Most people have heard of Swan Maidens. These mythological creatures can change their appearance from swan into woman. The tales in which they feature often tell about a young man who steals the swan maiden’s most precious possession: her magical feathery robe which allows her to transform into a swan when she wants to.
When the robe is gone, her identity is gone with it and the Swan Maiden has no other choice than to marry the thief. She gives birth to his children and raises them until she retrieves her robe. Now there’s no time to waste, she immediately puts it on and flies away. Never to return. Never to be seen again.
Before I distract myself too much with mythological swans, I must say that this post isn’t about Swan Maidens. It’s about selkies. Growing up in Belgium I had vaguely heard about selkies, but I never really knew what they were until I started researching Scottish folklore. Since then my thirst for discovering and learning more about selkies has never disappeared.
Where do Selkies come from?
You’re most likely to encounter a selkie if you’re reading folktales that come from Scotland, Ireland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands. Just like Swan Maidens they can change their appearance. The only difference is that they don’t change into a swan, but into a seal. The origins surrounding these human-seal creatures are just as spellbinding as the beings themselves.
One of the best known theories is that selkies were born after the Scottish came into contact with Finn-men, or Inuit. They were first sighted in Orkney in 1682 and it’s safe to assume that the people living there during that time were unfamiliar with the animal skin which the Inuit used to make clothes and kayaks. It’s said that they often removed their clothes to let them dry on the rocks, and therefore it’s likely that the belief of humans changing into seals comes from these sightings.
My previous blog post told about the real couple that went on to inspire Beauty and the Beast. It told about the suspicion and prejudice with which people who had a rare skin condition were subjected to.
Being different in past centuries was dangerous. Just like Petrus Gonsalvus, the Scottish clan MacCodrum were suffering from an unusual hereditary condition. Their condition made their hands look like flippers, but they quickly thought of an ingenious way to escape the mistrustful gaze of others by claiming descent from a fisherman who had married a selkie.
Selkies are found in many folktales, and they always encounter humans. In this post I would like to focus on two stories that couldn’t be any more different from each other. The first is ‘The Legend of Kópakonan.’
The Legend of Kópakonan
This story takes place in the Faroe Islands. When thinking about the legend it’s impossible not to mention the amazing series of stamps which it inspired. They were designed by artist Edward Fuglø and issued by the Faroese post in 2007. The legend itself tells about a farmer who lives in a village called Mikladalur.
The farmer often hears tales about selkies. It’s said that they were once human beings, but changed into half-seals after having died of their own free will in the dark, blue ocean. It’s also said that once a year, on the Thirteenth Night, they shed off their seal skins and take on a human form.
The young man is curious. Do they really exist? What do they look like? What do they do during that night?
The Thirteenth Night approached and the farmer went to the beach. He hides himself behind a rock. All he has to do is wait. His patience is rewarded when the seals come to the shore. They shed off their skins and dance in their human forms underneath the bright moonlight. One of them is a very pretty girl. The farmer falls in love instantly. Without making a sound he creeps closer and steals her sealskin.
The girl begs him to give back what’s hers, she pleads with him, entreats him to do the right thing, but all to no avail. The selkie has no other choice but to go back with the the thief to his farm and to marry him. The farmer locks her skin up in a chest and fastens the key around his belt. The selkie submits. She gives birth to many children and many years pass.
One day, she finally has a chance. Her husband is away fishing and has forgotten his belt. It doesn’t take him long to realise his mistake and he rows back home as fast as he can. When he returns he finds the children alone and sees that his wife has put away all of the knives so that the little ones cannot hurt themselves while they’re alone.
In the sea she is reunited with her true love, another seal who has faithfully waited for her to return all of those years. Now and then she swims near the land and watches as her children grow up, all from a very safe distance.
The villagers decide to go seal hunting. The night before the farmer dreams about his former wife. In this dream she tells him that he mustn’t kill her lover or her two seal pups and describes them to him, so that he would know what they look like. The farmer doesn’t think much about it. Perhaps he thought that it was just a meaningless dream, or maybe he didn’t really care about the loved ones of a runaway wife.
The hunt goes well. A little bit too well. As evening falls the farmer places the cooking pans on the fire. His former wife’s lover and their two pups are being served for dinner. As he’s putting the plates on the table, there’s a sudden terrifying noise. He had never expected his wife to return and definitely not in the form of a horrifying troll instead of a pretty lady. She curses him, she curses the whole village and she curses their descendants.
‘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 Kalsoy.’The Legend of Kópakonan
After this, she was never seen again. The people of Mikladalur think that she’s still not satisfied, for when a death at sea or near the cliffs occurs her name is still whispered on the streets.
The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
When writing about selkies, it’s impossible not to include a Scottish story! Besides the wonderful alliteration in ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’ it’s also a wonderful ballad that’s very different from the legend above. In the video below you can listen to one version of the song, but there are many more.
As far as I’m aware there are two versions of the story and both were written down as ballads during the mid-nineteenth century.
Let’s talk about the Shetland version first. In this narrative we find a nurse lamenting the fact that she doesn’t know who the father of her child is or where he is. While she weeps a man appears. He tells her that he is the father and that he lives on a remote rocky island called Sule Skerry (fun fact: this island really exists, it has a lighthouse but the population is zero).
‘I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie in the sea
And when I’m far from every strand
My dwellin ‘tis on Sule Skerry’The ballad of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
He also tells her that he is a silkie. When he’s on land he takes on the form of a man, but when he’s surrounded by water he changes into a seal. He gives her a purse of gold in exchange for his son.
Before he leaves he predicts the future. She will marry someone who operates the guns on a ship and her future husband will kill both father and son.
The Second version is known as the Orkney version. To be honest, it’s not that different at all. In this ballad the woman is Norwegian. Here, the silkie proposes to marry her, but she refuses. He predicts the same tragic future events as in the first version, but also tells that her husband will bring back a gift after he has shot them. A beautiful golden chain, and she will recognise it because it used to belong to her son.
And she has wed a gunner guid
A a gey guid gunner it was he
And he went oot on a May morning
He shot the son and the grey silkie
Alas, alas this woeful fate
This weary fate that’s been laid on me’
She sobbed and sighed and bitter cried
Her tender hert did brak in three.The ballad of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
Other beliefs surrounding selkies
The belief in selkies might have saved some seals. People in previous centuries often made use of the skin and blubber of seals, but in Scotland they only did so when times were hard.
They believed that killing seals would carry great misfortune with it. There might be a very angry selkie lurking nearby. If there’s one superstitious belief that I’m grateful for, it has to be this one. Seals -whether they can change into humans or not- are magnificent creatures.
Selkies also had a bad name for a variety of reasons. As seen in the legend of Kópakonan it was believed that they were the souls of people who had drowned themselves. According to the church suicide was sinful, it was even considered to be an act of blasphemy, and people who had lost their lives in this tragic way were regarded as filth and not worthy to be buried in sacred ground. Another reason why selkies had a bad name was because some believed that they were fallen angels.
The question remains: what are these stories really about? For me it’s about beings who want to be left alone but whose lives are often ruined once they meet a human. It’s about psychological egoism (think about the farmer who ignores the girls pleas). It’s about us, humans, being afraid of things that we don’t know much about (think about the origins and its association with Inuit dress).
It’s about humans destroying the natural world for other creatures (think about the Scottish gunner who shoots father and son without knowing it’s significance).
What do you think it’s about? Is the revenge which the selkie in the legend of Kópakonan seeks justified? What about the tragedy of the Scottish silkie? Are you familiar with any other stories in which selkies appear?
As always I would love to hear from you in the comments! And don’t hesitate to call me out if I have made any mistakes.