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Selkie: What the heck is that? #atozchallenge #blogging #writing #myths

While my debut novel, Call of the Sea has not yet been released to the general public, there are a few ARC copies floating around and a few reviews have come in (all good so far – YAY). That being said, one of the comments that has come up a few times from readers are: What is a selkie? and I didn’t know what a selkie was when I started reading.

I tend to forget not everyone is as obsessed with myths and legends as I am, especially the Celtic ones. So, in an effort to clarify for those who may be interested, I decided to take the opportunity of S day to explain what a selkie is.

Let’s start with a definition:

From Wikipedia: Selkies (also known as silkies or selchies) are mythological creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish[1], and Scottish folklore. The word derives from earlier Scots selich, (from Old English seolh meaning seal).[2] Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. The legend apparently originated on the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Doesn’t help a lot, does it? I mean sure, it gives you a basic idea, but not much else. This is what I ran into when researching as well. While they are an oceanic mythical creature, much like a mermaid or siren, little has been written about the selkie myth.

The section regarding the legend does help some (also from Wiki):

Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them gone. In other stories the human will hide the selkie’s skin, thus preventing it from returning to its seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one human for a short amount of time before they must return to the sea. They are not able to make contact with that human again for seven years, unless the human is to steal their selkie’s skin and hide it or burn it.

In the Faroe Islands there are two versions of the story of the Selkie or Seal Wife. A young farmer from the town of Mikladalur on Kalsoy island goes to the beach to watch the selkies dance. He hides the skin of a beautiful selkie maid, so she can’t go back to sea, and forces her to marry him. He keeps her skin in a chest, and keeps the key with him both day and night. One day when out fishing, he discovers that he has forgotten to bring his key. When he returns home, the selkie wife has escaped back to sea, leaving their children behind. Later, when the farmer is out on a hunt, he kills both her selkie husband and two selkie sons, she promises to take revenge upon the men of Mikladalur. Some shall be drowned, some shall fall from cliffs and slopes, and this shall continue, until so many men have been lost that they will be able to link arms around the whole island of Kallsoy.

Male selkies are very handsome in their human form, and have great seductive powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their life, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she has to go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea.

If a man steals a female selkie’s skin she is in his power and is forced to become his wife. Female selkies are said to make excellent wives, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she finds her skin she will immediately return to her true home, and sometimes to her selkie husband, in the sea.

Sometimes, a selkie maiden is taken as a wife by a human man and she has several children by him. In these stories, it is one of her children who discovers her sealskin (often unwitting of its significance) and she soon returns to the sea. The selkie woman usually avoids seeing her human husband again but is sometimes shown visiting her children and playing with them in the waves.

Selkies are not always faithless lovers. One tale tells of the fisherman Cagan who married a seal-woman. Against his wife’s wishes he set sail dangerously late in the year, and was trapped battling a terrible storm, unable to return home. His wife shifted to her seal form and saved him, even though this meant she could never return to her human body and hence her happy home.

Some stories from Shetland have selkies luring islanders into the sea at midsummer, the lovelorn humans never returning to dry land.

As you can see, there is tons of room for play within the confines of this sparse information. In Call of the Sea, I took some liberties with respect to the rules. For instance, in my novel, selkies have to change form at least once a year for a full lunar cycle (full moon to full moon) to satisfy the requirements of their curse. Of course, the shedding of the skins part plays nicely into my plot, so I left that little factoid alone.

In addition, while researching references and mentions of selkies in literature, I learned that the large majority of such tales feature a female selkie, not a male one. With my gender twist on the pirate in my story being a female, it worked out perfectly to make the mythical selkie creature a male. Gender twists all around — love it.

Do you feel mythically educated now? Me either, really, but I managed to find an S topic, so I can live with that 😛

Happy Saturday, folks!