A Home for Selkies

To the Celtic peoples, the sea that surrounded their lands was a place of wonder and mystery. Although their mythology as a whole is provocative, the tales relating to the sea are especially so. During a course I took at UC Berkeley on Celtic Mythology, I was fascinated by their ideas of water and some of the characters that were rumored to live in or under the waterways.

"The word 'Domnu' [the name of a Celtic god] appears to have signified the abyss or the deep sea, and the same idea is also expressed in their better-known name of 'Fomors' [one of the invading tribes of Ireland were known as the Fomorians, described in the oldest Irish mythological text "The Second Battle of Mag Tuired;" they came from the sea], derived from two Gaelic words meaning 'under sea.' The waste of water seems to have always impressed the Celts with the sense of primeval ancientness; it was connected in their minds with vastness, darkness, and monstrous births -- the very antithesis of all that was symbolized by the seath, the sky, and the sun." -- Charles Squire, "Mythology of the Celtic People"

Probably the most popular surviving tales are those of the mermaids and mermen ("mer" coming from the Latin for "ocean"), half-human, half-fish creatures who tempted humans with their haunting voices, leading ships to wreck on rocky shores.

But what fascinated me most were the stories of selkies -- seals who could shed their skins and take human form. "The seas around Orkney and Shetland harbor the shy Selkies or Seal-Faeries (known as the Roane in Ireland). A female Selkie is able to discard her seal skin and come ashore as a beautiful maiden. If a human can capture His skin, the selkie can be forced to become a fine, if wistful, wife. However, should she ever find her skin she immediately returns to the sea, leaving the husband to pine and die. The males raise storms and upturn boats to avenge the indicriminate slaughter of the seals." -- Brian Froud and Alan Lee, "Faeries"

These tales mostly come from the northernmost reaches of Ireland and Scotland -- the Orkney and Shetland Islands in Scotland, and especially Co. Donegal in Ireland -- where people make their living from the sea, fishing all day long. When one lives with the sea, one begins to uncover its mysteries. Most mythological sea creatures are considered hostile and malevolent, but it is perhaps the kind, mournful eyes of seals and sea lions which allowed them to become transformed by myth into these kindly beings. They do, at times, seem to understand the depth of human emotion as they understand the depths of the seas.

The texts, images and links at the right are related to, if not directly based upon, stories of these seallike beings. The first set deals with some of the bases for selkie lore -- Celtic deities who took to the seas, for instance. The second set includes stories based around these legends (in the case of "The Secret of Roan Inish, a fabulous book and even better film, Fry weaves selkie tales with the more ancient stories of Dylan, the boy who took to the sea). The third set includes miscellaneous items related to seals or selkies. And the fourth lists some related links.

Mythological Texts

"The Seal-Woman's Croon"
More tales of the Lochlannach
"The Selkie that deud no' forget" (English translation)
"The Selkie that deud no' forget (indigenous text)"
"One Spared to the Sea"
The Selkie
A Selkie Song

Basic Selkie Lore from Orkney

Tales of Dylan, the boy who took to the sea

Stories and Poems Based on the Mythology

Excerpt from "The Secret of Roan Inish" by Rosalie K. Fry
"Sweetly The Waves Call To Me" by Pat Murphy
"Sea Change" by Susan Stern
"Part Thee and Me" by Beth Winegarner

Curious Tales

"Sea Lions on Bridgeway??" by Annie Sutter

Related Links

Legends' section on fairy tales of the selkies
Facts About Seals
"Selkies, Sirens and Other." part of the "Mermaids on the Web" site
The Orkney Islands
Another Orkney Page
Donegal Town
A Cat named Selkie