Maybe you’ve heard of selkies before, but do you know the difference between selkies and mermaids? The two are often confused—throw sirens in the mix and you have too many seafaring seductresses for most of our poor landlubber brains to keep track of.
Let’s stick to selkies for now.
While a mermaid is half-human and half-fish, selkies change shape from fully human to fully seal. Legends say that they are humans who put on sealskins to change form and live in the ocean. Selkies in human form are attractive no matter their gender, and the humans who take them for lovers are often disappointed to find they’ve returned to the sea at the first opportunity.
However, if a human captures a selkie’s seal coat, they have control over the selkie, who can no longer return to the sea. Many selkie stories are tragic romances where a human man captures a selkie woman and forces her to marry him. Selkies taken in this fashion inevitably find the sealskin and escape—but they’ll often return to visit any children they had during this marriage.
There are some interesting gender differences between the male and female selkie legends. Women could shed seven tears into the ocean to summon a male selkie. These women were allowed a small measure of sexual liberation. Though they were usually wives waiting for their fisherman husbands to return from sea, male selkies were known to be completely irresistible to human women, so who could blame them?
It was also a convenient excuse if, say, your husband came home and you had been mysteriously knocked up. “A selkie did it!”
Many northern coastal cultures have legends about shapeshifting seal-humans, but the selkie myth comes from Ireland, Scotland, and the Farore Islands. The word “selkie” comes from the old Scots word for seal, selich.
There are a number of theories about the myth’s origins—several neighboring cultures wore sealskin clothing. Maybe some overly imaginative Celt had a one night stand and couldn’t accept that their lover would wander off without a mythical explanation.
But never mind where the stories come from—where do the selkies come from?
Selkies were once human, the legends say, so how do they change into seals? Some stories say that humans came from the ocean—which turns out to be true, but I’d be pretty surprised if they were talking about tetrapods—and the first selkies were humans that decided coming onto land had been a terrible mistake, no sir, we’re going straight back, thank you.
Others said that selkies were the lost souls of humans who had died at sea. I like this theory. It leaves itself open to a lovely symmetry: selkies seduce human women who are waiting for their husbands to come back from the sea, but those selkies could be what’s left of the ill-fated human men they were waiting for.
Oh, it’s a tragic symmetry, sure.
Lovely and tragic.
Whatever their origins, one thing is constant: selkies go back to the sea.
Fickle lovers? Sometimes. Sometimes there’s no explanation for why they leave other than “they didn’t want to be here.” Ouch. Other times they have a selkie family waiting in the ocean, and their affair with a human was just that.
But there’s another alternative—one that might sound familiar to fans of Pirates of the Caribbean who weren’t fortunate enough to jump ship before the third installment.
Some versions of the story say that a selkie is compelled to stay at sea. They’re cursed souls, and each is only allowed to live as a human for one day every seven years.
That’s not just a tragic romance. That’s setup for an epic tragic romance.
Seals aside, this legend comes from a very human place. It comes from heartsickness, that wistful kind of love that you can only feel for something you know you can’t have. It’s about star-crossed lovers. An amphibious Romeo and Juliet.
Very touching. But—if you really want my advice—I say that if you see a sexy sealskin-shucking shapeshifter, you’re better off staying away. After all, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
Prompt: Selkie stories are all about impossible romances, but the sealskin-capture adds an interesting twist. There seems to be a way around the forbidden romance, but it comes at the cost of one person’s autonomy. Plus, they’re forever separated from their home. You couldn’t really call that love, so the “solution” becomes a catch-22.
So—whether romance-related or not—come up with an impossible situation where the so-called workaround comes at such a heavy cost that it may ruin the reward.