Tunes for a Monday Morning
Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Selkies: the accommodation of paradox

Grey seal

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Two weeks ago, I promised one last post about Philip Marsden's extraordinary book The Summer Isles...and then illness struck, and it's taken me this long to recover. My apologies for the delay. It's good to be back in the studio at last.

In the following passage, Marsden discusses the "seal people" tales to be found on the wild west coasts of the Celtic Fringe. It comes from the final chapters of the text as he sails his boat through the Hebrides, spotting seals along the way:

Seal and pup on land"Seals were always selkies here along the Atlantic coast. They led semi-human lives. They lived in their own world beneath the waves, one that mirrored that of people's above. They were capable of human speech and human emotions, and they had underwater houses with doors and windows, the same as us. Once a year, they gathered at a place off the Donegal coast and elected from their number a leader, a selkie king. Sometimes they could be heard singing of the seal city underwater, its coral gardens and mother-of-pearl facades. To those who heard the song, it had a hypnotic effect: a delicate air, and words which spoke of a place ten thousand times more beautiful than the sky. The selkie world was a version of the otherworld.

"Selkies could make near-seamless appearances on land. Female selkies would slip out of their sealskins and take on the form of women and sleep with men. Male selkies would also take on human form and father children. They might take those children back to the sea, or they might leave them on land. You could never be sure which were the selkie children; they might be very good at swimming, or very small, or 'very sharp indeed at the learning...particularly at the Hebrew.' Then one day they'd just disappear. There were whole families in Ireland and Scotland who were known to have the seal blood in them, and the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell speaks of the Clann 'ic Codrum nan ron of North Uist, 'the MacCodrums of the seals', so named for their seal ancestry.

Daughter of the Sea by Tristan Elwell

"In the 1950s, David Thomson travelled in the west of Ireland and Scotland gathering selkie stories. In the tender account of his journey, The People of the Sea, he tells of meeting a man of the road down in Kerry who was descended from seals. 'The seals are a class of a fairy,' explained the man. 'They come out of the north of Ireland, from some place by the County Donegal.' He then told Thompson about a boy who, collecting kelp one day, stabbed a seal. The boy watched as it turned into a red-headed man and ran away. Years later, when the boy was a man, he was fishing near Tory Island. When he went ashore, he saw that red-headed man, and the man said thank you to the boy for what he'd done years earlier. He'd been freed from his seal-state by the stabbing.

Grey seal underwater

Selkie by Gina Litherland

"...The selkie stories were sustained on these coasts by the constant presence of seals. Some strange congress takes place when you look at a seal, some hint of recognition, reinforced by the sense that it appears to be mutual. In many places, seals were believed to be fallen angels, the ones who, expelled from heaven, fell into the sea. But it was less their angelic nature than their human habits that were recalled again and again. Seamus Heaney said of the seal belief that it represents 'the old trope of human beings as creatures dwelling in a middle state between the world of the angels and the animals.'

Selkie by Katherine Soutar"Yet shape-shifting is less about affirming man's separation from the beasts than the possibility that we remain part of them. It implies a world in which the boundaries between things do not -- or should not -- exist. It is the same parrallel country of fairies and angels, the spirit world, into which we might occasionally glimpse or even travel. We might be locked within our own frames, within our own mortality, but a bit of us remains mobile. 'Of bodies changed to other forms I tell,' Ovid declares in the opening line of Metamorphoses, and goes on to make the case that our souls are essentially fluid, and 'adopt / in their migrations ever-varying forms.' Introducing his own version of Metamorphoses, Ted Hughes reflects on the moment of transition, repeated in each of the poems: 'Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of the event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles into the mythic arena and is transformed.' The tales might be salutary, cautionary or retributive, but they hold out the promise of transformation -- and transformation answers to the perennial itch at the core of our condition: the dissatisfaction of being, and the promise of becoming.

"The endurance of the selkie myth can also be explained as an example of the poetic faculty, where everything can be revealed by finding its parallel. It comes from that strange region on cognitive territory where the chaos around us is briefly ordered by analogy, and the analogy grows into story and the story evolves and mutates into myth, a species in itself, both true and untrue. Selkie belief is a measure of the abiding need for such ambiguity. We might think that belief means certainty, but it doesn't -- it works better as the accomodation of paradox. Seals can be people and people can be seals . That's it."

Selkie Boy by Jackie Morris

I highly recommend listening to an interview with Philip Marsden on the Scotland Outdoors radio programme (BBC Sounds). The whole interview is engrossing, but from the 29:54 mark onward the discussion focuses on myth, folklore, the "thin" places where the borders between the mortal world and the otherworld is porous, and the particular pull of such stories during these months of pandemic lock-down.

"I think," he says, "that the quieting down of things -- the way we've had to slow down and lock into a daily rhythm of repeated things -- has opened up the imagination, and re-exposed us to ways of thinking that we lose when we rush around....We're re-discovering, perhaps, a layer of the imagination that used to be quite normal."

Selkie drawing by Alan Lee

To end with: In the video below, Carolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie sing a classic selkie ballad from the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and explain its meaning to Phil Cunningam. 

Orkney seal

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Wain: LGBT Re-imaginings of Scottish Solklore(The Emma Press, 2019). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The artwork above is "Daughter of the Sea" by Tristan Elwell, "Selkie" by Gina Litherland, "Selkie" by Katherine Soutar, "Selkie Boy" by Jackie Morris, and "Selkie Skin" by Alan Lee.All rights reserved by the artists. 

Comments

Jews of the Sea

"You could never be sure which were the selkie children; they might be very good at swimming, or very small, or 'very sharp indeed at the learning...particularly at the Hebrew.'"--Philip Marsden

So now we know:
not all seals are selchies
but all selchies are Jews,
small, dark, beautiful people
who keep themselves
to themselves,
who doven in the water
and dance on land,
who are sharp and smart
and learn quickly.
But perhaps they were sent
to the bottom of the sea
because they loved shellfish,
that forbidden food,
named not kosher
in the Biiblical listings
and so, like Adam and Eve,
were exiled from the garden,
to an even more beautiful
garden below,
which--unlike humans--
they have tried to keep
free of filth.

©2020 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Glad to read this before our morning’s breakfast. Filling my wandering soul with the love for water she needs more than air.
And to Jane: I too spotted the Selkie’s love and facility for Hebrew and didn’t you tell us with your poetry, just so.
xo Moki

Love Philip Masdens work.He has a specialness I cannot adequately describe.

Hi Jane

What a lovely and haunting poem you create here --

" they were sent
to the bottom of the sea
because they loved shellfish,
that forbidden food,
named not kosher
in the Biiblical listings
and so, like Adam and Eve,
were exiled from the garden,
to an even more beautiful
garden below,
which--unlike humans--
they have tried to keep
free of filth."

Indeed, a very sacred and special species. We can learn so much from those wondrous beings who are part the sea, its spirit and its immortal magic. Thank you for sharing this, what a pleasure to read!

My Best always
to you and yours,
Stay safe and be well

Wendy

Dear Terri

First, let me say it's wonderful to see you back and feeling better. Thank you sooooo much for this wondrous post. I love the essence of Philip Marsden's view of Selkies and the subject, itself. They are haunting creatures and in some way as I read about them, feel a personal kinship. The pictures and artwork are sublime!

Thank you!
My best always
Wendy

Ash and Foam

There were whole families in Ireland and Scotland who were known to have the seal blood in them,
Philip Marsden

Unbundled and burned
your letters haunt the hearth
in a voice of ash; and only I hear
what lingers of the lines.

A forbidden love
and landscape that led
us to meet in secret, old arbors
pleached in green. A place
that bound partners
with more than vine and fruit.
the spell of evenfall, the beautiful chill
of things unseen.

Yet out of fear
I set parchment to flame
and left the house in haste
to watch for your ship
sailing in, to warn of wrath
the elders stoked,
and there I slipped

off a slick edge of stone
falling from the cliff
into the sea
with her belt of shore birds.
circling the tide. Swiftly

she sank my form
into her flounces of foam;
and hours after
when twilight seeped
the moon in fog --
I arose with salt drops
impearling my hair
and cried your name. Not

a woman gone to her death
but back to the wave
tumbling out kelp leaves
and a maiden's sealskin

I had yet to smooth
with immortal hands,
and by the will of my kin,
my blood line
reclaim.


Wendy, thanks for both the nice words about my poem and this precious gift of aperfect selchie poem which you MUST send out--Asimov's, Tor.com, CoffinBell, Uncanny--somewhere!!!

Jane

SHE TASTED SALT
(The mating of the Selkie)
She tasted salt on his lips,
And his voice roared oceans in storm
When he raged at the prison
She'd made.
But in the calms that came after,
His presence was like soft-dawning skies,
Defined by the wings of a bird
That slid a slow diminuendo
To distance.

Hi Jane,

The Jewish diaspora spread wide indeed! Beautiful poem; I love the idea of non-kosher shellfish causing a second expulsion from the Garden.

Wendy, love your imagery; you're a wordsmith indeed.

Hi Jane

Thank you so much for the lovely comment on my poem. I deeply appreciate it!!! I am in the process of submitting right now, this poem is definitely among them, and your magazine tips will be of immense help.

Again, many thanks,
Please take care
my best
Wendy

Hi Stuart,

A beautiful and intense poem here. I like this viewpoint taken from the male selkie and how the rage calms into something softer, deeper --

But in the calms that came after,
His presence was like soft-dawning skies,
Defined by the wings of a bird
That slid a slow diminuendo
To distance.

Wonderful use of the bird image and that phrasing of "slow diminuendo". Perfect!

Also thanks so much for reading my poem and your gracious comment. I deeply appreciate it and glad you liked the poem.

My best,
Wendy

Stuart--I love this poem, the angle (as Wendy pints out), the young woman as
the aggressor. The last 2 lines: PERFECT

Jane

Thank you Jane and Wendy. The poem is told from the perspective of a male Selkie because the first time I ever heard the legend of the seal people was when I was very young and watching a TV programme called 'Jackanory' (Cockney rhyming slang for 'Story'). This particular tale told of a young Scottish woman who married a mysterious and very beautiful man. She didn't find out that he was a Selkie until she was told to look at his ears that were hidden beneath his long hair. Thinking this advice strange she waited until her husband was asleep and when she drew back his hair she found that, like a seal, he didn't have any external ears! I can't remember how it ended, though I think he confessed to being a selkie and went back to the sea leaving the woman broken hearted.

Ears

"Seals have no ears, my dear,"
her grandmother said,
her voice stormy,
but not yet raging,
for her moods were changeable
as the sea.
The child did not understand
the old woman then,
but now, lying by her new lad,
the only one who had ever understood
her need for water and silence,
she pulled his dark hair back
as he slept, to kiss his mouth,
his long, strong neck,
waking him to her will.
Knew him for a selchie then,
for he had no ears,
only a smooth space
where the skull begins.
She let him plunge inside her
as if she was water,
her bones like seaweed,
her smile the moon rise
over the breaking waves.


©2020 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Jane this is both beautiful and sensual. I marvel at your ability to poetically react to the comments and the poems of others so aptly and with such precision. Like Wendy you are a skilled wordsmith, but with the added perspective and wisdom of experience.

Hi Jane

She let him plunge inside her
as if she was water,
her bones like seaweed,
her smile the moon rise
over the breaking waves.

Absolutely gorgeous, this wondrous poem!! Love the sense of strength and tenderness in this piece, and those ending lines just haunt with melodic intensity. I was with the speaker from begining to end, loving the way this old woman handled the child and the realization of his identity. Great read , thank you so much for sharing.

My Best always
Wendy

Have you ever seen Song of the Sea? It is a children’s movie about selkies, with beautiful animation and a melancholy feel.

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