Entry from the #WhitworthBestiary: Selkies

In this latest entry from the #WhitworthBestiary, Lucy explores some of the folklore surrounding seals and their relationship with humans as she takes an in-depth look at the figure of the shapesifting selkie.

Walter Crane (1845-1915), Study of a seal on a rock. WCA.1.4.3.2.8 Source: the Whitworth

Selkie is a Scots name for a seal (alternatives: silkie, sylkie, selchie, saelkie, selky, seilkie, seilki, shelky, silkey.)

Selkies are supernatural, shapeshifting spirits or mythical creatures prominent in the folklore of Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe Islands.  When in the ocean they are seals but are able to shed their skin to appear human when ashore. The Welsh perspective of the selkie is that they’re human beings who have returned to the sea as merfolk or sea sprites. Selkies have been nicknamed Norse Mermaids and they can also be found in Icelandic legend, with tales that speak of seal-women and seal-skin. Jon Arnason wrote a rich collection of Icelandic folktales which were published in two volumes in 1862 and 1864. See ‘Selshamurinn’ (The Seal-Skin).

These seal/human shape shifters occur in the tales and myths of many cultures worldwide, with variations depending on their origin.  Frequently though, the folk-tales revolve around a man stealing the female selkie’s skin, after finding her naked on the shore.  Unable to return to the sea and her true seal form, he then coerces her to become his wife. After he has concealed the seal-skin from her, she spends her days in captivity.  It is believed the marriage isn’t necessarily an unhappy one but she longs to return to her ocean home.  Some say she can often be seen gazing longingly at the sea.  Only when she recovers her skin can she return, thus exhibiting the tale motif of the Swan Maiden type. 

William Mulready (1786-1863), Study of Waves. C.1845. Source: the Whitworth

Other legends simply tell of selkies occasionally consorting with humans – either way it is believed that even if a female selkie bears human children, once she is able to retrieve her seal-skin she will rush to return to the sea again, abandoning her children. Some stories say she revisits her family on land once a year, whilst in the typical folktale she is never seen again by them, at least not in her human form.  In one version the children would witness a large seal approach them on and greet them wistfully on the shore. Children born between human and seal-folk are likely to have webbed hands, or a sort of webbing between their fingers. I find this quite amusing as I’ve often thought my hands are rather webbed and have always had a strong love for the sea – could I be a child of a selkie?!

Male selkies are said to be unusually handsome in their human form, possessing strong seductive powers over human women. They typically seek out women who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, regardless if they are married or not. Perhaps a woman fed up with waiting for her fishermen husband to return. One particular tale tells of ‘Ursilla’ of Orkney, a woman who would shed seven tears into the sea whenever she wished her male selkie lover to appear. It is said that if a girl is missing at sea, it is thought she has gone to find her selkie lover.

Selkies were thought to live primarily in the surrounding seas of the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and as far North as the Norse ‘seaway’. 

Portion of ship wallpaper given to the Whitworth by CWV Group Ltd. C.1977-78. Source: the Whitworth

In the Orkneys selkies are sometimes believed to be the souls of those drowned at sea.  Another hypothesis is that the selkies were once humans condemned to live out the rest of their days on the ocean as punishment for some sort of wrong-doing. Orcadian folktales have also claimed selkies to be fallen angels.  

The myth of the selkie is thought to be at least as ancient as the Viking age and so isn’t at all surprising that there are varying interpretations. Their origin in places considered to be Celtic nations is clear, however it has been suggested there might also be a Scandinavian history too, stemming from the Scandinavian Finfolk mythology. Like the selkie the finfolk are also sea dwelling shape shifters. However selkies have come to be regarded as gentle creatures, unlike the finfolk who are viewed as malicious sorcerers of the sea, with only dark intentions. 

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