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Selkies (also known as silkies or selchies) are creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish mythology.

They can transform themselves from seals to humans. The legend apparently originated on the Orkney Islands, where selch or selk(ie) is the Scots word for seal (from Old English seolh).


Selkies are able to transform to human form by shedding their seal skins and can revert to seal form by putting their selkie skin back on. Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them gone. Other times the human will hide the selkie's skin, thus preventing them from returning to seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one particular human for a short amount of time before they must return to the sea. They are not able to make contact with that human again for seven years, unless the human is to steal their selkie's skin and hide it or burn it. Examples of such stories are The Grey Selkie of Suleskerry, a ballad, and the movie The Secret of Roan Inish.

In The Secret of Roan Inish, a fisherman steals the selkie's pelt while she is sunbathing. She is then forced to return to his house, as she cannot escape back into the sea, and becomes his wife and bears him children. He stashes away her skin and years later, one of the children mentions it and asks what it is. The wife immediately drops what she is doing and retrieves the pelt from its hiding place, having long ago despaired of ever finding it. She returns to her former life as a seal. The skin of the seal gives her power over men, but without it she is a mortal woman, trapped on land, slave to the whims of her husband. The life there slowly suffocates her and she spends much time splashing in the shallows of the ocean.

The selkie legend is also told in Wales, but in a slightly different form. The selkies are humans who have returned to the sea. Dylan (Dylan Eil 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.

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 can't 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 on a hunt kills both her selkie husband and two selkie sons, 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 Kallsoy.

Male selkies are very handsome in their human form, and have great seduction powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their romantic life. This includes married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she has to go to a beach and shed seven tears into the sea.

If a man steals a female selkie's skin, she is in his power, to an extent, and she is forced to become his wife — a regional variant on the motif of the swan maiden, unusual in that the bride's animal form is usually a bird. 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 again, 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.

Selkies are not always faithless lovers. One tale tells of the fisherman Cagan 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.

Seal changelings similar to the selkie exist in the folklore of many cultures. A corresponding creature existed in Swedish legend, and the Chinook Indians of North America have a similar tale of a boy who changes into a seal (see the children's story The Boy Who Lived With The Seals by Rafe Martin). Jane Yolen incorporated such a changeling as a selkie into her picture book, Greyling.

Theories of origins

One folklorist theory of the origin of the belief is that the selkies were actually fur-clad Finns, traveling by kayak. Another is that shipwrecked Spaniards washed ashore and their jet black hair resembled seals. This was likely the origin of black hair in Celtic nations. As the anthropologist A. Asbjorn Jon has recognized though, there is a strong body of lore that indicates that selkies 'are said to be supernaturally formed from the souls of drowned people'.

Selkies in fiction, music and pop culture


One of the main supporting characters in Jane Johnson's Eidolon trilogy is a young girl selkie called She Who Swims the Silver Path of The Moon (Silver for short) who becomes close with the main hero, Ben Arnold, when he rescues her from the evil Doddman's pet shop.

Seal Child is a children's novel by Sylvia Peck which details a modern telling of the selkie myth.

The Folk Keeper, a "young readers" novel by Franny Billingsley CACA also uses this myth powerfully.

At least one tale about selkies is included in Scottish Folk Tales by Ruth Manning-Sanders.

Terry Farley, known for her books about horses that are written for children, broke from that style in 2005 to write Seven Tears into the Sea, a modern and slightly different selkie tale for teenagers. It is a teen romance novel following the story of a young girl who returns to her hometown in search of a selkie she encountered seven years earlier.

In science-fiction the Petaybee Series by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough employs the selkie myth in a futuristic setting. A. E. van Vogt's novel The Silkie imagines a race of creatures who can change between aquatic, human, and space-traveling forms.

Selkies also appear as one of many varieties of "changed" human in Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light trilogy.

In the third in the "Council Wars" series by John Ringo, "Against the Tide", selkies are used with tongue-in-cheek humor, referring to the real-life U.S. Navy SEALs in a fantasy setting. In the book, selkies performed commando-style beach infiltrations highly reminiscent of how SEALs are often portrayed in popular media.

The book Water Shaper by Laura Williams McCaffrey is based on some myths about selkies.

British fantasy author Susan Cooper has written both a picture book and a novel featuring selkies. The picture book, Selkie Girl, recounts a traditional selkie legend from Ireland. The novel, Seaward, features characters who turn out to be selkies.

In the first Meredith Gentry novel, A Kiss of Shadows, by Laurell K. Hamilton, a selkie named Roane Finn is the lover of Merry Gentry, who is a part human part fey princess who is hiding in Los Angeles in self-imposed exile from the Unseelie Kingdom due to political plots against her. Merry and Roane are both paranormal detectives working for the Grey Detective Agency. Roane had been trapped in human form when a fisherman had found his seal skin and burned it. When the latent magic in Merry is awakened, it first manifests itself by miraculously regenerating Roane's shapeshifting ability. He immediately returns to his life in the sea for which he had been pining.

George Mackay Brown's novel Beside the Ocean of Time also involves a young man falling love with a Selkie, and the hiding of her sealskin to keep her from returning to the sea.

In Tom Clancy's 1998 novel Net Force, a female assassin uses the name "The Selkie" as her underground cover name. In the novel, she is of Irish heritage.

In 1998, American author Christina Dodd published a romance novel entitled A Well Favored Gentleman about Ian Fairchild. His character made his first appearance in the first book of the Well Pleasured series, A Well Pleasured Lady (1997). Ian is the son of a selkie and has powers due to that legacy.

In Anne Bishop's Tir Alainne trilogy selkies are a member of the Fae race who must help witches avoid the mass murdering black inquisitors in order to stay alive.

Juliet Marillier wrote several trilogies, mixing folklore with history. In Child of the Prophecy (2001) Darragh is turned into a selkie by the Fae, while Watcher in Foxmask (2003) is a descendant of a selkie mother and a human father.

Mollie Hunter's novel, A Stranger Came Ashore, has a character who turns out to be the Great Selkie, lord of all the other selkies.

Robert Holdstock's novel Merlin's Wood, contains a fantasy short story, The Silvering, in which the human protagonist is transformed into a selkie.

In J.K. Rowling's book Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them it is stated that the Loch Ness Monster is in fact the world's largest selkie, and prefers the form of a sea serpent. In the past, the gamekeeper of Hogwarts, Hagrid offered the use of the school's lake to house the monster.


The melodic progressive metal band Between the Buried and Me released their Alaska album in 2005 with a song called "Selkies: The Endless Obsession."

The recent album "Honeycomb" by Pixies front-man Frank Black includes a tune called "Selkie Bride", which alludes to the Selkie legend.

The folk musician Mike Agranoff wrote a song entitled "The Ballad of the White Seal Maid", that is a sad story of a fisherman and his selkie wife.

The Faroese ballad " Kópakvæði" (the seal-ballad) by Faroese writer Joen Danielsen is based on the story about the Seal-Wife from Kalsoy island. The ballad is in Faroese and consists of 68 verses.

The song "Sælkvinden" (the seal-woman) by Danish singer Lars Lilholt is a sad story about a young fisherman and a selkie.

In December 1991, the British folk artist Talis Kimberley wrote "Still Catch the Tide," a song written from the perspective of the selkie's lover, upon returning to find the selkie (which is of indeterminate gender) packing their things to return to the sea. The song has been covered by several other folk artists, including Rika Körte & Kerstin 'Katy' Dröge (on FilkCONtinental Definitely), Minstrel (on Boy in a Room), and Seanan McGuire (on Stars Fall Home). Talis's own recording of the song appears on her album Talis (Almost Live at Dracon).

The US folk artist Gordon Bok wrote "Peter Kagan and the Wind" a cantefable (in which spoken narrative is blended with sudden song-phrasings) about the fisherman Cagan who married a selkie, and how his selkie wife saved him from a terrible storm, even though this meant she could never return to her human body and hence her happy home. This interpretation was also often performed live by The Clancy Brothers and (the late) Tommy Makem.

In May 2007, Californian filk artist Seanan McGuire released the song "In This Sea," a song from the perspective of a selkie's lover letting her willingly go, on the CD Stars Fall Home.

Legendary folk singer Joan Baez included a song called "Silkie" on her second album in 1961.

Australian folk band Spiral Dance, in their 1999 CD titled Magick, includes a song titled "Song for a Selkie".

Singer Mary McLaughlin sings a beautiful song entitled "Sealwoman/Yundah" on the "Celtic Voices: Women of Song" CD ~ 1995 Narada Media.

Singer Méav Ní Mhaolchatha (an original soloist of the group Celtic Woman), opens her solo album Silver Sea with the song "You Brought Me Up", a Selkie woman captured then abandoned on land.

The Irish-American musical group, Solas, have a song called "The Grey Selchie" on their "The Words That Remain" CD.

US singer Alexander James Adams sings "First Rising Tide", about a selkie man, on his 2008 CD "A Familiar Promise".

Druid folk singer Damh the Bard's first album Herne's Apprentice features a song titled "The Selkie" about these beings.

Video games

The video game Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles features selkies as a race. Unlike mythical selkies, the ones in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles are simply a human race, with body paint, such as stripes, or arrows on even the youngest children in the game. The selkies in the game usually have blue-green hair, probably referring to the mythical selkie's origin in the sea. One reference to them, however, is in their town, there is a selkie who says something along the lines of, "We Selkies came from the sea, and one day we will return there."


The 1994 John Sayles movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, tells the story of a family descended from selkies. It is based on the novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry.

In 2000, the Australian film titled Selkie depicted a young teenage male moving to a coastal town with his family and after he starts growing webbing between his fingers, having dreams of the water in the bathtub and becoming a seal after diving into the sea to save a friend, he learns that he is a Selkie. The majority of the film depicts him coming to terms with his identity and even attempting to give up his Selkie powers at which point he accepts them. The film was shot at Port Noarlunga Jetty.


In an episode of Catscratch, the banshee that was haunting the Highland Quid Clan was in fact a selkie (called a "seal woman" in the show) under a curse. Gordon freed the selkie by vocalizing in high tones and pitches.

Hallmark made a movie in 2001 titled "The Seventh Stream" ~ A grieving Irishman falls for a stranger with a special gift reminiscent of a Celtic legend. It was a sad movie of a man and a selkie falling in love, but unable to remain together.


  • Thomson, David The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend
  • Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopeidia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, ISBN 0-394-73467-X

See also

For other aquatic mythological creatures see:

External links


The game Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic writers may have derived their race of aquatic peoples, the Selkath, from the Selkie legends.
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