly saw into the soul of the next Bachelorette. You can see exactly how that happened.
According to legend, people who are unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives are particularly susceptible to selkie magic, like fishermen’s wives waiting for their absent husbands for example.
If a woman wants to make contact with a selkie male she must shed seven tears into the sea. To be clear, six won’t do it and neither will eight. (Makes you wonder how many lonely fisherman’s wives have secretly stood knee deep in the waves, bent over and thinking up sad thoughts and counting the tears as they drop one by one. You’ve got to respect that. Seven is a lot).
There’s something enduring about the idea of selkies or maybe it’s the idea that people can have two different selves. Most people can relate to that. Women through the ages can especially relate to the idea of being possessed by the man who owns her skin, after all, women have always been considered the legal property of their husbands when they married until very recently. And in western culture, women are the main story tellers so there’s that.
There are many, many variations of selkie stories based upon the same central theme, like The Swan Maiden and its many spin-offs, of which the ballet Swan Lake is best known. (Because a ballet featuring seals in tights wouldn’t sell too many tickets, let’s be honest).
I’ll write another post about selkie books and movies soon, you’ll be surprised.
My story: Salt Moon, is set in Tasmania in 1838, long after anyone has seen a selkie in the north. Sealers in the islands of Bass Strait have discovered what is believed to be the world’s last living selkies during the single biggest seal massacre in human history.
Salt Moon is the story of two Finnar descendants caught up in the aftermath. It draws more on the purer Nordic folk lore but keeps the fantasy element quite light. My story is an Australian selkie story, with a nod to New Zealand and Tasmania because everyone forgets about them and because it’s a book about seals so…
Anyway, what’s your favourite selkie story? Let us know in the comments.