The Selkie

This is a version of the Scottish selkie legend that Christabel remembers her father telling her when she was small.

” The story is that the selkie is a kind of creature that lives in the sea and looks like a seal, and at the full moon it can shed its seal-skin and turn into a human. This one selkie-girl came up onto the shore one full moon and turned into a human, and a fisherman sitting on the shore saw her and fell in love with her. They talked, and the selkie loved him too, but she put her skin back on and went back to the sea. She came back at the next full moon, and the one after that, and they both fell completely in love, but she always put her skin back on at the end of the night and went back to the sea. Then one night, the fisherman distracted her and stole the seal-skin away so she couldn’t go back to the sea and had to stay with him, and hid it in his chimney. The selkie stayed with him, and had two children, and almost forgot the sea, but every full moon she would go back down to the shore and look out to sea. Then, after a very long time, she found the seal-skin hidden in the chimney, and she was so angry with the fisherman that she cut two pieces out of the skin and wrapped her children up in them, and put her skin back on and took them back to the sea, where they lived as selkies for the rest of their days. ”

There are several theories as to the origin of the selkie story- mostly notably the idea the ancient Scots encountered nomads who were clad in seal skins and began to formulate legends about seal-people (similar to the way that centaur legends formed when Native-American cultures like the Aztecs encountered conquistadors on horseback). The Selkie is a kind of liminal being, existing in-between the sea and the land.

What is fascinating about this particular incarnation of the legend for me is that it features a woman forced to choose between her nature and her love and when the choice is taken away, she reverts to her nature and brings her children with her. It seems a little like Medea with a happier ending.

Annotation: The film The Secret of Roan Inish directed by John Sayles features a selkie story very similar to the one above.