Mermaids, Selkies, Finfolk – shape shifting sea people

An excerpt from The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, by Barbara Sjoholm:

I lay on my narrow berth on the St. Sunniva, as the ship rolled and rumbled under me and around me, reading Walter Traill Dennison’s book of Orkney folklore about the sea. The story of Annie Norn intrigued me; she as so lively and real in the midst of the fairy tale, an accomplished sailor who rescued men at sea, much like Janet Forsyth. Her tart rebuke to the crew of the becalmed ship, “Ye muckle feuls! Why stand ye gaping an’ glowering at me as gin I war a warlock? Gae veer your vessel aboot,” is something that it’s easy to imagine Grace O’Malley shouting as well. Yet Annie’s last name of “Norn” connects her with the Three Fates, or Norns, and with Norna of Fitful-head. She was a Fin Wife, and thus something of a sorceress.

In Orkney lore, it was wedlock that turned a mermaid into a haggard witch. Dennison tells us, “During the first seven years of married life she gradually lost her exquisite loveliness; during the second seven yers she was no fairer than women on earth; and in the third seven years of married life the mermaid became ugly and repulsive.” The Fin Wife, after losing her youth and beauty, “was often sent on shore to collect white money [silver] by the practice of witchcraft among men.”

Although a mermaid is one of the most ancient of images—some of the earliest goddesses are Semitic moon deities with fishy tales—she has become sadly reduced in the last hundred or so years, first through Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Little Mermaid” and then by the Disney version of the same, to a pathetic, silent love martyr wearing a bikini top. In ancient cultures the fish tail was a symbol of the Goddess’s power, not an impediment to dancing; the mirror is a symbol of the sea, not a sign of the mermaid’s golden-haired vanity.

Along the shores of Scotland and Orkney there are many old tales of sightings of mermaids on the rocks and skerries. Sometimes she’s called Maid-of-the-Wave. She is always lovely, and alluring. She’s the kind of woman you don’t mind following below the ocean’s surface. The songs she sings will make you forget everything you ever knew and wanted. The tales evoke the longing for beauty and intimacy with some other creature, perhaps with the unconscious, the mother as giver of both life and death, the all encompassing, the irrational, the beloved.

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. 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. Aso may stories of the seal folk, selkie or silkie in the local tongue, seem to be about humans tring 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 the 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 Andersen’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 the 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 would that be.

An intriguing book I picked up in Stromness, Seal-Folk and Ocean Paddlers by John MacAulay, proposes that old and recurring tales of selkies and mermaids might have some historical truth. Lapps from northern Scandinavia, sometimes called Finns, maybe have accidentally or deliberately come south in seal-skin-covered kayaks, he says. From shore, it may have looked as if the body sticking out of the water were half-person, half-fish. From the outer islands of the Hebrides, as well as from Orkney, come stories of families who claim to be descended from seals. Sliochd nan ròn, “the race of the seals,” they’re called. They were known for dark liquid eyes with a touch of pathos, for their love of music, and sometimes for particularly horny feet with little webbing between the toes. For MacAulay this identification with seals would make most sense if the islanders had intermarries with the amphibious men, or women, who arrived by kayak.

Folktales about the seal people seem, to me, to be more haunting than those of mermaids and fin folk, but all of them speak of loss and rebirth, transformation, and love beyond death. More importantly, they offer a rich and imaginative way to cope with drowning, so frequent in these rough seas. Throughout history the sea has been divided in two: the surface and the deep. Very often sailors and captains, mostly men and a few women, have seen the sea as road, as a watery thoroughfare between ports of arrival and departure. In these stories of sea as road, we hear of exploration, navigation, settlement—of battles and trade. But there’s another, vaster marine world, and since the beginning of our collective memory of it, it has been populated by dangerous beasts and monsters, Sea Trows, Finfolk, mermaids, and seal fook, as well as underwater goddesses like Sedna, the Inuit seawoman of the deep, or Ran of Norse legend. When praying to Aphrodite or the Virgin Mary doesn’t work, when our ships found and sink, we humans have needed to rely on some deeper wisdom, that the sea will return to us to our origins, that the sea means, as Mer does in the old Egyptian, both “waters” and “mother-love.”

An excerpt from The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O?Malley and Other Legendary Women
of the Sea, by Barbara Sjoholm (2004, Seal Press). Copyright © 2004 Barbara Sjoholm.
Reprinted with permission of the author.

Read more about Barbara Sjoholm’s travels HERE

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