• Natalie Guttormsson

What Is a Selkie?

What swims like a mermaid and barks like a dog? Selkies!


Have you ever seen a seal from a distance and thought for a moment it was a mermaid? You probably rubbed your eyes, thinking they must the playing tricks on you because mermaids aren't real. Well, there are other creatures of the sea that are very much real to the people who believe.

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Up close, those large, glassy eyes seem so full of emotion. It's not difficult to imagine that there might be a human inside. That's exactly what a Selkie is said to be, part human and part seal.



What are Selkies?


Selkie stories are prevalent in stories and folklore from Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. A selkie is said to look like a seal as it swims in the ocean, but sometimes will come ashore, slip out of the seal skin, and reveal its human form. Like most fantastical creatures that shapeshift, Selkies are said to be gorgeous as humans. That beauty is what most of the folklore stories are centered around.



Selkie Stories


Often in folklore, different regions will have different variations of a similar story. It's the same with Selkie Stories. There are two popular stories that have been handed down: one is about the Selkie-bride while the other is about the Seal Hunter.



The Selkie-Bride

The simplified version of this tale tells of a Selkie woman who comes ashore with her friends and family to remove their skins and enjoy the warmth of the sun. An ordinary man, usually a farmer, spots this crowd of Selkies and randomly steals one of the skins when no one is watching. He then runs home, locks the skin away in a trunk, and returns to the beach at the end of the day to see which Selkie is left behind.


Of course, it is a beautiful woman standing on the beach, abandoned by her colony. The man who stole her skin approaches her and consoles her. He takes her home, convinces her to marry him, and they go on to have several children. The Seal woman presumably lives a fine life with her human family, but always longs for the ocean. In some versions, she actually has a Selkie family and children waiting for her. One day, the Selkie woman stays home from church and discovers the locked trunk. She picks the lock and finds her hidden seal skin. As you might guess, she takes her skin, runs to the Ocean, and abandons her human family to return to her natural home and first family.


It is said that when her human husband or her human children walked along the ocean, they'd often see a beautiful seal swimming close to shore, who would sometimes toss-up beautiful shells or fish to them.

 

Versions of the Selkie-Bride story can be found in Icelandic folklore and Scottish folklore. There are even Scottish stories where whole families claim they are descendants of Selkies.

 

The Seal Hunter


A talented and well-known seal hunter loses his knife while hunting seals. He returns home disappointed because it was his favourite knife, although he has many others he can use. Then one night, soon after the loss of his knife, a tall stranger appears at his home, asking for the renowned seal hunter. The stranger claims he represents a wealthy buyer interested in purchasing all of the hunter's seals. But, the hunter must accompany the stranger to the nearby cliffs to arrange the purchase.


The hunter is skeptical but is motivated by money, so he agrees. When they reach the cliff, the stranger wraps his arms around the hunter and jumps to the cold, dark ocean below. When the hunter reaches the surface again, he is in the cave of a large seal colony. As his eyes adjust, he realizes they are not just seals, but Selkies. He is led to a room at the back of the cave, where a Selkie man lies dying, the hunter's good knife lodged into the Selkie man's back.


The hunter is told that if he wants to leave the cave alive, he must kiss the wound of the Selkie man to reverse the damage. But he must hurry before it is too late. The hunter is revolted by the wound, but does the right thing and kisses the wound. Suddenly, the dying Selkie man regains his strength and removes the knife as if nothing had ever happened. The Selkies thank the hunter for his help.


As the Selkies offer a feast of gratitude to the hunter, he declines, but he assures them that he will give up Seal hunting and will dedicate his life to protecting seals. They give him back his hunting knife, and say farewell. True to his word, the hunter closes his business, moves to the Isle of Skye or some other town, and never hunts a seal again. One story describes how when the former hunter dies, his spirit is guided away by the Selkies to their own magical afterlife kingdom.

 

This story has a plot that is frequently repeated in storytelling. It reminds me a lot of the story of Fern Gully. Basically, the human (usually a hunter or industry person) merrily goes about their business, unaware of the damage they are inflicting to a supernatural force or the forces of nature. Then, in some urgent scenario, that person is taken in by the supernatural beings and taught their ways or shown new information that changes the human's perspective. When human returns to normal life, they change their ways and dedicate their lives to sharing the knowledge they picked up from the supernatural world.



Do you have a Selkie story to share? Have you heard or read similar tales of supernatural sea creatures? Share in the comments below! It's always fascinating to learn where stories spread to and how they overlap.

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