The Real Influences of Myths: Selkies

Hannah Elstro, MVC writer and photographer

Many people are familiar with mythology. Although some may only recognize the most widely used figures, such as the Greek gods, unicorns, mermaids, and so on, every single culture in the world has mythology, all with their own creatures and wonders, and this is for a reason.

The people who made and shared mythology lived in a time where natural phenomena, as well as the human condition, were misunderstood; myths offered a sense of control and of understanding of not only the world, but themselves, including their origins, history, and who they, as a people, were. As Joshu J. Mark writes, “At their most basic level, myths comfort by giving a sense of order and meaning to what can sometimes seem a chaotic world.”

Since then, much has changed; as the world has continued to develop, science has taken the place of mythology when it comes to giving explanations. As this happened, myths that were once regarded as sacred fact have slowly turned into stories passed down; widely regarded as untrue, but still a large part of certain cultures, nevertheless. However, many of the tales shared down generations, especially those in which multiple cultures have similar creatures, might actually be rooted in reality.

It sounds impossible for mythological creatures to exist; and that is because it is. But, even though the stories told around the creatures may not be true, that does not mean that those stories were not based on real events; after all, as the saying goes, in every lie there is a bit of truth. And many creatures found in myths, such as selkies, may have very real roots.

Selkies, derived from the Scottish word for seal, selk or selch, are mythological part-seal and part-human creatures featured in the folklore of the Western Isles, including Northern Scotland, Ireland, the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, and the Faroe Islands. They are depicted as seals in the water who then shed their skin to become human on land. This seal skin, then called their “coat,” can be removed and left, and put back on when the selkie wants to turn back into a seal.

In most stories surrounding selkies, the fact that the coats can be left is usually taken advantage of. In most every story they are beautiful young people, usually women, and these people are able to be trapped in human form on land if someone steals their coat. In the myths, men will steal the coat of a selkie and marry her, and she will be forced to follow along because she is trapped on land without her coat. Usually, the tale will then end sadly, with the sealskin being recovered by one of the selkie’s children, who will (depending on the myth) either join their mother in the sea or stay on land with their father.

Selkie men are treated very differently. Rather than being easily spooked or wanting to be left alone on the shore, like the selkie women, selkie men would hide their skins and then go inland and use their magical seduction powers on women there.

The amount of time allowed between transformations varies from myth to myth. Some sources insist they could only transform into a human once a year, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, others insist every seven or nine days. Yet others say once a selkie gets their hand on their coat they will not be seen for another seven years. Although selkie women have no myth saying they could be summoned, selkie men were said to be able to be summoned by a mortal woman shedding seven tears into the sea at high tide.

Selkies are depicted, like many other shapeshifters in myths, as caught between the two forms, always yearning for the other. Without the sealskin, they are trapped on land, and yet if they find the sealskin they must return back to the water, no matter who they leave behind. There are even a few tales in which the selkie did not want to leave her husband or children behind, but was not able to resist the call of the sea.

The formation of the tales of the selkies themselves has been speculated on heavily, with many different theories each having their own points.

One prominent theory surrounding selkies has been that the tales were inspired by real explorers wearing heavy furs when visiting Orkney Islands. This theory explains that it was possible these explorers, sometimes believed to be Finnish, were seen from afar by the people of Orkney Island, which not only explains the prevalence of tales originating from the island but also certain aspects of the myths. These explorers would have been young, and, if seen hunting in the cold waters with their coats on, could have been mistaken for seals, only to be recognized as humans on land. Also, it is rumored that once a human sees a selkie, the selkie will not show up again for at least seven years. A length in time without seeing these explorers could have inspired this aspect of the myth during a time where it would be very odd to see a person one day and then not again for several years.

Another theory involving foreigners was that of the Spaniards; a theory made by a mythologist that postulated that the people living in the isles had witnessed shipwrecked Spainiards wash ashore. According to the theory, their jet black hair would have reminded the people on the isles of seals, which could explain why almost every selkie is depicted as having long, dark hair. This theory even speculates that this shipwreck was the origin of black hair in Celtic nations.

Another explanation posed is that the tales were made to explain wives, or other people, who ran away or went missing at sea. Male selkies, and the stories surrounding them, are speculated to have explained why a woman had an affair or ran away from her family; a male selkie, who is irresistible to mortal women, seduced her and/or took her away. This same logic was used to explain what happened to people who went missing; they had simply been turned into selkies rather than lost at sea or drowned.

Lastly, these myths may have been used to explain away differences in children. Children born with scaly skin, webbed fingers and toes, or seal-like faces, which are all now known medical conditions and phenomenon, could have been explained by being the child of a selkie, or having selkie blood.

Although it can never be said with certainty where a myth came from, it can be fun to look back and speculate on what could have started the myth, or even if it grew over time, each passing event mentioned only strengthening the story. Although the stories may not be real, the culture surrounding selkies are, and it is worth looking back to try to see what may have inspired the myths of the creatures caught between two worlds: the gentle and sorrowful selkie.