Mythic Monday: Selkie

“A bird may love a fish, but where would they live?” –Ever After, A Cinderella Story

In the seas surrounding the Scotland and Ireland, pretty faced seals with large, almost human eyes peek out from the water, curiously watching fishermen work. They’d follow the boats, sometimes even leading fishermen to the best places for a good catch, if you believe stories in the pub after a round or two.

And if a fisherman was lucky enough, he’d meet a beautiful, quiet girl on the shore some evening. A girl with almost human eyes and dark hair, walking alone on the beach. She’d be easy to love, kind and generous, understanding of his love of the sea and his need to be away from home for long stretches of time. He’d, of course, want to marry her.

And should he find the skin she hid when she changed to her human form, he could hold her hostage as his wife…for as long as he can keep it from her. But if ever she finds her true skin, she’ll change back to a seal and be lost to him forever. For as happy as she may be with her husband and children, a part of her will always long for the freedom of the open ocean and her true form.

Rather…controlling, no? Ah, but the control goes both ways. Lonely women can attract a sexy Selkie man (Selkies are said to be quite gorgeous, male and female) to their beds and homes by giving seven tears to the sea. Again, if they can somehow hide his sealskin, he’ll stay. But ultimately, he belongs to the sea, and eventually he’ll return without looking back.

Selkies, the seal people off the coast of Ireland and Scotland, have a reputation for being excellent lovers, excellent spouses, and excellent parents. There’s even some versions of the stories that say if you’re lucky enough to wed a Selkie you’ll never ever go hungry, because fish will always find a way into your nets. And that even when (inevitably) the Selkie finds his or her skin, they’ll watch over their human children from beyond the shores, interacting with them in the water but staying away from their former spouses forever. In fact, often once the skin is returned the Selkie can’t turn into a human ever again. Rather telling, really: the very core of the relationship is based on coercion, so there is no returning once freedom has been found.

Selkies are my personal favorite of all the water spirits. I suppose that has to do with my love for the sea, but also because their myths fall into one of the primary Celtic tragic themes: doomed love between humans and the Fae. Sometimes, a soul just needs a bittersweet story, after all, and nobody does bittersweet like the Celts. The overriding theme across every variation of Selkie tales is that you can’t change your nature for love, by choice or coercion, no matter how hard you try or how long you wait. Eventually, your true nature will set you free, but that freedom comes with sadness.

 Loreena McKennitt’s song “The Old Ways” (The Visit) always reminds me of the Selkie myths: of truly mismatched and tragic lovers who can’t help but part, at least for a time. (FYI: the song isn’t specifically about a Selkie: it’s the sea theme that gets me there.)

And then I knew/
That you had to go/
Your world was not mine/
Your eyes told me so

The pounding sea/
is calling me home/
home to you

I’ve always wondered, what if the man or woman who hid the Selkie’s skin accepted their lover’s nature and respected his/her ability to choose? What if the Selkie remained free to come and go, and the spouse chose to make the most of their time together while he or she had it? Do they truly only get one shot at playing a human in their magical lives, or is it the fundamentally flawed relationship that causes them to give up humanity forever once they get their seal self back?

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