Scattered throughout Irish, Scottish and Icelandic folklore, are stories about the mythological creatures known as "seal people", selkies, or maighdeann-ròin (seal maidens).
Selkies are beautiful, tragic creatures cursed with a constant longing for what they do not have: when they are swimming in the water as seals, they yearn to be on land, and when they walk on two legs as a human, they long to be in the sea.
Some of the legends say that selkies could only shed their sealskin and transform from seal to human once a year, on Midsummer's Eve; others insist that it was every ninth night. The seal people, once upon the shore, were said to have danced in the moonlight. They were very gentle souls, contrasting with the usually hostile mythological creatures that come from the sea.
Female selkies were very beautiful, and made wonderful, loving wives. If a man could steal a female selkie's skin, she would be forced to become his wife. But she would often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean, and if she found her skin, would immediately return to her true home.
The male selkies had the power to seduce human women, especially those dissatisfied with their lives. The story goes that if a woman cried seven tears into the sea during high tide, the selkie would come ashore, shed his sealskin, and love her. Sometimes, these stories were told to explain why a woman had an affair or ran away from her family. There are also legends about women going missing at sea. It was said that her selkie lover had taken her down to his home underwater.
Origin of the Selkie
Much like the unknown depths of the sea itself, the origin of the selkies is a mystery.
- There are suggestions that long ago, Spaniards had been shipwrecked and were washed ashore and that their dark hair reminded the people of seals.
- Another story says that selkies are fallen angels that dropped into the sea and transformed.
- There is even a suggestion that after Christianity swept through the lands, the seal people were meant to represent those in purgatory, caught between two worlds.
- One of the most popular theories is that they were formed from the souls of drowned people who were granted one night each year to return to their human form and dance upon the shore of the sea.
However, despite the myths from many cultures, tales of selkies were likely created as a way to explain the unexplainable... When children were born with abnormalities; for example, webbed fingers and toes, faces resembling that of a seal, or even scaly skin; it was common to "blame the fairies". Families with hereditary conditions would often be said to be descended from the selkies. Today, there are scientific names for all of these conditions.
Stories of the seal people could also have been imagined as ways to account for women that did not seem to fit in with the rest of society.
They share similarities with sirens and mermaids in other cultures. Beautiful, mysterious creatures that shed their shiny seal coats to become humans for a night of dancing under the moon.
In modern culture
Selkies have appeared in several novels, songs and films in modern times.
Song of the Sea
Song of the Sea (Irish: Amhrán na Mara) is a 2014 animation directed by the very gifted Tomm Moore. The film follows the story of a young Irish boy who discovers that his mute sister Saoirse, whom he blames for the apparent death of his mother, is a selkie who has to free faerie creatures from the Celtic goddess Macha.
Together the embark on a fantastical journey across the emerald isle and sea where they are tasked with freeing faeries and saving the spirit world while discovering the magic and ancient legend of the Selkies - mythical seals who can change into human form when on land.
The Secret of Roan Inish
The Secret of Roan Inish is a 1994 film about a young girl who goes to live with her grandparents in Donegal, Ireland. Many years before, her brother had been carried out to sea in a cradle and one of her relatives believes that he is being watched over by the seals. It turns out that there is a legend that one of the girl's ancestors had married a selkie. The Secret of Roan Inish is an enchanting tale inspired by the gentlest of the fantastical creatures in Celtic mythology.
Neil Mac Coddrum
There are many Celtic legends that tell of children being born with webbed fingers and toes, but none so famous as the Mac Coddrum siblings:
Once upon a time, a Scottish fisherman called Neil Mac Coddrum was traveling along the coast when he spotted a group of nude women dancing under the moon. When he stepped on a piece of driftwood, he alerted his presence to the women who ran over to a pile of furs, slipped them on and dove into the sea. However, the fisherman was able to grab the last sister's sealskin before she could put it on. Although she pleaded with him to give it back to her, Neil knew about selkies from the old tales and he refused. He hid her sealskin and the woman was forced to stay with him and become his wife.
After some time, she gave the fisherman a son and a daughter, both sporting webs between their fingers and toes. They grew older as the selkie woman grew more wistful, though she was a good and obedient wife. One day, the children came running to her with a piece of fur, excited to show her what they had found. Their mother was overjoyed to have her sealskin back. She told her children about the Selkie race and then warned them that she had to leave them that very night.
And so, that night, after Neil had fallen asleep, the selkie woman took her sealskin to the water's edge. She bade her children farewell but she told them that they would be able to hear her singing from time to time, as they were half-selkie themselves. Then, she slipped into the water and the children headed home. In the morning, Neil Mac Coddrum was saddened to hear his children tell him that their mother had returned to the sea. He missed her very much, but his children kept him company for the rest of his life, except for the nights when their mother's song called them to come to her and swim through the waves.
Cast an Eye out to Sea
The sea is gentle, life-giving, and beautiful, but it is also vast, uncaring, and tremendously powerful... with unknown things hidden in its depths. The seal people represent all that is gentle and loving about the sea, but they are also shape changers, mysterious and powerful. In a sense they personify the sea itself.
Sadly, in the name of progress, science has lifted the veil where myths and legends once flourished. But we are so thankful to have these ancient tales sown into the fabric of our Celtic heritage...
And who knows... maybe next time you see what looks to be a seal bobbing in the sea, or lying on a rock... take a closer look...