Friday 24 January 2014

Sea Lion Woman: A Selkie Story for a New Millennium - by Laura Marjorie Miller

Harbor seal at Seal beach, La Jolla, California. © Ralph Pace

I am delighted to welcome Laura Marjorie Miller to the blog. Laura writes about travel, Yoga, magic, myth, fairy tales, photography, marine conservation, and other soulful subjects. She is a regular columnist at, contributing editor at Be You Media, and public-affairs writer at UMass Amherst, and has a feature forthcoming in Yankee magazineHer work has appeared at Tripping, GotSaga, and Dive News Network, in the Boston Globe and Parabola. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck. 

In this thoughtful piece, Laura considers the tragic beauty of the selkie legends, and wonders if it's time to find a new way of retelling and interpreting them.  The wonderfully moody photographs appear by kind permission of Ralph Pace, and the magical illustrations are courtesy of Scottish artist Kate Leiper  Many thanks to both.

My favorite place in all of Boston is outside the harbor seal habitat at the New England Aquarium. The seals, shining silver-grey, their thick oily coats spattered with inky speckles, glide back and forth by the glass. Sometimes they barrel-roll to soar on their backs, navel slits to the sky, flippers folded like wings. Sometimes they bob vertically in the water like corks, serene expressions on their faces.

Every time I’m in Boston, no matter where in town I am, I’m aware of their presence. I am pulled to them, the shredded iron filings of me to the steady strong magnet of them. One doesn’t even have to pay admission to the aquarium to watch the seals, but can view them from outside, so once I park my car, I race there along the pavement of the harbor wharf. It is all I can do in public not to break into sobs at their beauty. I stand by the glass, weeping silently with longing, undried tears coating my cheeks with a rime of salt water, but also smiling with unaccountable joy. I want to be with them. I am a river running to their ocean.

I love seals, and because I am a woman who loves seals, and loves mythology and folktales, merfolk and sea songs, I love selkies. I love them not for the tragic nature of their stories but because they are both human and seal.

Part of the utter core of the traditional selkie story is that the selkie, in the end, leaves. So naturally, my boyfriend, knowing I love both selkies and stories, started to become alarmed, thinking that I would leave him the same way. I told him our story was different, because I choose to be with him.

And that was when I realized that we all need a new selkie story, that our myths can guide us but not lock us: that there can be a new, variant myth, not to replace the old, but to give a sense of possibility, both for the relationships between lovers, and also humans and animals: to shine in the world in its newness.

The old selkie story has a basic, archetypal framework. Details swirl around and modify these fundamental components: a fisherman sees a mysterious woman emerge from a sealskin, at night on a beach, perhaps to dance with her kin under the moonlight or perhaps in her own private reverie. He falls in love with the sight and idea of her, and knowing by lore that she is a selkie, a seal woman, he knows that if her pelt is in his possession then she is under his rule. Without her skin she cannot return to the sea. So he steals and stashes her skin.

When she realizes her skin is missing she is distraught. He then reveals himself to her. She follows him home to be his wife. She apparently has no choice.
Whether the woman is attracted to the fisherman or not, we are never told. He begets children on her, and they live a pleasant enough existence, but there is always something melancholy about her, an absence, a way of gazing yearningly towards the sea. One day, one of her children will discover something like an oilskin raincoat in a trunk in the attic, or stuffed into a notch in the eaves. Her son or daughter will ask her what it is. Her eyes will go wild with joy, and she will snatch her skin from him, clutch it to her breast, and say hasty farewells as she races to the beach. She cannot run fast enough for herself.

A Selkie Story © Kate Leiper 2009

Sometimes afterwards the selkie will keep watch on her family from the water, following their boats in the form of a seal: generations of descendants with webbed phalanges and distant expressions. Sometimes she is gone forever from the story, her husband pining away in regret.

But what if there were a new selkie story? One in which she chooses the man? One in which the man courts her, makes himself loveable to her, that she wants to come to him; that he loves her for being what she is, part seal, and knowing that, loves the wild part of her? And when she needs to, she runs to the ocean, pulls her skin back around her, swims with her family. She comes to back to land. Back and forth, as seals do anyway. While she is gone, he does man things.

The story has drama, just not the inevitability of failure. The crux of the new story is its inner quarrel, the bit of resistance in the man, her uncertainty with him, and the back-and-forthing within them that gives way to purer love. Such would be a new possibility, and a new way.

The old selkie story is both about the relationship between lovers, and our relationship to the wild. In the way that sometimes humans in our weakness try to control our loved ones, through manipulation, through emotional blackmail, sometimes even through abuse and coercion, because we fear that their independence means they will leave and betray us, or that their self-sovereignty implies faithlessness, in the same way we have been doing things wrong in regards to animals, and so have trapped ourselves: keeping animals in tanks, in enclosures, jars, bowls, corrals. We seldom do this out of purposeful cruelty, or even sheer profitable callousness, but so much oftener out of misguided love. So since the story is made of love, it is malleable, it can be reoriented, rewritten, redeemed.

What we love in wild animals is their wild nature, their otherness, but for some reason that is the first thing we want to take away from them. In our infancy, both historical and personal, we wanted to contain it. I don’t think we always took animals from distant lands and kept them in iron enclosures with concrete floors solely to display our dominance over the exotic and oriental: maybe that was part of it, but not all. Knowing what I know of humans, I suspect it is because we wanted to marvel at their beauty, and have it close by, without fully understanding that separating them from their environment would eventually kill them. A child who puts a mantis in a jam jar does not do that out of an impulse to dominate: she does it because she loves it, she wants to keep it, to behold its angular alien elegance under the holes she has punched in the jar lid. She does not know otherwise; her curiosity is ignorant of consequences, and she wants to hold the moment of that joy forever. She does not want it to be over.

We fear the moment the creature leaves us. We fear we will be left behind, that it will not choose us.

So instead of courting the selkie as a decent man would, the fisherman traps her. He takes away her ability to choose him and so his story ends tragically, because he stole her life. But if he had taken a chance of not being chosen, of being patient, of allowing her to come and go, she may actually have come to love him, and he would have continued to behold her in her true nature, not in a diminished form.

A Selkie Story © Kate Leiper 2009

Compelling is bad magic no matter how it’s done. Any savvy and sensitive magic-user knows that love-spells, with their undertones of binding, come with a price: which is their success. Their success is their curse. If you get what you think you want, you will never know whether you are freely loved, whether that person would have chosen you if you had not forced them. Forever, while you are with them, something gnaws at the underneath of you, the wrongness of what you have done, taken their free will, stowed their skin, and stolen a love that should have by rights been freely given. Although in my life I seem to insist on learning things the hard way, this sounds so utterly miserable for both parties that I have never even been tempted to test it. I have heard enough tell of those who have.

Forcing something against its nature is the dark side of tameness. If you have seen the children’s-book-like French movie Le Renard et l’Enfant, The Fox and the Child, you know that it is very frank about wildness versus tameness, and arguably the opposite of the fox-taming discussion in The Little Prince. The little girl grows to befriend and love a wild fox, but over the course of the movie you feel the dread of the inevitable drawing nearer, as the girl’s affections start to close in on the fox, like the collar-like scarf she puts around the fox’s neck. We sense what will happen when the protagonist finally lures the fox in her house. But again, like the fisherman in the selkie story, the girl does what she does out of yearning, out of wanting to keep.

In our culture, we used to collect nature without an afterthought, to stick it in iron cages, to make its sensitive and articulated paws walk on flat concrete surfaces, so that we could possess it. Increasingly, to do this seems so absurd, as though we are suddenly shaking ourselves awake: ‘What are we doing?’

In the last several years, and rising faster and faster, there has been an upwelling of consciousness, through the movies The Cove and Blackfish, about the high cost of keeping marine mammals in captivity: in human casualties and injuries, but also, quite spectacularly, awareness of the cost to the animals themselves: the trauma to their families, emotionally bonded in ways that we can only begin to comprehend, so much that their families are their very selves and taking someone out of the unit is like ripping off a body part, an unspeakable psychic torture that goes on and on. The collapse of their mighty bodies, visible in their sagging fins, which in the wild are pirate-masts of their spirits. The torment of imprisonment with strangers from other whale tribes who may bully and harass them and they have no means of defense or escape. The mockery and misuse of their might by being forced to do clown tricks. The acoustic torture of being trapped in a featureless concrete pit, the walls of which bounce their echolocation, meant to travel for hundreds of miles, back again and again into their sensitive ears. The torment of endless loneliness and utter isolation, unbearable except it offers no choice except to be borne.

Yet I sense that something is changing, and rapidly so. I don’t know quite what caused it, this waking-up, this critical mass, but something is indeed happening that can’t be denied anymore, or stopped: human people have begun to care more about animals for the animals’ own sake, through recognition of their intelligence and consciousness, and the implications of those. We are seeing them increasingly as other peoples, their own and different tribes, with their own perceptions and languages. A zoo mentality is giving way to a sanctuary mentality, a rehabilitation mentality. There is an urgency and impatience now for change. The change has already happened, and like the River Isen when the Ents break its dam in The Lord of the Rings, and release the river, consciousness comes rampaging through and cannot be re-contained. What has seen cannot be unseen, and what is known cannot be unknown.

All that remains is for reality to catch up with it. Rachel Clark, in a stunning essay in Psychology Today  calls Blackfish a bellwether presaging “more than cetacean freedom. It foreshadows an urgent global uprising to set things right everywhere. We are seeing an international frenzy for justice.”

The selkie story calls out to us for justice in territories of personal and natural concerns, in both cases about power. And that is why we need a new story. One that explodes the old model of grabbing and holding and stealing life and freedom just because one wants it. One that celebrates the sovereignty of other beings, human or non-human. One that is a ballad of justice.

Myths live in us, in response to us. So the new selkie story is this: that we trust whom we love. That we try to win their love so that through their own agency they choose to be with us. That we be brave enough to gamble our fear of loss. That we accept that just because we want to possess a being, no matter how badly we want to keep it, its right to be sovereign over its own life will always outweigh our desire to possess it. That freedom will always trump desire. That we are responsible for protecting that freedom in one another, that it is never ours to take, by any means.

We can write a new selkie story, to coexist with the old. The old will continue to exist as an instruction manual of what not to do, a sorrow, a caution. We can chant this new one by driftwood fires, and the seals in their wildness can spyhop to listen, dark eyes regarding us from the night ocean. Or they can ignore us altogether, as is their right. But one thing is sure: except for their own private and tribal reasons, seals should never be sorrowful.

As I am standing by the seal tank, a little girl next to me says to her mother, ‘What are they dreaming about in there?’ Her mother answers, ‘I don’t know; what do you think?’ ‘I think they are dreaming of being back in the ocean,’ the little girl says firmly.

The new selkie story is already being written. The new world has already begun.

Harbor seal, © Ralph Pace

Postscript: A song for pinnipedal people, seal and soul, clan and clade, Otariidae, Odobenidae, Phocidae, for all who have an ancestor who grabbed her sealskin and ran toward the waves. For women and men, and all other wild creatures:

Feist, ‘Sea Lion Woman’


  1. Neil Jordan did a very good job telling a modern selkie story in his movie "Ondine" (2010). It's all about choice and freedom, as you outline it.

  2. Marcos, yes! That movie is very dear to me: the performances, direction, music, all of it. The magic of it is more powerful than the final revelation/explanation of the plot can hold. I think she really was a selkie ;) Laura

  3. What a fascinating post, Laura. I've always loved the selkie legends - particularly strong in Scotland, of course - and the profound questions they raise.

  4. Lovely post! There is something so compelling about seals, I think because of their mix of almost-human and totally wild. When you watch them interacting you can so easily project human qualities onto them, and empathise with the joy they seem to get from moving so fluidly through the water. Do you think it's also part of our long-standing fascination with the sea? I agree, time for the selkie myth to get a new twist.

  5. I found this fascinating. I too am drawn to the sea, and seals, and to writing about the relationship between young people and the wild. I watched harbour seals in the Outer Hebrides( islands off the west coast of Scotland) as part of the research for my forthcoming novel 'Seal Island')

  6. Beautiful and thoughtful post, Laure. I really enjoyed this, as the original tale seems to ask such questions of the listener both about love and about pain and imprisonment and desertion. And the possibly hidden but not forgotten nature of a person. Thanks.

  7. Lovely post, thank you. When I wrote "Secret songs" I chose to re-run, with a different ending, one of the other silkie/selkie stories. the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry. For the purposes of my story it was the ideal expression of the borderline, shore-line, sea-margin world, reflecting the balance between sea and land, deaf and hearing, one country and another which my characters were experiencing. I hope that the story came to a new beginning rather than a sad ending!

    Jane Stemp
    author of Secret Songs (Hodder, 1997)

  8. Jane - is there any way I can get a copy of 'Secret Songs' from you? I love selkie stories.

    1. Philippa - sorry, I never saw this! I have now republished Secret Songs

  9. Laure - this is a beautiful , well-thought piece. Thank you.

  10. Bekki Shining Bearheart25 August 2020 at 12:17

    Thank you for putting words to so many of my own feelings!

    A friend shared this blog post with me- I moderate a facebook page on Ballads and recently posted some versions of the Great Selkie of Sule Skerry. I have for the last 40 years or so been collecting variants of the magical ballads Child collected, and this one is one of my favorites, though there are not many variants of the ballad. Personally I follow a shamanic path and have been taught Faery Doctoring as part of my studies, and a Selkie comes to me in my journeys. He has required me to write songs in exchange for the healings and other spirit work we do together, though in fact he assists me in the writing. The one I sing to honor him and his kin starts: "The Seal Folk are Calling, Calling, Calling/ the Seal Folk are Calling to their kin on the shore/ Come to us, bide with us, dancing, dancing/ Dancing under the sea." In my kenning of the old stories and songs, our work as humans is always to work in concert with nature and the spirit beings to be in balance and to bring balance to our relationship with them, acknowledging that there is no hierarchy, but that all beings are create equal. When we attempt power over nature and the spirit beings we get into deep trouble, and bad things happen.