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This article is about the mythological creatures found in folklore. For other uses, see Selkie (disambiguation).
Faroese stamp 585 the seal woman.jpg
A Faroese stamp
Grouping Mythological
Similar creatures Mermaid
Habitat Water

Selkies (also spelled silkies, selchies; Irish/Scottish Gaelic: selchidh, Scots: selkie fowk) are mythological creatures found in Scottish, Irish, and Faroese folklore.[1] Similar creatures are described in the Icelandic traditions.[2] The word derives from earlier Scots selich, (from Old English seolh meaning seal).[3] Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. The legend is apparently most common in Orkney and Shetland[4] and is very similar to those of swan maidens.[5]


Male selkies are described as being very handsome in their human form, and having great seductive powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their life, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she must shed seven tears into the sea. If a man steals a female selkie's skin she is in his power and is forced to become his wife. Female selkies are said to make excellent wives, but because their true home is the sea, they will often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she finds her skin she will immediately return to her true home, and sometimes to her selkie husband, in the sea. Sometimes, a selkie maiden is taken as a wife by a human man and she has several children by him. In these stories, it is one of her children who discovers her sealskin (often unwitting of its significance) and she soon returns to the sea. The selkie woman usually avoids seeing her human husband again but is sometimes shown visiting her children and playing with them in the waves.

Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them returned to their seal form. In other stories the human will hide the selkie's skin, thus preventing the selkie from returning to its seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one human for a short amount of time before the selkie must return to the sea. The selkie is unable to make contact with that human again for seven years, unless the human steals their selkie skin and hides it or burns it.[6]

In the Faroe Islands there are two versions of the story of the Selkie or Seal Wife. A young farmer from the town of Mikladalur on Kalsoy island goes to the beach to watch the selkies dance. He hides the skin of a beautiful selkie maid, so she cannot go back to sea, and forces her to marry him. He keeps her skin in a chest, and keeps the key with him both day and night. One day when out fishing, he discovers that he has forgotten to bring his key. When he returns home, the selkie wife has escaped back to sea, leaving their children behind. Later, when the farmer is out on a hunt, he kills both her selkie husband and two selkie sons, and she promises to take revenge upon the men of Mikladalur. Some shall be drowned, some shall fall from cliffs and slopes, and this shall continue, until so many men have been lost that they will be able to link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy, there are still occasional deaths occurring in this way on the island.

A Selkie illustration drawn to accompany an article in Celtic Guide by Carolyn Emerick.
A seal-woman steps out from her seal coat on the beach

Peter Kagan and the Wind by Gordon Bok tells of the fisherman Kagan who married a seal-woman. Against his wife's wishes he set sail dangerously late in the year, and was trapped battling a terrible storm, unable to return home. His wife shifted to her seal form and saved him, even though this meant she could never return to her human body and hence her happy home.

Some stories from Shetland have selkies luring islanders into the sea at midsummer, the lovelorn humans never returning to dry land.[7]

A legend similar to that of the selkie is also told in Wales, but in a slightly different form. The selkies are humans who have returned to the sea. Dylan (Dylan ail Don) the firstborn of Arianrhod, was variously a merman or sea spirit, who in some versions of the story escapes to the sea immediately after birth.

Seal shapeshifters similar to the selkie exist in the folklore of many cultures. A corresponding creature existed in Swedish legend, and the Chinook people of North America have a similar tale of a boy who changes into a seal.

Theories of origins[edit]

Before the advent of modern medicine many physiological conditions were untreatable and when children were born with abnormalities it was common to blame the fairies.[8] The MacCodrum clan of the Outer Hebrides became known as the "MacCodrums of the seals" as they claimed to be descended from a union between a fisherman and a selkie as an explanation for the hereditary horny growth between their fingers that made their hands resemble flippers.[9]

Scottish folklorist and antiquarian, David MacRitchie believed that early settlers in Scotland probably encountered, and even married, Finnish and Saami women who were misidentified as selkies because of their sealskin kayaks and clothing.[9] Others have suggested that the traditions concerning the selkies may have been due to misinterpreted sightings of Finn-men (Inuit from the Davis Strait). The Inuit wore clothes and used kayaks that were both made of animal skins. Both the clothes and kayaks would lose buoyancy when saturated and would need to be dried out. It is thought that sightings of Inuit divesting themselves of their clothing or lying next to the skins on the rocks could have led to the belief in their ability to change from a seal to a man.[10]

Another belief is that shipwrecked Spaniards were washed ashore and their jet black hair resembled seals.[11] As the anthropologist A. Asbjorn Jon has recognised though, there is a strong body of lore that indicates that selkies "are said to be supernaturally formed from the souls of drowned people".[12]

Selkies in fiction, music and pop culture[edit]

See Selkie in popular culture

Examples of stories related to selkies and other seal-people are the ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry and the movie The Secret of Roan Inish.[13]

The Secret of Roan Inish is about Fiona, a young girl who is sent to live with her grandparents and her cousin Eamon near the island of Roan Inish, where the selkies are rumoured to reside. It is an old family legend that her younger brother was swept away in his infancy and raised by a selkie.

Susan Cooper's Seaward has a girl main character, named Cally, who looks for her selkie skin after realizing and coming to terms with her heritage. Cally also finds her skin, thereby allowing her to dive into the sea and change her form with her skin in hand. She was born with 'selkie hands,' which meant that the skin of her hands were rough, and when torn would take weeks to heal, compared to days for other people. Despite this, when she was young, Cally loved to climb trees that scraped her hands. Being part of a myth, she could also enact magic, like when she called forth the birds, using a feather, to save West when he was turned to stone.

One of the main characters of Anne McCaffrey's Petaybee trilogy, the character Sean Songhili, is a selkie. He uses his shapeshifting ability to transform into a seal to explore under-ocean caves on his relatively recently terraformed planet.

In Season 2 Episode 7 of Lost Girl a club owner has captured many selkie pelts and forces them to dance in his nightclub.

In the Irish film Ondine, directed by Neil Jordan, released in 2010, a fisherman (played by Colin Farrell) discovers a woman in his fishing net. She sings on his boat and all of a sudden he manages to get hundreds of fishes in his nets, which is unusual good luck for him. He gives her shelter and she meets his daughter who is sure that she is a selkie who has left her seal skin in the sea to live on land as a human.

Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon released an animated feature film based on the legend of the selkies entitled Song of the Sea in 2014.[14][15]

Irish music artist Karan Casey released an album in 2000 entitled "Seal Maiden A Celtic Musical".

American music artist Frank Black features a song titled "Selkie Bride" on his 2005 album Honeycomb.

Music artist Tori Amos features a song titled "Selkie" on her 2014 album Unrepentant Geraldines.

Music artists Between The Buried And Me feature a song called "Selkies (The Endless Obsession)" on their 2005 release Alaska.

Selkies are featured in AdventureQuest Worlds. They are depicted as seal monsters.

Writer Sofia Samatar's short story "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" is narrated by a protagonist whose mother was a selkie.[16] The fantasy piece was widely acclaimed, being a finalist for the 2014 Nebula Award, Hugo Award, British Science Fiction Association Award and World Fantasy Award.[17]

Caledonia is a Scottish supernatural web series with two male selkie characters, Dorian and Magnus Grey.[18][19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spence, Lewis. The minor traditions of British mythology. Ayer Publishing, 1948. p55. 
  2. ^ "The Seal's Skin: Icelandic Folktale". The Viking Rune. Retrieved 12 May 2013. 
  3. ^ "Selkie - Define Selkie at". 
  4. ^ Westwood, Jennifer and Kingshill, Sophia (2011). The Lore of Scotland: A guide to Scottish legends. Arrow Books. pp. 404–405. ISBN 9780099547167. 
  5. ^ Monaghan, Patricia (2009). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing. p. 411. ISBN 1438110375. 
  6. ^ "Baily's Magazine of Sports & Pastimes" 42. July 1884. pp. 355–356. 
  7. ^ Hardie, Alison (20 January 2007). "Dramatic decline in island common seal populations baffles experts – Mystical Connections". The Scotsman.
  8. ^ Eason, Cassandra. "Fabulous creatures, mythical monsters and animal power symbols". Fabulous creatures, mythical monsters, and animal power symbols: a handbook. pp. 147, 148. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  9. ^ a b Garry, Jane; El-Shamy, Hasan. "Animal brides and grooms". Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature. p. 97. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Towrie, Sigurd. "The Origin of the Selkie-folk: Documented Finmen sightings". Sigurd Towrie. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  11. ^ Carole B. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, p 47 ISBN 0-19-512199-6
  12. ^ A. Asbjorn Jon, Dugongs and Mermaids, Selkies and Seals, in Australian Folklore (13, 1998), pp.94–98 (p.96) ISBN 1-86389-543-4
  13. ^ "Review from LA times". 4 June 2010. Retrieved 2 January 2011. 
  14. ^ "Screen Daily News Report". 17 June 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2014. 
  15. ^ Aguilar, Carlos (7 September 2014). "Toronto Review: "Song of the Sea" is a Blissfully Beautiful Journey Into Irish Folklore". Toronto Review. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Samatar, Sofia. "Selkie Stories Are for Losers". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 31 December 2014. 
  17. ^ "News". Sofia Samatar. Retrieved 31 December 2014. 
  18. ^ "Scottish Web Show 'Caledonia' Returns With 'Mortal Souls'". 
  19. ^ "Seven Tears Into The Sea: The Male Roots of Selkie Legends". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]