Selkie mythology and the Otherworld
Carl Sagan once
wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and it is this understanding that lies at the heart of Celtic, Irish
and Orcadian lore; versions and variations of The Selkie Bride and other tales of the selkie (selchie, silkie)arise out of
A marvelous contemporary Irish poet, a woman named Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, a woman who chooses for many wise
reasons to write in Irish, brilliantly and wittily rails against those who claim Irish is a dead language. In January 1985,
in The New York Times Book Review (available online at www.soc.culture.celtic.middlebury.edu)
Nuala talked about the Celtic concept of the Otherworld not as an anticipated and joyful afterlife but as an alternative to
reality. In other words, there are worlds beyond ours that we see, hear, touch, taste and smell, which do exist. In that article
Nuala expressed her astonishment at the way modern psychologists talk about the subconscious. As she put it, “…you’d swear
they had invented it, or at the very least stumbled on a ghostly and ghastly continent where mankind had never previously
set foot.” Even the dogs in West Kerry know the Underworld, she says, and “to be in and out of it constantly is the most natural
thing in the world.” (Nuala’s works derive much from Celtic lore and include several books translated by such contemporary
poets as Michel Hartnett, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, and others.)
The point is this: The Selkie Bride and other tales
of selkie lore owe much to this notion; perhaps it is children, not yet closed to the notion of the existence of other worlds,
who best understand stories of shapeshifters and otherworldly creatures.
The origin of the selkie, the shape shifter
with the ability to shed its skin and appear in human form, is the subject of much speculation and scholarly research, though
most center around the shores of Britain, Ireland and Scotland, in particular the islands of Orkney, Hebrides and Shetland.
The word selkie is Orcadian and translates seal, a creature common in these northern waters. Those who observe seals closely
notice the way they seem to watch all that occurs around them with almost human eyes.
Depending upon the tale teller
and the source, the selkie's transformation occurs in different ways, at different times. Some say the selkie folk visit land
once a year, some that they appear during every full or new moon. Some claim selkies dance on land every ninth night to dance
beneath the moonlight, others that they will often and regularly appear during daylight hours and lie upon the rocks basking
in the sun. Like other shape shifters of lore, if the selkie loses its skin, it cannot transform from human form until that
skin is returned.
Male and female selkies exist in lore, and both are dutiful, loyal mates to those humans who do steal
their skin—just like the selkie husband in our version of the tale.
The mythological origins of the selkie folk is
complex; when ancient tales began to appear in print, some claimed the selkie-folk were, like the fairies, fallen angels who
had been condemned to live on earth until the Biblical Judgment Day; others said the selkies once were humans who committed
a bad deed and sowere doomed to assume the form of a seal and live out the rest of their lives in the sea. Some Orcadian story
tellers say the selkie-folk are actually the souls of those who drowned, and one night each year these lost souls are permitted
to leave the sea and return to their original human form.
Selkie lore is found up and down the north and western coasts
of Scotland and into Ireland, and folklore scholars claim many possible origins for the shapeshifting selkie-folk. Though
they seem to be Celtic in origin, because the area around northern and western Britain was an area of much Norwegian settlement,
some scholars say the selkie-folklore are linked to the Finfolk and the Saami people of Scandinavia.
In the 19th century
Orkney’s respected folklorist Walter Taill Dennison wrote: “Writers on the subject, trusting to incorrect versions of old
stories, have often confounded mermaids and seals together, and have treated the two as identical. (Samuel) Hibbert in his
valuable work on Shetland has fallen into this error, and has been followed by most others whose writings on the subject I
But there is one feature to the selkie that many modern interpretations of their tale (including ours)
leave out. Once upon a time, mothers required their daughters to paint a cross upon their breasts before they were allowed
to undertake a voyage at sea. Clearly, then, the selkie folk inspired some fear. The Saami or, in Old Norse, finnar, were
great sorcerers and shapeshifters who lived in the far north of Norway, in a territory known as Finnmark, and after the Norwegians
adopted Christianity, the Saami remained pagan. In Old Norse literature they are sometimes referred to as jotnar (giants)
and dvergar (dwarfs), and they are obviously mythical, magical, supernatural beings with great healing powers. Some Orcadian
scholars suggest that the Finn/Saami traditions traveled to Orkney and other parts of the British Isles, and that in fact
the selkies and finnfolk are one and the same.
Whatever their origin, the selkie folk remain a forceful presence and
their tales abound in literature, in folklore, in music, and in film.
For a wonderful discussion of everything you'd
ever want to know about the selkies, see Sigurd Towrie’s excellent website, Orkneyjar (www.orkneyjar.com) where you’ll find
many links to other selkie tales and more information on selkie origins, including Mara Freeman’s 1995 version of the Selkie
Bride in which the children end up playing with the seal that is their mother, transformed again. Some readers find this softens
the sadness of the tale.
Also, The Mermaid Bride and Other Orkney Folktales by Tom Muir, Kirkwall, 1998, contains 63
short tales, and their sources, and also valuable are the following:
An Orkney Anthology, by John D.M. Robertson, with
the works of Ernest W. Marwick, Edinburgh, 1991 and Marwick’s 1975 classic The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland.
the Orkney Peat Fires by William R. Mackintosh, Kirkwall, published in 1898, with a 9th edition published by The Orcadian
in1999 includes traditional Orcadian tales.
Orkney Folklore and Sea Legends by Walter Traill Dennison, Ed. Tom Muir,
Kirkwall, 1995 (includes The Children of the Selkie Folk)
Peter Maxwell Davies designed
a musical of The Selkie Bride for children, and on his website at http://www.maxopus.com/works/selkie.htm
you can find video and audio of one of the productions that will inspire other versions of the tale.
to write about invisible worlds that exist in their universe. This could be, for instance, conversations they have with a
pet (and the pet’s imagined responses), or so-called imaginary friends who often are far more real and comforting than those
in human form.
What shape would you take if you could transform yourself, and what would
be the pros and cons? What would you discard to change?
Is a haircut a transformation?
A sudden spurt
A huge weight loss or gain?
Changing hair color?
Dressing up (for parties, for Halloween,
Other Discussion Questions
Many will want to discuss the selkie woman's decision to depart?
Was she wrong to leave?
How will her children cope?
Will they forgive her?
Does the listener understand her
And what of the fisherman's initial action? Was he wrong?
Again this tale inspires notions of justice,
fairness, right and wrong? And the story, too, can be used to generate discussions of deep personal loss?
What is it
like to leave a homeland?
What is it like to lose a loved one?
What does it mean to be different from those
What feels like home and what feels like "foreign territory?"
Are there people among whom listeners
feel most comfortable? Why? How?