The selkie in literature and film
The People of the Sea by David Thomson
Tales of the Seal People by Duncan Williamson
Selkies - seals who change into people and back again - always seemed far stranger and more compelling to me than sirens or mermaids. A siren is simply a beautiful woman who lures the sailor to his doom. The fish part of the mermaid is the tail of a generic fish. But the selkie myth involves a specific species, and seems to pay careful attention to the attributes of that species. The stories told about selkies emerge from the northern coastal cultures and craggy landscapes that humans share with seals, and mirror the ambivalence in the relationship between seals and people, and people with nature.
There are various theories about the origin of the selkie myth. The stories are associated most frequently with the Orkneys, Faroes, and Shetlands, and the western coast of Ireland. One idea is that hunting parties of Finnish, Saami, or Inuit people were spotted on beaches beside their sealskin coats, or sealskin-covered boats, giving rise to the idea of the seal shedding its skin to assume human form.
|Faroese stamp, showing a seal woman entrapping, or possibly protecting, a man.|
Speculation on the origin of the myths is perhaps unnecessary once you think about the nature of seals, and what seals might have meant to the small, isolated fishing communities who lived close to them through the centuries.
They have an almost-human quality. The seal embodies vulnerability when on shore – large, fat, and round, with short, apparently useless flippers, lumbering movements, and big, expressive eyes. In the sea, however, they seem a different species, supple and graceful, with a physical power and freedom impossible for humans.
Like humans, seals are social, living in large groups. The males fight each other, pairs bond, they communicate with mournful, singing sounds, their babies are endearing.
Seals and humans were in direct competition for fish, and fishermen would sometimes cull these rival predators. Seals were also hunted for their skins, and their blubber was used for lamp oil. So the selkie stories might express the hunters’ conflicted feelings: unease and lingering guilt about killing a creature that is both mysteriously other, and disturbingly familiar.
The recurring themes in selkie folklore hint at repressed desires and fears. While in human form, selkies make loyal wives and husbands, so long as the seducer keeps their sealskin hidden. Once the selkie finds the skin, the game is up and she, or he, returns immediately to the sea, abandoning house, hearth and family.
You might fear, or wish, that your partner would vanish; you might long for a reason to abandon the chores and embrace a new life in the waves.
The selkie can be a romantic seducer, the stranger from the sea who enchants a villager only to disappear, leaving heartbreak in his or her wake. Selkies can be protective - saving babies, warning people of danger - or dangerous, bringing a tide of ill fortune to anyone who interferes with their freedom.
In centuries past, life must often have been relentlessly hard and inward-looking for people in the remote, storm-blasted Irish and Scottish fishing communities. The more imaginative might well have stared out at the sea horizon, envious of the seals who could slip smoothly away into the distance, away from domestic bonds.
Or they might have wondered about who, or what, might arrive on the shore in the twilight – a shapeshifting stranger who would rescue them, seduce them, free them from care, or carry them to their deaths.
|Selkie stories may have represented the fears and longings of isolated coastal communities. |
Photo: © David Ross/Channel Light Vessel
For his book, The People of the Sea (1954), David Thomson listened and recorded verbatim retellings of the selkie stories in pubs and front rooms, with versions of the myth being constantly adapted and embellished by the storytellers. They talk matter of factly about about hunting and killing seals, before spinning out stories that reveal a deep admiration for the creatures, guilt about causing them harm, fear and awe of their magical powers.
The storytellers’ tone, as reported by Thomson, is sometimes mischievous, almost defiant, as if they were daring their listeners to doubt the tall tales, while at other times there’s a hesitancy, like people afraid to relate their dreams in case it makes the dreams real.
In Tales of the Seal People (2005), Duncan Williamson suggests that selkies were a way of coming to terms with losing relatives at sea. The idea that your father or lover had gone to join the seal people would be easier than imagining them lying forgotten on the seabed, deprived of a funeral. The sea is clearly a symbol of death and eternity, as well as adventure and possibility, and the selkie myth draws on both of these.
Duncan Williamson spent his life in Scotland’s traveller community. His stories, he says, are retellings of tales he heard from the fisherman and crofters of Scotland’s west coast, passed down through the generations. In each story, he tries to reproduce the voice and style of the original teller, and the the selkies (he calls them ‘silkies’) are lovers, friends, replacements for lost children, rescuers and avengers. The conflict between characters who love and identify with seals, and those who resent them, is a common theme, but my personal favourite is “The Lighthouse Keeper”. The bond between a lonely man and the lost seal, is touching:
“You know it’s very hard when you live in a lighthouse on your own out in the sea and there’s not a soul to be seen. . . even a mouse would cheer you up! When somebody comes flip-flapping around the floor, especially a seal that you have just taken from the sea, it means so much to you - it means the world to you.”
I wanted to look at how far the the selkie myth has penetrated beyond these traditional stories into mainstream culture, either literally or more indirectly as a symbol of transformation, enchantment, or freedom. The answer seems to be not very far, which is surprising, but there are some interesting examples nevertheless.
|Community of common seals|
Seal Woman by Ronald Lockley (1974)
This strange novel, which I read as a teenager, was my introduction to the idea of the selkie. It is the story of a young man from London enchanted by a feral young woman, Shian, whom he encounters living outdoors in a wild coastal forest in the far west of Ireland, “somewhere on that little-known stretch of coast which runs from Valentia Island south to Cape Clear”.
Unlike many selkie tales, Lockley’s story is not written for children. Lockley was a scientist, not a novelist, and this is an eccentric erotic fantasy, expressing a passionate longing for isolation, for wilderness, and the desire to submerge and obliterate oneself in nature, to become absorbed by it. The fantastical and improbable aspects of the story are underpinned by the author’s precise attention to the physical world. Seal Woman is perhaps a neglected example of magical realism.
There are two protagonists, the narrator and Shian. Shian is the last of a noble Irish family, the O’Malleys of Kilcalla, but she has abandoned the decaying mansion she inherited, and rejected all connections with human civilisation. Her true home is the sea, and her true people the seals who live there: “I have given my heart to the sea and the folk of the sea.”
Shian lives inside her own myth. She believes her grandmother’s story that she was found as a baby washed up in a seal cave after a storm. She is spellbound by this idea, and the ballad she sings, ‘Song of the Sea’, includes a prophecy that a ‘prince from the ocean’ will arrive in the waves to claim her: “We shall follow the seals on the wings of the waves. . . he will crown me his queen in the far Holm of the seals.”
The narrator decides to pose as this sea prince in order to win her love, deliberately wrecking his boat off the seal cove so that he can arrive in the storm and fulfil her prophecy.
For a time, the couple are happy; Shian teaches the narrator to how to live wild, both in the forest and the sea, foraging for food and eating raw fish, learning to spend longer and longer under the waves, making love on the shore. But Shian is not content with this idyll – she is increasingly impatient to swim away with the seal herd, further and further west to the Skellig islands and the wild Atlantic beyond. The narrator is more conflicted, immersing himself and luxuriating in Shian’s world while secretly hoping he can entice her back into some form of civilisation.
|Shian teaches her lover to live wild in the forest and the sea. This photo shows deciduous woodland carpeted with wild garlic in Co. Kerry, where Seal Woman is located. Photo:Wikimedia/Geograph|
Shian seems to be a selkie in transition – she has webbed fingers and seal-like powers in the water, but her shape remains human, at least while she is with her lover - though he never sees her in winter (preferring to return to London rather than face the force of the Atlantic gales).
The story is almost a reversal of The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Anderson’s story (1836), the mermaid sacrifices her sea life and sea-family for the chance to win a human man’s love and gain an immortal soul. She exchanges her tail for legs, but at a horrifying and painful cost: she will always feel as if she is walking on knives. She also loses her power of speech and song (interestingly, the narrator in Seal Woman loses his voice too). As a final blow, the prince marries someone else.
|The Little Mermaid accepts the magic potion from the Sea Witch, exchanging her marine identity for a human soul, legs, and suffering. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.|
In Seal Woman, it is the man who is seduced by a sea woman, but though he loves her, he is not prepared to abandon civilisation for her and throw in his lot with the seals. “I pretended a deep interest in everything to do with the sea, for only in water was my seal woman really at home.”
In the end, he sacrifices nothing, except his peace of mind: she haunts him.
Ronald Lockley (1903-2000) was an ornithologist and naturalist – he wrote over 50 books on natural history, including The Private Life of the Rabbit, a source for Richard Adams’s Watership Down. He had ample personal experience of wild living: he spent school holidays living rough in his local Welsh woods, and, during the 1930s, he and his wife were the only human inhabitants of Skokholm, a small island four miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire, where Atlantic grey seals would have been regular visitors.
|Ronald Lockley, around 1940.|
Seal Woman reveals more of the author’s passion for ancient, untouched woodland than for the sea. There is a tension between his descriptions of the deep peace of the wild Irish forest, with its trout streams, otters, flower species (all carefully named), and the cold, stormy, powerful sea, always threatening to sweep Shian away forever. The sea, the seals, and the selkies are his rivals.
I spent some time on Google Earth and Geograph trying to locate ‘Kilcalla’ on the coast between Valentia and Cape Clear in County Kerry. Lockley writes of a long strand where the seals rest, with the Skelligs visible on the horizon. The wild forest, as he mentions in the melancholy epilogue, “is now almost entirely stripped . . . the last deer killed, or fled,” and the seals driven away by hunters. I couldn’t see any signs of woodland, but these views below of cliffs at Drumnagour, with the Skelligs almost lost in mist, might come closest to the place he had in mind. He might also have been thinking of the Blasket islands to the south.
|Distant Skellig islands and the cliffs at Drumnagour. Photos: Dennis Turner/Geograph|
The novel’s epilogue, written over 40 years ago, now reads like a sad prophecy of environmental degradation. The seal slaughter at the end of the book had a real life echo in 2004, when a brutal slaughter of 60 grey seals on Begenish island in the Blaskets caused public outcry and demands for better protection. A film by Jacquie Cozens, Grey Seals: Life on the Edge is available on YouTube and tells the whole story.
The Lady From The Sea, by Henrik Ibsen (1888)
|The paintings in this section are by the Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928). This one is from 1926.|
While Ibsen’s play never mentions the selkie myth, the theme – a woman obsessed, bewitched, by the sea – has clear selkie resonances. The open sea, and the stranger who returns from it, haunt the play as symbols of freedom and terror, undermining the claustrophobic safety of small-town Norwegian fjord life.
|By Nikolai Astrup, 1909.|
The title might lead you to suppose that it is the central character, Ellida Wangel, who is the selkie spirit here. Ellida initially seems to fit the bill: she is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, she swims in the fjord every day in all weathers, the townspeople call her ‘the lady from the sea’, and she pines for the open ocean, unsatisfied by the “sluggish” waters of the fjord: “night and day I’m haunted by this irresistible longing for the sea,” she says.
This obsession is undermining her relationship with her husband, Dr Wangel, who, incidentally, must deserve a prize for being the most understanding husband in literature.
But Ellida is no selkie, she is entirely human. Her enchantment derives from a meeting, before her marriage to Wangel, with a passing stranger at the lighthouse: a sailor to whom she feels fatally bound. In Ibsen’s cast list, he is listed simply as ‘A Stranger’.
Everything about this man, however, is mysterious, slightly sinister, remorseless, free, and strongly selkie-like.
Ellida says she never knew much about her lover: “Only that he went to sea when he was very young. And that he’d been on long voyages.” His name was Friman, but then changed to Johnston. He has killed his ship’s captain, for reasons unknown. Before leaving Ellida, he joined their two rings and threw them into the waves. “Then he said that we must be married to the sea.” Married to the sea, not beside it, or to each other.
The stranger came, Ellida tells her husband, “From Finnmark [the northernmost part of Norway] . . . but he was born over in Finland.” Dr Wangel then replies, “He was a Kvaen, then.” This is an intriguing reference, because one theory about selkies traces the myth back to Finns, Finmen, Saami or Kvaen people visiting the northerly British islands in centuries past.
“What did you talk about?” asks Dr Wangel.
“Mostly about the sea . . .
About its storms and its calms . . . dark nights at sea . . . and the sea sparkling in the sunshine. But we talked mostly about the whales and dolphins – and the seals that lie out on the rocks basking in the noonday warmth. And we talked about the gulls and the skuas and all the other seabirds . . . . And, do you know, it’s an extraordinary thing, but as we talked like this he seemed to me to have something in common with the birds and beasts of the sea.”
There is an implacable, mythical, dreamlike quality about the sailor that seems to permeate the whole play, affecting not only Ellida, but her husband and the other characters. Ellida says she wrote to him, breaking it off. “He wrote back, quite coolly and calmly, that I must wait for him. He would let me know when he was ready for me, and then I was to go to him at once.”
She admits he has a inexplicable power over her mind; she is bound to him by fear rather than love, for she loves her husband.
|The Stranger in The Lady from the Sea is a symbol of freedom and terror. Luminous and alarming painting by Nikolai Astrup, 1917.|
Ellida also attributes supernatural powers to the man: “I suddenly see him – actually standing there, right in front of me. . . or rather, a little to one side. He never looks at me – he’s simply there.” Most disturbingly, it emerges that Dr Wangel and Ellida have had a baby together, a baby who died. Ellida is convinced there was something strange about the baby’s eyes:
Ellida: The child’s eyes changed colour with the sea – when the fjord was calm and sunny, so were his eyes; but when it was stormy – oh, I saw it even if you couldn’t!
Dr Wangel [humouring her]: Well – possibly. But even if that was true – what of it?
Ellida [softly, coming closer]: I’ve seen eyes like that before…the child had the stranger’s eyes.
For Ellida, this is evidence that she can never escape her sea ‘marriage’ to the sailor, and can never be a proper wife to Wangel. At this point in the drama, especially given the vagueness of Ellida’s details about the sailor, you are left wondering if Ellida is simply mad and the sailor-lover a fantasy figure.
She certainly understands depression, comparing human happiness to “the joy we get in the long summer days – it implies the darkness that is to come, and that implication casts its shadow over all human joy, just as the drifting clouds cast their shadows over the fjord . . . ”
But the sailor is real.
A steamship glides into the fjord. Shortly afterwards, Ellida’s lover appears on the footpath by the Wangels’ garden. He has “bushy red hair and a beard”, and wears a “Scottish cap”. Ellida does not recognise him, until she sees his eyes. But he has come to claim her, just as he promised.
The conversation between them is one-sided: all the stormy emotion and conflict is on her side, he neither entreats nor bullies, he simply states that he has come to keep his promise and delivers his ultimatum: she has 24 hours to decide whether or not to sail away with him, of her own free will.
His attitude, in short, is selkie-like: calm, uncompromising, faithful, singleminded, remote, inhuman.
In the final scene, Dr Wangel’s generosity of spirit breaks the Stranger’s spell over Ellida. She realises that it was prospect of a completely free choice that both fascinated and horrified her. Given that freedom, her choice is clear. The Stranger departs immediately like an exorcised ghost. “From now on,” he says briskly to Ellida, “you are no more to me than – than a shipwreck that I have come safely through.”
The conversation between Dr Wangel and Arnholm, the teacher, (Act Four) leaves open the question of whether Ellida’s obsession is due to mental illness or supernatural influence:
Arnholm: What do you think is the real explanation of this power that the stranger has over her?
Wangel: Ah, my dear friend, there may be aspects of that question that aren’t capable of explanation. . .
Arnholm: Do you believe in that sort of thing?
Wangel: I don’t believe or disbelieve; I simply don’t know. That’s why I leave it alone.
|Ibsen in Dresden, c 1870|
Ibsen spent 27 years living and working away from his native Norway, principally in Dresden, Germany – a long way from the sea. The Lady from the Sea was written in Munich, after a period spent back in Norway. His nostalgia for Norwegian coast was probably one inspiration for the play.
In 1880 he wrote to Hegel from Munich that “of all that I miss down here, I miss the sea most of all; that is the loss that I find it hardest to reconcile myself to.”
In the play, Dr Wangel echoes this feeling:
“Haven’t you ever noticed that the people who live by the open sea are a race apart? It’s almost as if the sea were a part of their lives; there are surges – yes, and ebbs and flows too – in all their thoughts and feelings. They can never bear to be separated from it . . .”
|Ibsen in Oslo, circa 1897|
Selkies make guest appearances in books with other themes. In George Mackay Brown’s strange novel, Beside the Ocean of Time, the hero, Thorfinn Ragnarson, imagines himself into episodes of the history of his Orkney island.
In one chapter, his shy 18th-century alter ego falls for Mara, whom he sees dancing on the shore in human form. Naturally, he steals her sealskin, they marry (selkie women make good wives, for a while). One slightly sinister twist is that Mara’s arrival spells doom for her mother-in-law, who sickens, finally dying when the couple’s child is born.
I liked the way that practical details of Orkney life (Mara refuses to eat the oatcakes and porridge, preferring raw fish) come slapping up against the more poetic: “Mara’s speech had something of the music of breakers in a cave-mouth, or far-off horizon bell-notes, or dolphins in the flood tide.”
Mara finds her sealskin one day when Thorfinn and the children are away at the Lammas Fair. She chooses the sea over her family and domesticity, as selkies always do, and poor Thorfinn is left alone on the darkening shore: “One of the seals called to him, but the very sound of his name was strange in that ocean language. It was a strange, terrible cry, of love and loss, joy and longing.”
One of the most haunting retellings occurs in Rowena Farr’s Seal Morning. An old woman befriends a female seal. The seal comes to live with her and gives her financially valuable information about the location of fish shoals. But when the seal finds a mate, the old lady tethers her companion on a long rope, so that she (the seal) is allowed to swim out and continue providing the lady with marine intelligence, but cannot join her seal-lover.
The rope ends up strangling the seal, leaving her mate bereft. The old lady pays a high price for her meanness of spirit and is condemned to loneliness for eternity.
The story is a sad summary of what goes wrong in relations between human beings and other animals.
|Atlantic, or grey, seal.|
Song of the Sea (2014)
Director: Tomm Moore
This animated film is quite simply a delight: poetic, moving, funny, and above all, luminously beautiful. It is such a powerful aesthetic and sensuous experience that the unapologetically happy ending is a bit of a surprise – you suddenly remember that this is actually a children’s film. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2015; the mystery is why it didn’t win.
The story centres on an unhappy family and an epic journey away from the sea and back again. Ben (10) and Saoirse (6), are children of a lighthouse keeper on the west coast of Ireland. Saoirse, who cannot speak, finds her mother’s selkie coat one night and slips out to the strand to swim with the seals – she is a selkie (she may be the last one – the film implies a scarcity of selkies). Only her selkie song, if she can find her voice, has the power to break the spell of suppressed grief that paralyses both her family and the fairy spirits of Ireland (literally in the case of the latter – they are turned to stone).
The real brilliance of the film lies in the way it illuminates themes of transformation and shapeshifting, weaving traditional Irish stories into the everyday life of the characters. Everybody (except Ben, who is really the ‘narrator’) has a dual identity: the father, for example, is also the giant Mac Lir, and the ferryman moonlights as the Great Seanachai, whose beard contains all the world’s stories in its long trailing hairs, but suffers from amnesia himself.
Nothing is quite as it seems, even the rocks and islands of the landscape are always on the verge of turning into something else, animated by spirits and mythical powers. This seems to capture the essence of the selkie myth.
|Animation and animism: the landscapes of Song of the Sea live and breathe.|
The outstanding shapeshifter though, is the grandmother, who is also Macha the owl witch. The transformation is quite subtle (on seeing Macha, I thought ‘where have I seen that face before?’): she’s simultaneously a fat, frowsty, sad old woman, a convincing owl, and a spirit.
Macha, who traps and imprisons emotions in bottles and jars in her attic, made me laugh, especially when her gang of vicious owls are trying to heave her huge bulk up the staircase (she is half turned to stone), but these scenes would be thrillingly frightening if you were seven or so.
The difficult relationship between brother and sister evolves with humour and without sentimentality, making it surprisingly moving. Ben initially resents Saoirse because he associates her with the disappearance of their mother. His snappishness in the early scenes develops into an exasperated protectiveness, punctuated with outbursts of sarcasm: “Yes, why don’t we follow the magical lights? That would be so much more sensible than using a map!”.
|Ben and Saoirse make an epic journey from Dublin back to the sea.|
The attention to detail is exceptional: the decor in the grandmother’s stuffy Dublin house, the crackly, moaning (1930s?) song on her radio, the laconic Dublin bus driver, Saoirse drawing seals with her finger on the misted car-windows, a line of pylons in the shape of owls, looming over the selkie and radiating ill-will. Sounds of rain, waves, and trickling watery sounds create a hypnotic, sensuous background to the haunting soundtrack.
Song of the Sea is one of the few films I’ve seen that capture the magical effects of light on landscape and mood. The film’s climax, in which sea, sky, rocks, hills, and cliffs are transformed by the shifting colours of the aurora borealis and animated by reawakening spirits and myths, is breathtaking. This film repays a second (or third) viewing.
Keep the credits running if you want to hear the final lullaby sung by Nolwenn Leroy, or listen here:
Lullaby from Song of the Sea
Director: Neil Jordan
Ondine was the only selkie film I could find that is aimed at adults (there may be others, please let me know).
The opening scenes are promising – a Cork trawlerman (Colin Farrell) pulls up a half-drowned young woman in his net, a woman whose origins are mysterious. His small daughter Annie believes the woman, Ondine, must be a selkie.
Given that this is directed by Neil Jordan (Company of Wolves, The End of the Affair) I was expecting a compelling treatment of the borderlines between fantasy, myth, and reality, and between child and adult perspectives.
But this film seems determined to sabotage itself. We are invited, for example, to believe that Ondine’s singing induces improbable loads of fish out of the sea and into her admirer’s nets, giving weight to Annie’s magical theory, only to be let down at the end of the film by a banal drugs-based explanation for Ondine’s presence in the village. It is as if the film can’t credit adults with any tolerance of ambiguity, let alone magic.
The selkie figure (Alicja Bachleda) is attractive but lacks the otherworldly quality the part demands, and the total absence of sexual chemistry between ‘selkie’ and fisherman does not help. Dervla Kirwan does her best with the part of the crabby wife, but seems miscast.
There are other false notes: the arbitrary eastern-European connection, and the way the little girl, though confidently acted, is often too knowing, using expressions like “sartorially challenged” (would she believe in selkies at all?). Above all, I only spotted one brief appearance by a solitary seal in the entire film.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
Director: John Sayles
The Secret of Roan Inish brings selkies firmly back into children’s territory: the selkie myth is recruited to tell a story about homecoming and family roots in rural Ireland in the decades after WW2. Little Fiona arrives from the city (portrayed as a smoky den of vice) to stay at her grandparents’ cottage, isolated in the grey and watery beauty of Ireland’s north west coast.
In welcome contrast to Ondine, you do get to see a lot of real seals, though their role remains peripheral and auxillary. Seals and selkies chiefly serve to add buoyancy to the human story. The use of the myth feels forced at times, though I liked Fiona’s uncle’s deadpan reference to the seals as ‘another branch of the family’.
There’s a nagging sense that the seals’ only reason for existing is to look after Fiona’s lost baby brother and help her family to return to their rightful home on the island. I was left wondering what the seals and selkies got out of it all.
Another moment of adult cynicism arose for me when Fiona (10) and her slightly older cousin completely renovate a row of ruined cottages by themselves, though I can’t really explain why I found this idea harder to swallow than the thought of seals looking after a baby boy for years.
The cinematography however is impressive, the music haunting, and the storyline strong, if slow. Seen at the right age, the film might inspire an interest in selkies and cast the spell that failed to work on me.
In general, there seems to be plenty of scope for a new adult drama, perhaps adapting Ibsen, that explores what the the selkie myth means to people, or what people mean to seals. There’s a fertile seam of potential themes: dreams of escape, the illusion of possession, blurred and shifting identities, the seductive stranger, conflicts between the erotic and the sinister, the domestic and the wild.
Whether the treatment was literal or metaphorical or both, it would need a grand and confident vision, and the only director I can imagine succeeding would be Lars Von Trier.
(Written for Maud Gonne after she had refused his marriage proposal.)
© Josephine Gardiner 2016
* If you are interested in the origins of the selkie myth, the website OrkneyJar is excellent on the theories, and includes many other folktales and traditions of the Orkney Islands.
* All books mentioned in this article are available either new or second-hand from Amazon and other sources.