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Selkies Part 1 Transcript


First Story 

"There was once an impoverished seal-catcher who lived near the crags of an unforgiving sea with his family.

One day on the waves he lost his hunting knife in the attempt to kill a large dog-seal, who fled from the fisherman, trailing scarlet. Swearing and dejected, the man returned home with no profit from his labors.

That night, there came a knock at his door and a stranger leading a fine steed inquired his name and told him that he had been sent by his master to order a large number of sealskins. The customer awaited the seal-catcher’s presence, and would make the bargain with him himself. 

And so, the two mounted and set off, the horse plunging away at such a pace that the following wind seemed to blow in their faces. They rode along the wild coast until they reached a great crag above the sea. 

The clouds roiled above them and sea foam broke against the ebony rocks below, but the man remained stoic, peering out over the ledge. 

”Where are you taking me?” asked the fisherman. 

“Get down, and you'll soon see,” said the stranger, and as they dismounted and their feet touched the land, he seized the fisherman’s salt-worn coat and leapt with him right over the crag. 

Down and down they went into the depths of the dark sea until they came to a cave in the cliff’s side, which was full of seal people. 

To his great astonishment, the fisherman then perceived that he himself had become a seal, gray and speckled. His companion had morphed into a seal as well, but he and all the rest still spoke and behaved like human mortals. 

The fisherman was in great terror, for he knew that he must have killed many of their kind in his days at sea, but none of the creatures made a move to bring him harm.

His guide vanished among the crowd and returned with a knife clenched carefully in his whiskery mouth.

“Do you know this knife?” he asked, and the fisherman had no choice but to confess that it was his, though he feared that in a moment it would be plunged into him. 

“It was with this knife that you wounded my father,” said the stranger, “and only you can heal what you have inflicted upon him.”

He led the fisherman into an inner cave where the great dog-seal that had escaped that same day lay in great pain, a damaged mess of torn tissue and blood visible in his side. 

The surrounding seal people told him what to do, and with the knife he made a circle round the wound and smoothed it with his hand, wishing with all his heart that it might be healed. 

And so it was, and the old seal got up from the ledge as well as he had ever been, the injury completely mended without the remnant of a scar. 

The fisherman still feared that he would be punished, now that his purpose there had been fulfilled, but they assured him not to be afraid.

If he would swear a solemn oath never to kill a seal again, he would presently be taken back to his wife and children. He took the oath earnestly and he and the stranger spiraled through the sea, back to the cliff where the horse was waiting. 

Once again human, the companions traveled home and the seal man left him at the ramshackle door, dropping silver and gold into the former seal-catcher’s hands - a gift of money that was equivalent to the price of many seal-skins." 


"Hello and welcome to Our Veil of Smoke and Gold Podcast. I’m your host, Annelise, and in this episode the topic of discussion will be trained on Selkies, Roane, and Seal People, commonly called just Seal Maidens. These three aforementioned names all refer to the same basic Water Fae, with only slight variations, but essentially in Orkney and Shetland legend they are known as Selkies, in the Highlands and surrounding islands they are Roane, and as an umbrella term the creatures are classified as Seal People. However, feel free to use whatever identification you want — I personally prefer Selkie because it is very distinct compared to other fairy names, but again this is just my opinion. The overall idea of Selkies comes from Celtic mythology and they are defined as shape-shifting fairies both male and female that can dually take on the form of either a seal or a human, so they can inhabit both the land and the sea. Another word for their ability to transform is therianthropy, which comes from the Greek therion (meaning beast) and anthropy (meaning human) and there are a myriad of ways they can accomplish this change, though it is typically seen as putting on and taking off a seal-skin coat. Now that we’ve introduced this unique being, let’s delve deeper into Selkie legend, characteristics, history, and what it means to us in modern day life, which is seemingly devoid of magic."   

Origins, First Writings, and Role in History

"Selkies are predominantly from Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, and Faroese folklore, in which cultures seals are prized and regarded with the utmost respect, only in the most desperate and barren of circumstances would someone ever dare hunt them. These fae somewhat mirror the swan maidens of Japanese folklore, enchanted women who utilize feathered coats to transform into bird forms, most often swans.  The Science of Fairy Tales by Edwin Sidney Hartland analyzes Selkie myth and portrays it as a variant of the Swan Maiden tale, which is certainly a possibility, as swan maidens predated the Western Selkie. However, a seal person’s coat is a far more  essential aspect of their being than a swan maiden’s, which appears only to allow them the ability to shapeshift rather than representing a portion of their soul, and the finding of the sealskin and escape is intrinsic to any Selkie story. The notion of a human-seal figure could also have arisen as a personified representation of these culture’s reverence towards seals. Imagining the seal as our equal or as a sentient being when braving the wilderness and hunting, allows us to connect more to our surroundings and inspires a greater sense of deference for these incredible creatures. Fairies and other creatures are also often imagined to justify the occurrence of what at the time were inexplicable medical deformities or incurable diseases, and the seal-people are no different. In folklore, roan and Selkies were said to mate with humans, occasionally giving way to children who took on a fishy appearance; these stories were likely based off of birth defects or genetic conditions such as syndactyly (a hereditary growth of skin between two fingers that resembles a flipper), ichthyosis (a genetic skin disorder that causes patches of skin to harden and appear scaly), or anencephaly (the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp that occurs during embryonic development and leaves the baby with an almost seal-shaped head). Or, historically, shipwrecked Spaniards and early Scottish settlers who took the resident  dark-haired, sealskin fur adorned Finnish women for brides could have been inspired by their aura of mystery and chalked it up to a fairytale. But, despite all these theories and documented history, magic is not set in stone, and it is unlikely anyone will ever uncover the true origins of the Selkie, so the story is left up to our interpretation. What do you think sparked the tale of the Selkie? Or do you believe that someone witnessed a seal-person before their very eyes? And, if so, could it have just been mistaken for a seal or was it another fae entirely? No matter what the inspiration behind this mythical creature, the legends and folklore spun over the course of generations of Celtic mythology have painted a truly beautiful picture of the Selkie, so let us gaze upon it now."  

Nature (Personality), Physical Characteristics/Abilities 

"In Orkney and Shetland it was believed that the small, common species of harbor seal, otherwise nicknamed the ‘tang fish’, belonged entirely to the animal world and none of their kind would ever be classified as a Selkie. Although the same was not true for larger seals, the great seal, the grey seal, and the crested seal, among others, for they were the Selkie folk whose true form was actually human. The grey seal has a straight head, nostrils set far apart, and fewer spots than the common seal; its coloring ranges from silver gray to brown with dark patches. The crested seal is silvery with scattered dark, irregular splotches, its head is a darker shade than its body and has no visible markings. However, Selkies and Roane were indistinct and shapeless when compared to other seals, their only human identification being their large, liquid eyes that were at the depths, soulful and intelligent. And while some of the first discovered writings depicted Selkies, both men and women alike, as dark-haired, fair, and having wide, pooling eyes that were almost as black as onyx, this physical description has expanded over the course of history to encompass any person of exceeding melancholy beauty. In nature, Roane appeared as the gentlest and most forgiving of all the fairy races and bore little to no resentment against mankind, namely seal catchers or those who stole their skin, such as was seen in the first story of the fisherman and his knife. This conclusion is virtually never contradicted in any tale of the Roane specifically, so we know for certain they are a kind Fae. The definitive personality of Selkies, though, is more controversial. Male Selkies present in stories were often amorous or had great sexual desire and would make expeditions ashore to court and sleep with mortal women, though these relationships never lasted long. On the other hand, female Selkies were frequently presented as unwilling brides. In varying tales where a lonely man comes upon a Selkie coat, the Selkie would beg to no avail for him to return it, but would eventually acquiesce and wed the hunter, always keeping a wistful eye on the sea. This demonstrates the crucial role the sealskin plays in the life of a Selkie. While in this captivity, however, the seal maiden would remain a good, domesticated spouse, and once liberated from her service, she wished no harm on the man who trapped her, further supporting the theory that these faeries are tolerant and complacent. Yet, even so, there are sources indicating that the Selkies avenged the death of their kin by raising storms and sinking the boats of seal-catchers, so the true intentions of Selkies remain a bit of a mystery."

Magical Characteristics/Abilities

"Evidently, the Selkie’s most dominant magical feature is their coat, or rather, their ability to perform therianthropy. Selkies or Roane seem native to the air and need a magical object with which to make their passage through the sea. The very fact that the fae are in possession of a sealskin coat indicates that their natural form is as a human and the garment is merely a seal disguise, rather than the other way around. The Irish merrows exist under the same conditions, but wear red caps instead of seal-skins to enable them to pass through the waters. To cite ‘An Encyclopedia of Fairies’ by Katherine Briggs, “Like other Scottish fairy creatures, they were supposed to have been angels driven out of Heaven for some lesser fault, but not bad enough for Hell. Another explanation was that they were a human race, banished to the sea for their sins, but yet allowed to wear human shape upon land. Some men thought that they might yet be capable of salvation.” The skin is a materialized extension of a Selkie’s soul, representing their connection and vital need of the sea. Though this aspect of a Selkie should not be mistaken for a separable soul or external soul, which can be parted with and hidden to avoid death, whereas Selkies, as is repeatedly demonstrated throughout tales of fairy brides, cannot be far from their coat and must do whatever necessary in the hopes of regaining ownership of their skin. When forced to remain on land or at great distance from their coat (normally due to a selfish male), seal maidens will, if they are fortunate enough to remain alive, develop a great and insatiable yearning for the sea that is shown only through their passionate eyes. Their physical condition deteriorates as well, so much so that their skin grows cracked and dry and is in a constant state of dehydration, so much so that tears cannot even well for their pain. It was additionally believed in both Orkney and Shetland that when the blood of a Selkie is shed in the sea a storm arises that is often fatal to nearby ships or harbors."   

Habitat, Homes, and Relationship With Other Fairy Folk

"Selkies were said to inhabit an underwater world, which could entail sharing a communal cave, such is the case in the first story, or making a humble abode on a lonely skerry (a rocky island or reef). Occasionally, they can be seen emerging from the ocean to shed their white Selkie coat and dance on the sand bathed in moonlight, especially by the light of the full moon, a magical symbol used as a trope in many folktales. A widely-known folk song depicting a Selkie and his life is ‘The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry’, Child Ballad number 113, that goes along the lines of this:


An earthly nurse sits and sings,

And aye, she sings by lily wean (howl lovely child),

And little know I my bairn's (child’s) father,

Far less the land where he dwells in.


For he came on night to her bed feet,

And a grumbly guest, I'm sure was he,

Saying "Here am I, thy bairn's (child’s) father,

Although I be not comely.


I am a man upon the land,

I am a selkie on the sea,

And when I'm far and far from land,

My home it is in Sule Skerrie.


And he had taken a purse of gold

And he had placed it upon her knee,

Saying, "Give to me my little young son,

And take thee up thy nurse's fee.


"And it shall come to pass on a summer's day,

When the sun shines bright on every stone,

I'll come and fetch my little young son,

And teach him how to swim the foam."


"And ye shall marry a gunner good,

And a right fine gunner I'm sure he'll be,

And the very first shot that ever he shoots

Will kill both my young son and me." 


As for Selkies’ relations to other Fae, I suppose it’s safe to assume that they are generally kind and cooperative, however, there aren’t many descriptions of them interacting with any other magical being, except mermaids, of course. ‘An Encyclopedia of Fairies’ states that “There was great kindness between Selkies and mermaids, as a story quoted by G.F. Black from Edmundston shows and the Selkie people do all that they can to warn and help the mermaids, and often risk themselves to save them.” The story GF Black mentioned here tells of a deceitful Shetlander who happened upon a seal and chose to stun and skin it, discarding its body into the sea. Because of the reverence towards Selkies in Shetland culture, the young fisherman returned to his companions’ encampment, claiming that he had found the seal dead, rather than alive, making it morally acceptable for him to skin it, even if it was a Selkie. But, unbeknownst to the fisherman, the tormented seal still lived and once it regained consciousness, the Selkie swam down beneath the sea and entered a cave inhabited by a mermaid. The only assistance the mermaid could offer to the Selkie was by retrieving its coat, so the mermaid valiantly allowed herself to be captured by the ship’s crew that had possession of the seal-skin. Despite his actions, the young fisherman had already begun to feel remorseful for killing the seal, so when he witnessed the mermaid being drawn aboard, he was horrified and begged earnestly for his fellow sailors to release her, but they had already begun betting on how much the mermaid would sell for on the mainland and anxiously set off for the nearest harbor. The poor mermaid, tangled and bleeding from the ropes, lay on her friend’s skin, awaiting death as she suffocated from the upper air, which she could not withstand for much longer. She knew that her passing would initiate a storm of massive strength and was hopeful that the Selkie’s coat would at least be swept down to the watery abode where the seal was hidden. And so indeed it happened; the boat was sunk, too late to save the mermaid, but with her body the coat sifted down through the ocean to the Selkie, who was able to adorn her sealskin again and be free. For this reason, Selkies feel obligated to return the mermaid’s charity and do whatever possible to help them in their times of need."

Relationship With Humans and How To Find/Interact With/Lure/Trap/Repel Them

"Selkies can take on both the figure of predator and prey in regards to human relationships. Particularly male Selkies are cast in the role of predator, and are willing to come ashore to seek out those who are previously dissatisfied with their lives, such as the nurse in ‘The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry’. Or, lonely mortal women manage to summon the Selkie by letting seven tears slip into the sea (this method is the sole way of directly calling a Selkie and can only be performed by women) and in these such voluntary fairy-human relationships, after some time the Selkie must return to his/her underwater home for a period of seven years before they are even able to go on land once more. But, as we mentioned before, Selkies are most often portrayed as unwilling fairy brides to desperate men. If someone succeeds in stealing a Selkie coat, which is possible as they regularly transform into humans and leave their seal-skins unattended on a nearby shore for amusement, the person in possession of the garment can force the seal maiden to do anything and she must obey (clearly the most common command is a forced marriage, at least in the majority of stories). But, eventually in the said involuntary marriages, no matter the kindness shown by the husband or number of children the Selkie bore, the seal maiden always regains her skin and flees back to the ocean just as other similar fairies always leave their mortal husbands in the end. Like water slipping through the fingers of a cupped hand. Katherine Briggs writes “There is no lasting union between fairies and mortals”, a statement I can’t agree with more. At the closing of any Selkie-human marriage stories, someone’s heart is always broken because it is inevitable that the Selkie will go back to her/his true home; there is no happily ever after, even if the tale is a true romance. Now, to talk about the children, whether or not the parents were in love and willingly together, Selkie love stories nearly always bore offspring with either the female bearing a human man’s child or a male Selkie contributing to the birth of a common maid’s kin. Since every child created as a result of these unions was a half-blood, it was unlikely for the baby to be a Selkie and instead they were possessed of webbed hands and feet, that, when the skin stretched between the digits is severed, develops a horny growth in its place, making it nearly impossible for the offspring to do many kinds of manual labor. One of the most well-known examples of these fish-like children are the descendants of Ursilla in a story by Traill Dennison. Ursilla, bored with the life and husband she had selected, summoned a Selkie to be her suitor through the process of sitting on a rock at high tide and dropping seven tears into the waves. The Selkie came to her bed time and again, and she had many children by him, but each one had webbed hands and feet and this trait continued throughout Ursilla’s family line. Traill Dennison himself told of hiring a man to work during the harvest season who was unable to even gather and bind wheat due to a horny structure on his hands; he was one of Ursilla’s brethren."


"And that concludes, Part 1 of our Selkies episodes! Next episode, Part 2, we will be discussing a second story, analyzing that story as well as Selkies in general and what their messages mean in human life, then personally, in my life. Please leave a rating and review on whatever podcasting source you’re listening to this from and feel free to email me at ourveilofsmokeandgold@gmail.com about any concerns, feedback, suggestions on faeries, or anything else you want me to know. Doing this really encourages me to continue the podcast and I do welcome any constructive criticism. Thank you so much listeners for listening to this episode and feel free to tune in for Part 2 to conclude our informational episodes about Selkies. This is Annelise on Our Veil of Smoke and Gold Podcast, thanks again for listening and I’ll see you in our Part 2." 


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