The Selkie

I have felt fascinated by tales of the Selkie ever since I first heard the story as a child. There are many versions of the story, but the common thread running through them is of stolen love, betrayal, forced taming of a magically wild nature and of yearning for a lost life. I have always felt a certain frustration at the way the stories hint at the deepest fears and most tragic emotions without fully explaining the cruelty behind the character’s actions. Perhaps this is true of most fairy tales: they stir up emotions but leave you wondering…

Lately I have found myself obsessively drawing the Selkie, repeatedly trying to find the soul behind the tale with a similar frustration that I haven’t yet found a definitive way to depict such a large subject. I feel that I am only paddling in the shallows, the deeper I go into it… but of course I shall have to keep trying to find a face and a form that could do the story justice.

Here are some of my paintings and sketches of the Selkie. None of them are perfect, some are unfinished, but I’m working on it…

Here is one version of the Selkie story:

Once an unmarried man went to a place where the flat rocks on the shore were a haunt for seals. As he wanted to see the seals in their human form, he hid himself and waited until evening, when he saw a number of seals come ashore, throw off their seal coverings, and play and dance in human form.

A pretty young woman disrobed near his hiding-place, and left her skin near by neatly folded up. He managed to seize the skin unobserved by any of the seal-people, and sat down on it. The woman danced with a young seal-man who, he thought, must be her lover.

At daybreak a great clamor of gulls alarmed the seals, who ran for their skins and made for the sea. They young woman, unable to find her skin and return to the sea with her friends, began to cry bitterly. A single seal, no doubt the lover with whom she had danced, remained near the shore in the sea, waiting for her after all the others had disappeared.

Soon the man came up and tried to comfort her, saying that she would be better off on the land, and in him would find a better lover than she could find in the sea. Seeing that he had possession of her skin, she begged him to give it back to her, offering to do anything for him in return. He refused, and went off carrying the skin. She followed him, and at last had to consent to remain with him as his wife.

He kept her seal-skin in his trunk, and always concealed the key or carried it on his person. When he was absent, she often looked for the skin, but could never find it. Many years she lived with him, and bore a number of children.

Often her lover, the lone seal, came to the shore, looking for her, and the woman was seen going there and talking with him. Some neighbors (or her children?) reported this to her husband.

One day the man went fishing, and forgot the key in his trunk. The woman (or one of her children?) noticed this, and opened the trunk. There she found the skin; and when the man came home, his wife was gone.

He went down to the shore, and found her in the water, with a seal at her side. She called to him, ‘Good-by!’ and told him to look well after their children.

She also asked him not to kill any seals, because by doing so he might kill her, her seal-husband, or her seal-children. If he heeded not this request, he would have bad luck.

After she had departed in seal-form with her companion, he saw her no more.

Teit, J.A. “Water-Beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as Remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia.” The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 31, No. 120 (Apr. – Jun., 1918), pp. 180-201.  JSTOR. Web. 21 July 2011.

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