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What is a selkie?
At their core, all the stories I’ve read offer the same answer: a selkie is a being that is both human and seal.
Song of the Sea (2014)
Where they differ is in the proportion of human to seal. Are they primarily seals that sometimes change into humans, or the other way around? Or are they closer to half-and-half?
The basic answer: It’s complicated.
- According to one legend, the first selkies were humans first. They were the children of a Norse king, and were transformed into seals by their jealous step-mother. After the transformation, though, they spent most of the year in seal form, only changing back into humans during the three brightest full moons.
Laurie Brooks’ Selkie Girl seems to agree with the seals-first theory (the story takes place in the Orkney islands, where the word “silkie” can simply mean “seal”). They change into humans only on Midsummer night. But their origin story leans more toward half-and-half. Brooks’ selkies were born from the marriage of a seal man and a human woman, who were divinely(?) granted the power to transform into each other’s form (nice way to avoid bestiality). The limiting of their human forms to Midsummer’s Eve seems like more of a tradition than an essential feature.
Two other stories, which shall remain nameless to avoid spoilers, tilt the scale even farther toward the seals-first extreme. In these stories, selkies can only change into human form once in their lives. They can choose to stay that way for as long as they like, but as soon as they return to seal form, they do so permanently.
- On the other end of the spectrum are Seanan McGuire’s selkies in her October Daye series. In this world, selkies are humans whose only connection to Faerie is their use of magical objects. Selkies have no power unless they keep constant physical contact with their pelts.
On the other hand, the Selkies were not the original seal faeries in McGuire’s fae-verse. The Roane were the first, and they’re more like the selkies in Sylvia Peck’s Seal Child, in that they’re shape-shifters instead of skin-shifters — i.e. they transform without removing their pelts.
Side note: Why does McGuire sometimes capitalize the word “Selkie” and sometimes doesn’t? She never says this explicitly, but I get the feeling that capital-S “Selkie” refers to the culture/society, while lower-case-s “selkie” refers to the physical being. The former refers to the people, while the latter refers to the pelt.
- Mercedes Lackey, in Home From the Sea, suggests that a seal person’s allegiance depends on their regional origin. Scottish selkies are “seal-spirits that can become human,” while the Welsh Selch are “humans who returned to the sea” (pg. 261). The former will always long for the ocean, while the latter are more loyal to the land.
- And then there are the selkies who are always literally half-and-half.
I first discovered this variation in the artwork of stressedjenny, on deviantArt (this is my absolute favorite). Her selkies are basically seal mermaids — human from head to waist, and seals from the waist down. Then I started reading the Ingo books by Helen Dunmore, and met Faro. He’s not explicitly a selkie — he’s simply called a Mer — but he’s built the same as stressedjenny’s selkies, with a human top half and a seal’s hindquarters. And then there’s this postage stamp from the Faroe Islands, which features a truly blended selkie.
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Where did selkies come from?
From the British Isles, right? Most of the stories I’ve read take place in Scotland or Ireland, or at least heavily reference Celtic origins. According to the fin-tastic Orkneyjar website, though, the first selkie tales may have more to do with the Saami people of Scandinavia or with the Arctic Inuit people. Around the seventeenth century, there were numerous sightings around the Orkney islands of kayakers from even farther north. These sailors used animal-skin boats and wore animal-skin (including sealskin) clothing. Perhaps sightings of people leaving their wet seal clothes to dry on the beach inspired the first selkie tales?
In any case, it seems like selkie tales at least all came from the North Sea, right?
Apparently, there are records of human-seal transformation tales in Greek mythology, too! According to William M. Johnson and David M. Lavigne, in their book Monk Seals in Antiquity (available here as a free PDF), there are tales throughout the Mediterranean about shape-shifting monk seals. The god Proteus, shepherd of the seals, was known for this power. So was the sea nympth Psamathe and her son Phokos (the Latin/scientific name for seals is Phocidae), who may have founded or have been the inspiration for two great seal-worshipping cities! (pgs. 10-11)
Who’s to say there aren’t selkie tales in other parts of the world? Who’s to say, as Emily Whitman suggests in The Turning, that there aren’t selkies from other species besides grey and harbor?
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How does selkie shape-shifting work?
Apparently, the scientific term for human-animal transformation is therianthropy. The more you know!
Anyhoo, according to most stories, selkies transform by wearing and removing a seal pelt. Only McGuire’s Roane and Peck’s seal people change without leaving any physical trace of their seal form when they’re human.
The traditional transformation opens up a second, even more interesting question: how useful is a sealskin to anyone but its owner? This is almost a sub-set of “What Is a Selkie?” Can sealskins be shared? Is it the skin, ultimately, that makes someone a selkie?
Stories like McGuire’s October Daye series, Betsy Cornwell’s Tides, and Lackey’s Home From the Sea say yes. Sealskins can be shared, at least with other selkies or selkie descendants. McGuire’s books take things a step further (at least until The Unkindest Tide) by suggesting that anyone, human or fae, is capable of using a sealskin.
Side note: This is why McGuire’s selkies carry their skins around at all times, transforming them into various portable forms like fur belts or bracelets. The selkies in Lumberjanes Vol. 6 wear theirs like muumuus and hoodies.
The advantage of shareable pelts, of course, is that a selkie who loses their skin isn’t completely cut off from the sea.
Other stories, like Franny Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper and Lumberjanes Vol. 6, suggest that sealskins are totally personal. Only the original owner is able to use their own pelt. The original folk-tales seem to concur, judging from the tendency of human thieves to lock the skins away rather than trying to use them.
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What happens to selkies who lose their skins?
The usual method of transformation, while traditional, does leave selkies vulnerable to human greed. Some of the most well-known tales involve the theft of a female’s pelt by a human male. In most of these stories, the selkie is obligated — whether by custom or by some magical inability to be away from her skin — to follow the man.
Other stories suggest that even a selkie who loses a personal skin has options. The sea is not completely closed to them, nor are they completely without power on land. A selkie in either form can raise storms by offering three drops of blood to the sea. Some selkies can swim, in their human forms, without feeling the cold. The seal woman might not depend on her lost skin to return to her sea family.
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Are selkies dangerous?
Like the Greek sirens, some selkies are known for their unearthly singing. * Unlike sirens, selkies are not known to use their songs to kill humans. According to Faeries, a visual encyclopedia of British faerie lore by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, selkies are gentle and shy. They generally keep their distance from humans. They are members of the Seelie Court, or holy beings — or, at least, non-threatening beings.
According to some traditional tales, selkies even show mercy to humans who attack them. When a man named Angus Ruadh stabs an old seal, the seal’s son gives Angus a chance to heal the wound, plus a lifetime’s worth of gold if he promises never to harm another seal. *
Other stories, like the one I heard from a tour bus driver on Inishmore Island, portray selkies who reciprocate human acts of mercy, saving the lives of fishermen who spare them.
On the other hand, even members of the Seelie Court can be vengeful when angered or threatened enough. Three drops of selkie blood, as I mention above, can raise sea storms. The first seal man, according to Selkie Girl, wields a mighty club against a human hunter as punishment for domestic abuse. And the Seal Woman of Mikladalur village, in the Faroe Islands, periodically drowns men of the village to avenge the murder of her husband and children.
Statue of the Seal Woman of Mikladalur
(c) Marita Gulklett, 2016 *
Some selkies, according to Emily Whitman, would even kill to protect their secrets.
It seems they are as diverse as humans in temperament.
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Can selkies and humans form lasting ships?
The traditional stories tend to show selkies as irresistibly drawn to the sea, so selkie-human relationships are fleeting at best, and tragic at worst. Of course, one doesn’t blame the Seal Wife for leaving her thieving husband as soon as she retrieves her skin. One does feel bad for the half-selkie children whom she leaves behind — I love the way Betsy Cornwell plays with this feature in Tides. She suggests that a half-selkie child might grow up, fairly or not, to resent her mother for returning to the sea.
Even consensual pairings don’t tend to last long in the old tales. In “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry,” a selkie man leaves his human lover soon after they mate, returning only to take away their child. The story ends with the woman’s second husband, a human hunter, killing both the seal man and the boy.
McGuire’s fae-verse definitely discourages long-term faery-human relationships — especially if they result in children. Happy endings are a security risk; protecting the secrecy of Faerie trumps (almost) all.
This trend applies to selkie children as well. In stories like Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea and Jane Yolen’s Greyling, couples who adopt selkie children are warned (either explicitly or subconsciously) not to get too attached, for the Sea will try to call the child back sooner or later.
Some modern Juv/YA stories, on the other hand, try a more hopeful approach to faery-human bonds in general and selkie-human ships in particular. They suggest that maybe a mer-being need not choose between land and sea. They suggest that the Sea may not be so possessive after all, and that the land-folk are not all violent or unethical.
Stories like “The Selkie Speaks,” by Delia Sherman, show the younger generations defying their elders’ warnings, certain that there must be humans who respect a selkie’s property and autonomy.
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Miscellaneous selkie powers
Besides their primary shape-shifting abilities, selkies have other powers that set them apart from ordinary seals and humans. According to Seanan McGuire, the Roane can read the future; they occasionally show up before events like the Great London Fire to warn nearby Faerie communities of impending doom.
C. B. Lee’s selkies, in Seven Tears at High Tide, can converse telepathically with the ocean itself, which feeds them a Google’s worth of information about the human world. They can also see into human hearts to judge which ones have good or ill intentions.
The selkies in Emily Whitman’s The Turning can speak with birds. The puffins of the Oregon coast are especially helpful to Aran during his stay on the island (and especially amused when a human friend tries to join in the conversation).
And some selkies even have literary powers! You’ll have to read the books to find out what I mean 😉
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Modern literature, particularly Juv/YA, tries to find a compromise between the social and individual needs of Faerie. The old selkie tales, though they portrayed a world of constant faery-human interaction, still upheld the separation of magic and mortality, in order to keep the general peace. Romantic relationships between humans and faeries were meant to be flings — a temporary escape from the natural order.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
Some modern stories, though they portray a world in which humans have mostly forgotten about magic, focus more on lasting relationships that defy tradition. Maybe this, too, is in keeping with the natural balance — as long as most humans ignore Faerie, a few can be allowed to know. Or maybe it’s a sign of hope for large-scale mortal/magic cooperation.
What do you think, my fellow sea-wyrms? What are some of your favorite selkie stories? What themes and messages have you found? Ever dated a #reallifemermaid or selkie?
* On selkie singing: Check out “Mother of the Waves,” the story at the end of Sharla’s level in the CD-ROM game Secret Paths to the Sea. Note, also, how often Emily Whitman’s selkies sing to each other in The Turning.
“Wrong Joel McHale” GIF from giphy.