Moonlight selkie digital illustration Amanda Cibulka

Seal Women, Stolen Skins, and Stories Old and New

Back to the topic introduced in my last post.

Selkies are one of my favorite mythical/supernatural creatures, no doubt related to the melancholy nature of the legends told about them. Look, if it’s not absurdly bloody, heart-crushingly sad, or at least suitably bittersweet, it’s no good. And the various selkie legends have got those criteria covered.

What Is A Selkie?

Inuit people wore clothes made of sealskin, like this women’s parka, pointing to a possible origin for selkie legends.

Selkies originated in Scottish, Irish, Icelandic, and Faroese folklore. The word “selkie” comes from the Scottish word selich, which comes from the Old English word for seal, seolh. Basically, a selkie is a seal most of the time, but, either on certain days, under certain conditions, or at will, can take off their seal-skins and take human form. Many of the tales are of female selkies, but male selkies also exist.

There are various theories about the legend’s origin, including birth defects, sightings of Finnish or Inuit people in animal-hide kayaks wearing seal skin clothing, and even shipwrecked Spaniards.

If the selkie’s skin is stolen, they cannot transform into a seal until they get it back, and are basically at the mercy of whoever has their skin.

Often, tales start with a selkie woman who has shucked her sealskin to sunbathe on the beach, when along comes a human man and steals her skin. Then, unable to return to her home in the sea, she has no choice but to do as he wishes, follow him home and become his wife. She spends a lot of time silently, sadly staring out to sea. At some point she has a child with her husband/kidnapper, and one day the child tells her where the sealskin is hidden, or she somehow comes across the key to the chest. Once she has the skin, she returns to the sea, leaving her children behind on land for the seal family she was stolen away from. That’s the gist of it.

Anyway, I imagine that as much as human parents get on their kids about picking up clothes they leave lying around, selkie parents must be really strict about that. After all, for selkies untidiness can end in kidnapping.

Tales of the Selkie

The little summary I gave isn’t representative of all the selkie tales out there, and even the ones it does fit have their own interesting variations. So, for those interested, here’s a (by no means exhaustive) list of short texts available online:

faroese_stamp_581_the_seal_woman1
One of several stamps from the Faroe Islands based on the tale of Kopakonan, or the Seal Woman.

The Goodman O’ Wastness

The Great Selkie O’ Suleskerry

One Spared to the Sea

The Seal’s Skin

Kópakonan (Seal Woman)

And a bunch more at Folktexts

And, why not — I’ll throw in this link to tales of other animal brides, though that’s a topic I’ll probably cover separately at some point.

A Fresh Catch: Contemporary Retellings

While writing this post, three novels that feature selkies came swimming up from the depths of my memory.

Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson may well be where I first read about selkies. This must have been in elementary school, or maybe early middle school. I can’t remember much about it, beyond a general sense that it was good, but that I remember it at all is a promising sign.

In middle school I came across Long Night Dance by Betsy James, the first of three books in The Seeker Chronicles. This book features a male selkie the main character finds washed up on the shore. For a while, this was among my favorite books, though I wonder how this series would hold up if I reread them. As I remember, this book, or specifically the brief songs/poems at the start of each chapter, inspired me to write my first free-verse poem, and in the process sparked my ongoing (though inconsistent) poetry hobby. So for that alone this series has a special place in my memory.

Most recently (meaning about five years ago in high school), I read The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but still worth the read.

Tor.com also has a list of contemporary tales of selkies, which I intend to check out. Someday.

Have you read any of these books, or other books about selkies? Recommendations?

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