On Faeries: Selkies
Selkies are a kind of aquatic faerie native to the northwest Atlantic Ocean, where stories of them are found throughout Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. Similar stories of shapeshifting seals can be found elsewhere in the world as well. The term “selkie” supposedly originates from an older Scots word, “selich”, which simply means “seal.” I have also read, however, that at least in the dialect of Orkney, “selkie” is itself just a word for “seal”. In Scotland and Ireland, selkies are often not differentiated from mermaids and may be referred to simply as “maighdeann-mhara” or “maighdean mhara”, meaning “maidens of the sea”.
Said to live in the sea as seals, selkies may assume the form of a human to traverse on land. When changing into human form, a selkie quite literally sheds its seal skin, which they are often depicted as wearing like a cloak. A selkie’s seal skin is its most important and treasured possession, as it is the source of their shapeshifting powers; without it, a selkie can’t change back into its seal form and return home to the sea. As such, a selkie will often hide its skin in a safe place along the shore while on land. Beliefs differ from place to place regarding when and for how long selkies can come onto land, with some making the claim that they can only come onto land on a specific night once each year, and others putting no such restrictions on them at all. In the Faroe Islands, it was believed that the selkies were the spirits of drowned humans who could only come to land and regain human form on Twelfth Night, January 5th or 6th, when they would dance and revel on the shore.
Cultures across the world have stories of faeries and faerie-like beings that become beholden to a human who has stolen their clothing and, unfortunately for the selkies, they are no exception to that trope. Many stories about selkies tell of men who steal a selkie woman’s cloak, preventing her from returning home and forcing her to marry him. In most such stories, the selkie lives with her human husband for many years and bears his children, but her seal skin is nearly always returned to her by some means in the end, at which point she leaves her human family behind and returns to the sea. In some stories, her half-selkie children may also join her in the sea, leaving their father all alone. It should be noted that the so-called seal-wives were not always held against their will, with some stories telling of happy marriages between human men and selkie women.
While stories of selkie women often depict them as victims of human men, the opposite is true of stories about selkie men, who are depicted as targeting human women in a similar fashion. Terribly handsome and seductive, male selkies were said to come to land to seek out unsatisfied or lonely human women, whether married or unmarried, with whom they could engage in sexual relations. Quite commonly, the woman in question is a fisherman’s wife whose husband is often away at sea for long stretches of time. It was also believed that a woman seeking out a selkie man could summon one by shedding seven tears into the sea at high tide. If a woman went missing while down by the shore or while at sea, it was often said that she had been whisked away by her selkie lover.
In more modern portrayals, selkies are most often depicted as being largely benign and friendly, and while many selkies certainly may be friendly, there was apparently a great fear of them, historically. Faeries are people, after all, and not all people are nice. Shipwrecks, drownings, shoreline disappearances, and poor catches while fishing might be blamed on the acts of malevolent selkies, and mothers would often paint crosses on their daughters’ breasts to protect them from the selkies while at sea. A story from Mikladalur in the Faroe Islands tells of a vengeful selkie woman whose family was killed by hunters, who laid a curse on the people of the island to die at sea until their collective severed hands would be enough to circle the entire island.
In the folklore of the Orkney Islands, the malevolent acts attributed elsewhere to selkies instead became attributed to another supernatural race called the finfolk, who were a more fish-like race of amphibious sorcerers who would abduct humans at sea and drag them to their underwater homes to be used as slaves. Selkies, meanwhile, came to be seen exclusively as more benevolent and romantic. It is theorized by some, however, that the finfolk and selkies were once believed to be one and the same in Orkney, as the finfolk do not appear to exist in other places where belief in selkies has existed.
There are many different theories as to the origins of the selkie, which may vary from place to place. A more Christianized theory claims that, like other kinds of faeries, the selkies are fallen angels who were cursed to live on Earth as animals until Judgment Day. Others claim that, rather than angels, they are humans who, for whatever transgressions, were cursed to become seals and live the rest of their lives in the ocean. In some places, as previously mentioned, it was believed that the selkies were actually the spirits of drowned humans who took on the form of seals, only permitted to come on land and regain human form for one night each year. Other, far more mundane, theories posit that stories of selkies and finfolk originated from old Norse stories of the Sami people, who were referred to as “finnar” and were believed to be powerful sorcerers capable of shapeshifting.