The Myth of the Selkie

The Myth of The Selkie

One of the most fascinating Irish and Scottish myths is contained in the story of the Selkie. It is the story of - seals who could shed their skins and take human form. "The seas around Orkney and Shetland harbor the shy Selkies or Seal-Faeries (known as the Roane in Ireland). A female Selkie is able to discard her seal skin and come ashore as a beautiful maiden. If a human can capture His skin, the selkie can be forced to become a fine, if wistful, wife. However, should she ever find her skin she immediately returns to the sea, leaving the husband to pine and die. It is said that the males raise storms and upturn boats to avenge the indicriminate slaughter of the seals." -- Brian Froud and Alan Lee, Faeries.

In Regina McBride's fine Irish novel, The Nature of Water and Air, the myth of the selkie is woven throughout like a fine silk thread. In one scene of the novel Clodaugh, the main character in the novel, and a university student discuss Selkies from his perspective.

"Some men make the dress, thinking it might domesticate her. It's justified as an attempt to balance the animal with the human. but with the skin shaped for a human body she'll never get her seal shape back. The man destroys that possibility. It's the more desperate man that makes the dress, mutilating the skin into human form. It's like trying to reforge nature. the thing the man loves is the thing he is most afraid of. It's an agonizing thing to love a selkie" (McBride 199)

I have often thought that the myth itself and certainly McBride's perspective of it here as she evokes it in her novel concerns the dynamic in relationship between men and women. The desire to connect in relationship transforms into the desire to own and to change what was originally meaningful, alluring and otherworldly into something mundane, comprehensible and containable. The same dynamic seems to appear in our relationship with the natural world. We see something overwhelmingly beautiful and we attempt to capture it, contain it and manipulate it in a domestic arena. But in doing so it loses all its wild allure and beauty and becomes nothing but show, a faded tourist attraction of what it once was.

John Sayles film, The Secret of Roan Inish tells the story of the Selkie in vivid detail and evokes for the viewer the way in which myth and history are deeply interwoven in Irish culture, so much so that the telling of the tale and its resolution provide healing for an entire family.

The Secret of Roan Inish, by John Sayles

The Secret Of Roan Inish

Release Date: 1995
Ebert Rating: ***½    
By Roger Ebert Mar 3, 1995
One day, many years ago, an ancestor of Fiona spied a beautiful creature sunning by the sea. She was both woman and seal. We would call her a mermaid, but on that western coast of Ireland such creatures were well-known as Selkies.

The ancestor trapped the creature and married her, and they had children together and lived happily, although she seemed to long for the sea. One day she learned where her husband had hidden her sealskin, up under the roof, and she put it back on, and returned to the sea.

Fiona (Jeni Courtney), who is 12 or 13 years old, is told this story by a relative. It is not told as a "fairy tale" but as an account of family history, to be taken quite seriously. And well might Fiona believe it, because ever since there have been dark-haired children in her family who were said to throw back to the Selkie, and whose eyes turned yearningly to the sea.

The year is about 1946. Fiona's mother has died, and her father can barely be budged from his mourning in the pub. She is sent to live with her grandparents, on a sea coast across from the island of Roan Inish, where the whole family once lived. There she learns the story of her little brother Jamie, whose cradle was carried off by the waves. And there, with her grandparents and her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan), she first explores Roan Inish, which means, in Gaelic, "island of the seals." 


  1. I love it i dream of living there...I love the movie too!

  2. It is a beautiful place. I have been to Ireland. The film is a dream come alive. Thanks for stopping in.

  3. 'Spadoman' (haiku my heart) send me over here after he read my blogpost from 2011/07/01
    I'm so glad he did... it's a wonderful post and I will watch that movie for sure (later - I haven't much time left to do it now...)

  4. How sweet. Thank you for visiting.

  5. Marit,
    Thanks for stopping by. So nice of Joe to direct you over here. Yes this is
    one of my earliest posts. He was very moved by it. Glad you liked it. I love
    the film.
    Have a great weekend!


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