Our story today covers the Selkie from Scandinavian, Icelandic, Sottish and Northern folklore. The most popular variant of this tale is about a trapped and miserable Selkie Wife, forced to live on land until she can find her sealskin. This specific story is called the Mermaid Wife and originates from the northernmost islands of the Shetland isles, called Unst. You can find the original tale in Folk-Lore and Legends: Scotland by Charles John Tibbitts (1889).
One fateful day, a local fisherman was walking along the sandy creek when he stumbled across several men and women dancing in the moonlight. He knew at once that these were not just ordinary people because he also spotted discarded seal skins nearby. They were creatures from the stories that he had heard as a boy.
He had heard tales, and now and then, when someone would go missing, there would be talk of the Merfolk, but he had never seen them like this. Enthralled, he approached the group.
At his sudden appearance, the dancing Merfolk fled. They grabbed their seal skins and donned them, transforming almost instantly into seals and returning immediately to the sea. However, the Shetlander had a quick eye and nimble fingers. He noticed a sealskin and grabbed for it, tucking it away seamlessly into his pocket.
With no one left on the beach, he hurried home, sure that there was more to come. The man quickly hid the skin and made sure no one saw him or his prize.
Art by Julie Dillon
A damsel in distress
The next morning, he awoke to find a beautiful maiden pounding at his door. She was furious and demanded he return the stolen skin. It turns out that a Selkie needed their skin to transform, without which they were exiled from their home and people.
The fisherman was barely listening. He was captivated by her beauty and had fallen in love. The thought of returning her sealskin and letting her leave- he could not bare it.
Instead, he promised to take care of her on land as his wife. He may have lied and said he had lost the sealskin or never even had it in the first place. He could have been a good-looking captor. Whatever the reason, the Selkie conceded, and they were married immediately.
They lived in relative happiness for a few years and had many children. The man was pleased with the turn his life had taken, but his Mermaid wife never fully embraced her life on land.
Art below by Briana Corr Scott from her “The Book of Selkie”
On particularly rough days, she would wander alone to the sandy shore and signal for a great seal. They would talk at length in an unknown tongue before the great seal returned to the waves.
More time passed until one day, the children found something peculiar while playing in the barn. The youngest boy pulled it out of the stack of corn and examined what appeared to be a sealskin. Delighted, he ran to show his mother.
When she saw her seal skin, she wept tears of joy and hugged her son, thanking him and silently apologizing. Without a second look, she tore through the house and ran for the shore. In some versions of the story, the mother tries to take her children with her but fails. All but one turn into rocks.
Farewell, I will not miss you
The Shetlander saw his wife and chased after her, but he was too late. By the time he reached the beach, her transformation was complete, and she was frolicking in the waves. Her companion during her long exile, the great seal, swam next to her, and together they approached the man.
She looked upon her wretched husband and felt pity. She called out: “Farewell! and may all good attend you! I loved you very well when I resided upon earth, but I always loved my first husband better!”
If you want more Selkie stories then check out the following books and comics below:
Where does the Selkie originate?
Professor Donna Heddle’s article in the “Bottle Imp’s” issue on Scottish creatures highlights the origins of the Selkie and their connection with the supernatural. Some folklorists argue that Selkies originate from explorers mistaking indigenous, Finnish or Sami people who wore seal skins as mythical creatures. Supernatural theories give Selkies a more tragic backstory, with the seal creatures being lost souls or reincarnations of those lost at sea.
Duncan Williamson argues that Selkies are part of an ‘other world’ myth used to comfort people who lost loved ones at sea. Like all folktales, the story eventually became Christianized, with some sources suggesting that Selkies were angels who fell into the sea. Another approach suggests that the Selkie myth was superstition, created to explain birth defects like webbed fingers and toes.
Overall, it seems like, despite their origins, the story was well received and well-circulated.
Folklore and legends come from groups observing the world around them. The Selkie stories likely originated from glimpses of harbour or grey seals swimming in the waters around Scotland. While there is no proof that these creatures can transform, there is proof that they are fascinating anyway!
Scientists have dated the earliest fossils of modern seals back to about 28-30 million years ago. In contrast, the oldest human fossil we can date today is only 233,000 years old. That means they have been around far longer than we have, and they have been evolving over that time as well. Their ancestry and genetics place them in the Caniformia family along with bears, wolves and raccoons. There is a reason why seals often have dog-like snouts, and it’s because they are more closely related than you would think.
Seals are also straight-up troublemakers. In the year 2000, there was a two-ton elephant seal that caused all sorts of mayhem in Gisborne, New Zealand. The seal, nicknamed Homer (pictured left) after the character from the Simpson television series, came into town, knocking over cars, boat trailers and anything else he could use as a scratching post. Eventually, the town put up barriers surrounding the boat ramp where he would sleep. Homer evaded their efforts and continued to cause mayhem by knocking out a restaurant’s power by rubbing up against a power box and knocking over a pole. The point is that regular seals have a lot of fascinating history and characteristics, even if they cannot transform into humans.
The Selkie is not just a Scottish creature but one from all over Scandinavia, Greenland, and Northern Canada.
The Inuit have a story about Kiviuq that Dr. Andreas Hoffmann, Artistic Director of the Arctic Culture Lab, has been tracking with other historians, storytellers and experts. The story differs depending on the version, but the general gist remains the same. There was once a young boy who was abused and bullied. His grandmother urged him to wear a seal skin and practice holding his breath underwater. One day, while dressed as a seal, he lured the bullies (including Kiviuq) into the water, where he called upon a storm and drowned them all except for Kiviuq. Kiviuq survived and swam to an island where he still lives as the eternal wanderer. This is just one of the many, many Kiviuq stories out there!
Image from Kiviuq and the Mermiads written by Noel McDermott and Illustrated by Toma Feizo Gas
Other popular stories tell of selkie wives, tricked into staying on land but eventually reuniting with their skin and people. Another tale tells of a fisherman who injured a great seal and is taken by the Selkie underwater to cure him since the only way to close his wound was with the knife that caused the infliction. Overall, these stories are migratory- folktales that travel with a people, especially seafaring ones that intermingle due to trade, settlement or marriage.
Another explanation for the spread of the Selkie is the importance of seals in certain northern cultures. Seals not only provide meat but historically, they have been used for fuel and clothing. The connection between seals in stories is the same as other animals in their respective folktales, such as foxes, spiders and jackals.
Selkie vs Merfolk
Our tale was titled ‘the Mermaid wife,’ but it was clearly about a Selkie! That begs the question, what is the difference between a mermaid and a selkie?
First, the Selkie or Seal folk, originate from Celtic/ Norse folklore and mythology. They are described primarily as having the ability to transform through their seal skins. The frequency of this ability is up for debate, but in some stories, it is once every seven years, and in others, it is whenever they would like.
On the other hand, Mermaids are half-fish and half-human creatures. Unlike the northern-bound Selkie, mermaids come from Europe, Asia, North America, South America and Africa. A more recent story comes from Hans Christen Anderson, the Little Mermaid, which we have previously covered in our earlier episodes.
Finally, Merfolk is used to address a group of mermaids and mermen. However, it can also be a general term for any fish-humanoid.
Selkie men seem to fare better than Selkie women (when they aren’t losing their wives to humans) but are portrayed in a less sympathetic light.
While human men covet beautiful Selkie wives, Selkie men have seductive powers over human women. If a woman wanted to seek out a Selkie, she would have to shed seven tears into the high tide. As an offside, the number seven is seen repeatedly in these stories, with some saying Selkies transform once every seven years. In the 19th century, Walter Traill Dennison wrote that Selkie men “…often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life.” If your wife got bored of waiting for you to return from the sea, then she would conveniently be seduced by a Selkie male. In some cases, the Selkie male will take his human lover into the sea, while others will only take their half-human children from the wife.
Quick Color Selkie by Zirasharia