Of all the English isle folktales my favourite has always been the Selkie.
The mystic, shape-shifting creatures who come ashore to shed their skins and take human form as beautiful women.
This story has been told many times, over many generations. It has also been given life in many places, including Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. All of these places have various versions of the tale, and each put their unique spin on the tradition.
For the Scots, their legends of selkie-folk are taken from their Northern Islands, particularly Orkney and Shetland.
A common tale of the Selkie is that a man discovers one, he falls for her and they marry, but she spends her days depressed, gazing at the coast, and longing for her real home, the ocean.
Other accounts state that the female Selkie are compelled to marry the men who steal their seal skins, abandoning their selkie-husbands. Others, bring human-men to the oceans, and keeping them under the water, never to see dry land again.
They also suggest that children with webbed hands and feet are born from a Selkie-woman and human-man.
In Ireland there is a family with a long history, and tradition claims they are descendants of a man who took a Selkie, or murdúch, wife, who later returned to the sea to be with her own people.
There is also a tradition from the Conneely clan in Ireland to never hunt or kill seals as this is thought to bring bad luck.
The Icelandic stories are told of a man who discovers several Selkie, transformed into women, dancing in a cave. They are startled by him and rush to gather their seal skins, however he manages to steal the smallest of the them and hides it. The skin's owner, one of the Selkie women, is forced by him into marriage and to bare his children. After two years, she finds her stolen Selkie skin in his belongings, takes it, and returns to the ocean and her former Selkie husband.
I’m drawn to these tales and folklore stories for many reasons. For one, I find the retelling of mystic creatures intriguing and fun. They reunite me with my childhood, and they spark the romantic magic within.
I like these stories for the magic within them. I like the raw imagination, which isn’t always pretty. I like the shades of life and human experience they gives us to think about, and create our own stories from.
On a deeper, more philosophical level, I feel that these stories reflect the way we as humans shape-shift. Our physical bodies change over time, and our minds can shift, transform, develop, and re-learn as we live.
From time to time we find ourselves needing to release and reset. Our need to shed our 'skins' and feel something new, to feel ourselves again, is natural, and is perfectly represented in the beautiful yet often woeful folktales of the Selkie.
It is powerful to put into words and share a story which rings true to human experience and emotion. It's hard to describe our intrinsic needs to be filled, our worries we find challenging, and our individual conditions as imperfect people. But the more I explore ancient stories, the more I delight in the way word-of-mouth traditions, which travel across time and space, are still relevant, still applicable, to us as humans today.
These stories give us a connection to the past, to our ancestors, and can remind us of where and what humans came from.
These stories are gifts. Retelling and remembering them is our way to be gracious and grateful for them, who started them, and where they began.
The sea and what She holds will always be a mystery. You can understand why so many stories have been told and kept about curious beings being seen on the surface and deep within Her. I think of these seal-women whenever I look out to sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of one coming ashore to transform, and shed her animal skin.