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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Fairy Facts: Selkies

 In this installment of fairy facts we're looking at a popular one - selkies.

Name: Selkie, Silkie, Selchie, Rón
The name literally means 'seal' and may appear in English as selkie-folk or seal-folk to differentiate from the animal

Description: Selkies appear as seals in the water, like any wild seal except for their eyes which are said to be particularly human-like. They may go on land and remove their seal skin to take on or reveal a human form. In human form they are often described as having dark hair and dark seal-like eyes. 

Found: Selkies, under variations of the name, are found in folklore across Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland islands, as well as Iceland.

Folklore: Selkie folklore is vast and complex as well as regionally varied, however some wider concepts can be found across the bulk of stories. Perhaps the most well-known is the idea of the selkie wife: A fisherman sees a selkie dancing on the shore and sneaks over to take her sealskin; without it she is trapped on land and marries him. They have several children together and live as a married couple until one of the children eventually finds the sealskin and tells their mother. Once the sealskin is returned the selkie immediately goes back to the ocean - sometimes with her children other times leaving them behind. In contrast there are two main stories of male selkies. In one the selkie takes a human lover and leaves her with a child which she is forced to raise alone; the selkie returns years later to claim the child. In the other a heartbroken human woman cries into the sea and a selkie lover appears and takes her with him into his realm.
The half-human children of these unions are said to share their selkie parent's dark hair and eyes and to be born with webbed hands or feet. It has been suggested that selkie stories may originate with attempts to explain such birth defects or genetic disorders in some families, while other scholars also suggest it may be an explanation for early encounters with Inuit peoples.
In most folklore selkies can change their form at will, while in some they are limited to only coming on land one day a year. They are described as living in family groups and some selkie wives had a husband and children among the selkie folk before being taken by a human. They are also said to both cause storms at sea and to sometimes save sailors from drowning in storms.

Where It Gets Muddy: Selkies are becoming increasingly popular across modern fiction in stories which often radically rewrite the older folklore for plot purposes. This has resulted in a growing confusion not only about what selkies are but also about the rules which govern them, particularly around the magic of their sealskin. In some cases attempts to rewrite selkie wife stories to move them away from the abducted or forced bride trope have gone so far the opposite direction that they've just created the same thing under a different rule. For example the story where the selkie drops their coat in a human cafe and a human picks it up and returns it to them causing the selkie to instantly fall in love with them and claim they are now married. 
It is best to take these newer stories with the understanding that they are fiction.

What They Aren't: Contrary to some popular art, selkies aren't described like classical mermaids, with a human top half and seal bottom half. As described above they appear as seals in the water or as fully human on land. This confusion may come from the fact that in some folklore they are called 'mermaids' interchangeably with being called selkies or else are called a mermaid but described as a selkie. It is likely that in Ireland, Iceland, and the UK mermaid at points was being used as a non-specific term and that it may have served as the best English language translation for the terms in the original languages. 

Recommended: For a modern media approach to selkie stories I highly suggest people watch 'The Secret of Roan Inish' a movie about selkies set in Ireland which includes a lot of relevant folklore. The 1994 movie is based on an older book 'The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry' set in Scotland.

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