Recently we’ve come upon a few poems featuring “sea-changes”, as The Tempest‘s Ariel would say, such as Iain Crichton Smith’s “Gaelic Stories” and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Parthenogenesis.”
Stories of human beings metamorphosing to and from shapes of sea-dwellers, whether as mer-people or in seal form as selkies, are not unique to Celtic culture, but appear in many folktales worldwide. The folktale motif of the “Animal Bride” is prevalent enough to have a catalogue number in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification index: #402. Admiration for bodies of water and for fish in their own right has featured in many of our poems more specifically. Fish are a subject of respect, such as the salmon as a symbol of wisdom, and the river has appeared as a powerful feminine entity, not to mention close relationships with Lochs and oceans.
Selkies themselves sit at the centers of many northern European stories. According to the Celtic Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore: “in Ireland [and] Scotland, … eating seals was considered a form of cannibalism” (411) From Scandinavia to Ireland, folktales describe otherworldly men and women taking the forms of seals (or is it vice versa?), shedding their seal skins on rocks or onshore, and having relationships with ordinary land-dwelling people. The seal skin must be stolen and hidden or destroyed in order to make a selkie live on land, and often a child of a selkie and a land-dweller unknowingly enables the selkie parent to escape by finding the skin’s hiding place. In some stories the selkie is hunted as a seal and killed after returning to the sea, bringing curses on the killer and family, but in others the ending is perhaps more heartbreaking: the selkie parent (usually a mother) stays forever just out of reach, appearing as a seal from far off to the children but never acknowledging them, as in an Icelandic version:
Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.
In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea.
Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared.
She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:
Where have I to flee?
I’ve seven kids in the sea
And seven kids on dry land.
They say the man grieved much for that. Afterwards, when he went fishing, a seal often swam round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes. Ever since that man always had good catch and was lucky.
When their children went to the shore for a walk, people often saw a seal that swam in the sea not far from them, both when they were on land and near water, and threw motley fish and nice sea shells to them. But their mother never came back.
The aforementioned Encyclopedia also mentions the uncannily human appearance of the seal, engendering human empathy: “Seals do bear some resemblance to human beings, especially in their wild moaning calls and in the direct gaze from their soft dark eyes. Fishermen sometimes spoke or sang to seals, who were thought to speak back, usually begging that no harm come to them or their young” (411).
John Sayles’ movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, centers on a displaced Irish family’s selkie story. I won’t ruin it for you in case you want to see it, but suffice it to say it beautifully translates the wonder, tension, and pain of the selkie story onto film. Roan Inish has been dear to me since my childhood, and it has one of the best soundtracks I know. The “Selke Song,” a lullaby used in the film, is actually song called “An Mhaighdean Mhara,” which is a song about a mermaid.
(lyrics and translation given under the video)
The selkie story is deeply tied to longing, displacement, and an appeal to otherworldly origins to explain traits in families. Poets choosing to write about selkies (especially in Crichton Smith’s case, as is the form of his poem) need only mention the barest outline of the folktale, and their poems are granted access to a very old, unique, and complex mixture of circumstances and emotions.