Just about every corner of the world has lore and legends about mermaids. For the most part, they are depicted as mean-spirited tricksters who often lured people to their deaths. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows only the romantic stereotype of mermaids.
However, there are some myths about creatures from the sea that are unlike all the others and still captivate the imagination today: the mysterious selkies.
From the North Sea and North Atlantic
Selkies (sometimes ‘selchies’ or ‘silkies’) feature in the folklore of people from northern Scotland, Ireland, the Shetland Islands, and the Faroe Islands (Danish territory north of Scotland between Iceland and Norway). While many tales about part-human, part-fish creatures from the sea end in tragedy for mortal people, selkies changed from being seals to humans, and their stories enjoy a more romantic quality, although with some heartache as well.
Some people believe that the legends surrounding selkies arose when early Scottish settlers and shipwrecked sailors married dark-haired, fur-wearing Finnish native women and Sami people (sometimes called Laplanders).
Not Your Typical Mermaid
Male and female selkies were said to be seals when in the ocean, but could shed their skins to live on land as humans. Whichever form they were in, selkies tended to long for the other form and the other life. Nevertheless, they could remain human for some time provided their seal skins were well hidden from them. Upon finding their skins, they would have to return to the water.
Both female and male selkies in human form were usually described as being classically beautiful or alluringly attractive. Some stories depict the males as ‘predators’ of a sort, often coming ashore to seduce women who were dissatisfied in their marriages or lonely in their day-to day-lives, like fishermen’s wives. Other tales mention lonely human females summoning male selkies by shedding seven tears into the sea.
Female selkies were said to be incredibly beautiful as humans and made excellent wives and mothers. But if a female selkie found her seal skin again, she would immediately return to the water, even leaving behind a husband and children.
Possible Meanings Behind Selkies
Like most myths, stories of selkies may have been attempts to explain the unexplainable and find some kind of comfort. Instead of being mere romantic fantasies about being lured away by a gorgeous lover, it’s possible that selkie stories may have been about explaining why a woman might have an affair and/or leave her family. Or they could have been an attempt to explain people who were different and didn’t fit in, perhaps even those who had webbed fingers or scaly skin.
Life dependent on the ocean was always unpredictable for the people of the North Sea and Northern Atlantic, with the sea sometimes giving and other times taking away. The concept of seal people becoming human and imparting joy before returning to the water and leaving things behind certainly fits the pattern of the ocean giving and taking. For all we know, some stories may have been ways of explaining the tragedy of death in the water.
Today, selkies remain virtually unknown to most of the world. That is a pity, because their stories are very ‘human’, revolving around life and love instead of intentional harm and death. Of all mermaid legends, selkie tales are among the most touching, even bewitching, and teach us much about the beauty and nature of our own humanity.
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