Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Selkies

selkieSelkies are one of my favorite changeling legends, seals that can remove their skins and become human.  They originate in Orkney Islands, and are mainly prevelent in Scottish, Irish and Icelandic tradition. It is said that a selkie can come on land and come into contact with one—just one—human, but then they must return to the sea for seven years before they can come ashore again, though some places say one year.  Selkies in their human form are supposed to be particularly beautiful and attractive—so as you can imagine, there are quite the number of selkie one-night-stands.

Male selkies are said to have power over storms, and to sink ships to avenge against seal-hunters, but they also are drawn to women who are unhappy in their romantic life—a woman can even summon a selkie man to her by letting seven of her tears fall into the ocean.  Children born as a result of these trysts are often selkies also, and as a result often leave their mothers.

Female selkies tend to have a hard lot in stories.  Just like the males, they can shed their skin and once they put it back on they must return to the ocean for a set amount of time, but if their skin is stolen from them, and hidden (or in some cases, burnt) then the woman must marry the man who has stolen her seal skin.  They make for good, dependable wives as they will do precisely what their husbands ask of them, but they often miss their home in the sea—and possibly family in the sea—so much that they are simply miserable in their land-locked lives.  Quite often in stories like this, the seak skin is discovered by one of the selkie’s children by accident, and she will put it on and escape back to her home in the sea, never looking back at the life she’s leaving on land, except maybe once in a while to visit her children and play with them in the waves.

There’s exceptions to every rule, however, and there is another story of a selkie woman who truly loves her human husband, and warns him away from fishing in dangerous waters, but when he goes anyway, and his ship is wrecked, she returns to her seal form to save him, even though it means being banished from her happy home.

So why do I love such a melancholy myth?  haha  I think it’s because of those little exceptions, the ones where the love is real and not enforced.  And something about a means to capture a mythical creature has always fascinated me, because the idea that a human could have a magical being in their power is undeniably alluring, though maybe it appeals to the darkest side of ourselves.

If your interest is piqued about Selkies, there have been a few somewhat-recent uses of them in fantasy tellings… I’d recommend checking out the film The Secret of Roan Inish, or the children’s novel The Sooterkin, by Tom Gilling.

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About Lisa Asanuma

Lisa is a professional freelance writer and editor, along with a bookbinder and knitting obsessee. Lisa has a passion for YA literature (inside her passion for literature in general) and is currently working on her first novel. View all posts by Lisa Asanuma

2 responses to “Thursday Myths & Legends 101: Selkies

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