Among the many wonderful Celtic legends is that of the selkie, a creature that can become human by removing its seal skin, and return to its life in the sea by once again donning that skin. A selkie who cannot find its seal skin is doomed to stay on land in human form.
A common element of the selkie myth is that of a man who sees a selkie become a woman and hides her seal skin, so that she must become his wife. Typically in these stories, she loves her husband, and loves the children she bears him, but one of those children unwittingly finds the seal skin her husband has hidden for so many years, and she will without hesitation return to her life in the sea. It infallibly calls to her more strongly than her husband and children, despite her love for them.
A selkie man is said to be unusually handsome, with great powers of seduction over women, in their human form. They have the power to cause storms and sink ships.
There are several ideas about where the stories of the selkies originated. One is that shipwrecked Spanish sailors, washed up on the Celtic shores, looked at a glance like seals, with their jet black hair slicked back with seawater. Another theory revolves around the Sami of Northern Norway, traveling the sea in kayaks wearing sealskin coats. Some stories say they are fallen angels (those that fell on land became fairies, and those that fell in the sea became selkies), while others say they are the souls of people who committed suicide or those who had drowned. Regardless of where the stories originated, they are known throughout the Celtic world, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and the Orkney, Faroe, and Shetland Islands and Scandinavian countries. Some claim the stories are of Scandinavian origin while others claim they come from the Orkney Islands.
In addition to the ancient legends, there have been numerous modern novels and movies involving selkies. The Secret of Roan Inish is a great favorite around my house, but there is also Selkie, made in 2000 and featuring Shimon Moore of the Australian band Sick Puppies, last year’s Ondine with Colin Farrell, and the upcoming animated movie, Song of the Sea. There are far too many novels, songs, and even television depictions of selkies to list.
An old ballad call The Great Selkie of Skule Skerrie tells the story this way:
I heard a mother lull her bairn,
and aye she rocked, and aye she sang.
She took so hard upon the verse
that the heart within her body rang.
“O, cradle row, and cradle go,
and aye sleep well, my bairn within;
I ken not who thy father is,
nor yet the land that he dwells in.”
And up then spake a grey selchie
as aye he woke her from her sleep,
“I’ll tell where thy bairn’s father is:
he’s sittin’ close by thy bed feet.
“I am a man upon the land;
I am a selchie on the sea,
and when I’m far frae ev’ry strand,
my dwelling is in Sule Skerry.
“And foster well my wee young son,
aye for a twal’month and a day,
and when that twal’month’s fairly done,
I’ll come and pay the nourice fee.”
And when that weary twal’month gaed,
he’s come tae pay the nourice fee;
he had ae coffer fu’ o’ gowd,
and anither fu’ o’the white money.
“Upon the skerry is thy son;
upon the skerry lieth he.
Sin thou would see thine ain young son,
now is the time tae speak wi’ he.”
“But how shall I my young son know
when thou ha’ ta’en him far frae me?”
“The one who wears the chain o’ gowd,
`mang a’ the selchies shall be he.
“And thou will get a hunter good,
and a richt fine hunter I’m sure he’ll be;
and the first ae shot that e’er he shoots
will kill baith my young son and me.”