Thursday, November 21, 2013

What's a Selkie?

If you haven't already, you can still go to Kelly Walker's Jaded Stone post for a chance to win $50 in either Amazon.com gift cards or Paypal cash. You'll want to come back tomorrow (November 22) as well for another giveaway.

That giveaway will have to do with Susan Hayes' novel Riptide, a male/male/female erotic romance featuring two brothers who are selkie shape shifters. What exactly are selkies? They're similar to mermaids, but not exactly the same. For the best answer, let's turn to Barbara Sjoholm's oceanic folklore-logue The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea



Sjoholm writes:

"Like tales of mermaids who take off their scaly nether parts and walk on land, the better to lure unwitting men to their watery kingdoms, transformative stories of the seal folk abound in the northern islands [of Scotland, namely the Shetlands and the Orkneys]. But seals embody an old animism, when animals were regarded as powerful and numinous, and when humans would mimic them and wear their skins to take on their power. So many stories of the seal folk, selkies or silkies in the local tongue, seem to be about humans trying to capture the spirit of the selkie. One common version begins when a man spies a group of girls sunbathing naked on a beach or a rocky shore.

"When he approaches, most of the girls get away, but one doesn't, for he steals her spotted skin and hides it somewhere secret in his house. He takes her home, and she tries to be a good wife to him. But always in the story comes a time when she finds, or one of her children tells her where to find, the box or the chest with the skin inside. As soon as she finds it, she's gone. Although the tales often seem to be about love, they are never about renunciation. The choice of [Hans Christian] Anderson's Little Mermaid, to become human and to suffer, is not for the selkie wife. No, she's tricked into living in a human body for a time, but she always escapes back to her true element at the end.

"The many stories of seal folk aren't all about capturing seals for wives. Some are about seal men seducing women (an explanation for out-of-wedlock pregnancy, perhaps) and about crossing a boundary between human and animal, about understanding the connection across species. Sometimes men who are great hunters of seals are taken below and shown the wounds of their prey, after which the hunters hunt no more. But many of the stories are about shape shifting, about changing from animal to human and back. The appeal of the selkie, and indeed the seal, is its amphibious nature. That possibility of living in both worlds is what humans hold to, especially seafarers, fishers, coast dwellers. What if drowning were only a dream from which you woke into a beautiful marine world filled with lavish meals and luxurious houses? What if the fathers and brothers who never came back from fishing were safe and sound under the waves? What if the large gray seal lifting his curious head from the sea to look at you were a relative? How comforting that would be."



So the selkies are the seal men and seal women of Northern European folklore (although I'm sure such creatures exist in the folklore of many coastal dwellers, under different names). Now you're up to speed for tomorrow's post.

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