What is a selkie?

See a shape-shifting creature, taking the form of either seal or human. Legends of the seal people come from northern Europe, predominately in areas settled by Norse Vikings: the Scottish isles, coasts of Ireland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.

Stamp FO 580 of the Faroe Islands: The Seal Wo...

Postage stamp from Faroe Islands depicting the legend of the seal woman. Image via Wikipedia

In the legends, there are male and female selkies, and most of the time they prefer to stay in their seal form. But every now and then—the exact timing varies: every full moon, once or twice a year—they come ashore on a remote beach to remove their sealskins and dance on land as humans. Then they put their sealskins back on and slip into the sea.

Many legends concern the fate that befalls unfortunate females at these times. According to one, selkies were very attractive in their human skins. Selkie women were said to make good wives and to bring luck in the fishing. An unscrupulous man could steal a skin and, because she could not return to her home in the sea without it, the female would be forced to become his wife. She would tend to his home and bear his children, always grieving for her own home (and often mate and children) in the sea. If she found the skin, she would immediately put it on and swim away to sea. In some stories, she might return—always in her seal form—to watch her children, and sometimes she might also bring fish for them to eat. But she never returned to land or to her human husband.

Another common story concerned the seal hunting trade in Northern Europe. Groups of hunters would bludgeon seals and skin them alive. They would take the sealskins and leave the carcasses. When the seals regained consciousness, they were naked humans huddling on the rocks. In these stories, there was always one hapless hunter stranded by a storm or fast-rising tide, and left behind by his fellows. A new seal arrived and made a deal with him. The seal would carry the man home on its back. In exchange the man would return the skin belonging to the seal’s son or mate.

I will tell you about these stories and many others in future posts.

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What is a selkie? — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: A Selkie Story from Orkney

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  3. Pingback: Ursilla and the Selkie Lover

  4. Pingback: What are selkies?

  5. Are there legends about male Selkies having similar to the female Selkies experience with humans?

    Also I enjoyed your recent reading and am looking forward to getting a copy of your book.

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