Folklore

Selkies: Mysterious Seal-Faeries #folklore

Selkies are such marvellous Fae. Not only are they able to take two forms, they are also able to grant wishes and bring luck. They’ve captured the imagination of artists, writers and folklore enthusiasts. They are another great addition to the therianthrope group: changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin.

Therianthrope n (plural therianthropes) any mythical being which is part human, part animal. [Your Dictionary]

Folklore

selkie variations

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child [1882-1898]

113.1   AN eartly nourris sits and sing,
         And aye she sings, Ba, lily wean!
         Little ken I my bairnis father,
         Far less the land that he staps in.
113.2   Then ane arose at her bed-fit,
         An a grumly guest I’m sure was he:
         ‘Here am I, thy bairnis father,
         Although that I be not comelie.
113.3   ‘I am a man, upo the lan,
         An I am a silkie in the sea;
         And when I’m far and far frae lan,
         My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.’
113.4   ‘It was na weel,’ quo the maiden fair,
         ‘It was na weel, indeed,’ quo she,
         ‘That the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie
         Suld hae come and aught a bairn to me.’
113.5   Now he has taen a purse of goud,
         And he has pat it upo her knee,
         Sayin, Gie to me my little young son,
         An tak thee up thy nourris-fee.
113.6   An it sall come to pass on a simmer’s day,
         When the sin shines het on evera stane,
         That I will tak my little young son,
         An teach him for to swim the faem.
113.7   An thu sall marry a proud gunner,
         An a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
         An the very first schot that ere he schoots,
         He’ll schoot baith my young son and me.

The Silkie Wife, Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts by Patrick Kennedy [1891]

Those in Shetland and Orkney Islands who know no better, are persuaded that the seals, or silkies, as they call them, can doff their coverings at times, and disport themselves as men and women. A fisher once turning a ridge of rock, discovered a beautiful bit of green turf adjoining the shingle, sheltered by rocks on the landward side, and over this turf and shingle two beautiful women chasing each other. Just at the man’s feet lay two seal-skins, one of which he took up to examine it. The women, catching sight of him, screamed out, and ran to get possession of the skins. One seized the article on the ground, donned it in a thrice, and plunged into the sea; the other wrung her hands, cried, and begged the fisher to restore her property; but he wanted a wife, and would not throw away the chance. He wooed her so earnestly and lovingly, that she put on some woman’s clothing which he brought her from his cottage, followed him home, and became his wife. Some years later, when their home was enlivened by the presence of two children, the husband awaking one night, heard voices in conversation from the kitchen. Stealing softly to the room door, he heard his wife talking in a low tone with some one outside the window. The interview was just at an end, and he had only time to ensconce himself in bed, when his wife was stealing across the room. He was greatly disturbed, but determined to do or say nothing till he should acquire further knowledge. Next evening, as he was returning home by the strand, he spied a male and female phoca sprawling on a rock a few yards out at sea. The rougher animal, raising himself on his tail and fins, thus addressed the astonished man in the dialect spoken in these islands:–“You deprived me of her whom I was to make my companion; and it was only yesternight that I discovered her outer garment, the loss of which obliged her to be your wife. I bear no malice, as you were kind to her in your own, fashion; besides, my heart is too full of joy to hold any malice. Look on your wife for the last time.” The other seal glanced at him with all the shyness and sorrow she could force into her now uncouth features; but when the bereaved’ husband rushed toward the rock to secure his lost treasure, she and her companion were in the water on the other side of it in a moment, and the poor fisherman was obliged to return sadly to his motherless children and desolate home.

seal faeries long for what they do not have

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Selkie

Living in the seas around the Orkney and Shetland Islands the shape-shifting selkies (“seal”) often takes the form of grey seals or great seals as they travel through the ocean.

When a selkie comes upon land it removes its seal-skin covering and appears in all ways to be a human. It will hide the skin or guard it carefully, as it cannot return back to the ocean without it.

Occasionally a selkie will make contact with a human and on rare occasions will take one as a mate, but those relationships never last. If the selkie is female she will eventually return to the sea; if the selkie is male it will after seven years offer its mate a fee for rearing the child, wanting to return to the ocean with it.

Roane

In Ireland the roane (“seal”) are seal fairies of the Scottish Highlands. The roane are the gentlest of the fairy creatures, so benign they do not even seek revenge upon those mortals who kill seals and their fellow roane.

Read more about this mysterious creature in the book.

male selkies create storms

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Roane

Fairy seal people of Scotland. Their name derives from the Gaelic name for “seal”. Like the selkies of Orkney and Shetland, they were believed to be people in the form of seals, who occasionally came ashore, shed their skins, and resumed human form.

Selkies

Shapeshifting seal people of Orkney and Shetland folklore, dwelling on small, rocky islands off the coast known as skerries.

Occasionally the selkie folk came ashore, shed their sealskins, and resumed their human form. They were more beautiful than ordinary mortals and there were tales of mortal women calling male selkies to their beds by shedding seven tears into the sea.

Seal Maidens

Typically, the seal maidens come ashore and shed their sealskins to dance in the moonlight. A fisherman spies the beautiful maidens dancing and hides one of the skins.  When the maidens see him they take fright, pull on their skins, and slip back into the water. The fisherman persuades the one maiden left behind searching for her sealskin to be his wife. She is a good wife, but never stops pining for the sea. Eventually, she discovers where her mortal husband has hidden her sealskin and returns to the sea.

Read more about this mysterious creature in the book.

spilled selkie blood means storms

Selkie Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

A common element in all selkie folklore is that they need their sealskins to return to the sea. So if they are disturbed while on land, they will snatch up their skins and return to the water. These Seal-Faeries are cursed with a constant longing for what they do not have: when they walk on land as a human, they yearn for the sea; when they are swimming in the water as seals, they yearn for the land.

In most tales involving the selkie wife, a selkie woman sunbathes on the beach/dances in the moonlight/enjoys being in her human form and a mortal man steals her sealskin, forces her to marry him and bear his children. The selkie woman does as expected, biding her time to take back her sealskin and return to the ocean. Sometimes the selkie woman will return for her children, and sometimes she abandons them along with her mortal husband. (The issue of consent is one for a whole other blog post.)

Selkie men are unusually attractive and mortal women crave their attention – so much so, that some would weep seven tears into the ocean at high tide to meet one. And if a woman goes missing at sea, it is said that she has gone to live with her selkie lover.

Some tales – especially in Shetland – tell of attractive selkies luring islanders into the sea during Midsummer’s Eve, the humans not to be seen again.

selkie man
Image credit: Mapvee on DeviantArt

Further Reading:

Selkies in popular culture:

In the film Ondine Colin Farrell’s character finds a woman in his fishing net. He helps her and keeps her safe. When this woman, Ondine, goes out fishing with Colin’s character she sings to the ocean and his net is filled with fish. He believes that she spoke the language of the sea… His (very ill) daughter believes that Ondine’s a selkie: a woman from the sea who lives on land until the sea calls her back. (I highly recommend this movie.)

In Ushig by Annemarie Allan, the selkies are the good folk. They’re almost a court of their own in her Faerie world.

In Melissa Marr’s anthology of short stories Faery Tales and Nightmares selkies are strange creatures in Love Struck who entrap mortal brides by leaving their Other-Skins for them to pick up…

Selkies in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Selkies

They are able to shape-shift between their seal and human forms.
Selkies mostly live in the human realm.
The biggest taboo of their kind is to mix with other Fae (through marriage, etc.).
Though they do occasionally marry their own kind, it is more common for them to seek a human mate. They entrap an unmarried human by leaving their Other-Skin (the seal pelt) for the human to find. The human is unable to give the Other-Skin away, allow the Selkie to reclaim it, or otherwise harm it. They are bound to their Selkie-mate through this pelt. It is thought that someone powerful had cursed Selkies (and thus humans) to always fall prey to the magic of the Other-Skin.
It does happen that during the Tithe freedom from this curse can be bought from either the Faery Queen or the Dark King (usually the Tithe happens every seven years…). Though some have found the price for freedom to be too steep.
Selkies are known as the good folk to some. They help fishermen to gather enough food from the sea in times of need by singing in the language of the ocean. They are gentle creatures. Though they are known to cause storms and avenge the indiscriminate murder of seals and selkies.
Their homes are usually deep in the ocean, most often a natural vault made of pearls or coral.

selkie english afrikaans
selkie sketch

I haven’t (yet!) used selkies much in my writing, though I did use them in The Adventures of Saphira the Faery Dog (currently on Wattpad).

I got the idea of a swimming Faery Dog from my own Rottweilers who all love water. Saphira especially did. She even jumped into the swimming pool whenever I swam. Though that could be because she thought I was drowning…

saphira water rottie
You can see more photos of Saphira here.

In Saphira the Swimming Faery Dog, Selkies are strangely the main antagonists. But what would Faeries be if not capricious?

swimming faery dog extract

What do you think of Selkies? Where did you read about selkies for the first time? Did you watch Ondine? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to this faery.

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