In the dead of night, a group of children walk gently through their home in search of their mother. She is not in her bed, nor is she in the kitchen brewing a late-night cuppa’ tea. The house is quiet, save for the muffled snores of the children’s father as he sleeps in the living room chair. They whisper for their mother quietly, but it is to no avail – she isn’t home.
Miles away, alone at the water’s edge, a woman stands with complete stillness as waves awash her feet. By her side, clutched tightly in her cold bare hand, is something she thought long lost – a seal skin. She eases her body into the skin and wades out into the ocean. She welcomes the warmth as water covers her head. She is home now.
For those with a basic knowledge of Celtic mythology, this story will likely feel familiar. It is story of the selkie (“Seal Folk”), a half-human, half-seal creature that is often whisked away to the mortal world and then trapped.
The selkie often brings to mind other water-dwelling creatures – in particular, the mermaid. The two are not the same, however. Mermaids, like their ancestor the siren, are seen as eviller and more dangerous than the selkie who, by all accounts, are considered gentle and kind. Physically, a mermaid’s body is divided into two halves; human and sea creature. Selkies, on the other hand, appear as seals when in water. And when they leave the water, they can shed their seal skin and appear as humans.
It is important to remember that their skin doesn’t disappear. Unlike in tales of mermaids, where fins vanish through magic, the selkie’s seal skin remains.
In the most popular version of the selkie tale, a man finds a sleeping naked woman and her seal skin at the seashore. Overcome with fascination and intrigue, he decides he wants to marry the woman and takes her home. Out of fear of her leaving, he hides the selkie’s seal skin, leaving her to believe she’d lost it and making it impossible for her to return to the sea. From then on, selkie spends her days and nights longing to return.
Soon after her capture, the man and the selkie start a family and have four or five children. It is often said that it is one of these children that finds her skin (though sometimes the selkie finds it herself) locked away in a chest whose key is in possession of the man. The moment the selkie puts her hands back on her skin, her fate is set.
There is much debate about how this story ends. Some say the selkie leaves, abandoning not only the man, but her children as well. Others believe that she takes the children with her, leaving only the man. There are even more variations with this version of the tale, however. In some accounts, the children go to sea with their mother, but in other versions, she turns them into rocks and returns to the sea on her own.
Other tales abound, also; some are simple stories of selkies protecting fisherman and children at sea, while others note that selkies can only shed their skin once every seven years as their bodies contain “condemned souls.”
There are even stories about male selkies, though they are not nearly as popular as those of their female counterparts. Male selkies are described as very handsome, seductive, and irresistible to human women. In these stories, the male selkie will find a human woman who is unhappy in her life – often the lonely wife of a sailor at sea – to lure and seduce. If these women wish to contact their male selkie, they need only cry seven tears into the sea.
Through all the variations, one thing remains consistent: the story of the selkie is one of a woman’s sadness and longing. Sometimes that sorrow comes as the result of the selkie’s longing for a return to the sea; other times it is the human woman longing for her husband.
Alas, should you ever see a woman standing with complete stillness as she grasps her seal skin and looks out at the sea, leave her be. She is home.