Study notes: Investigating Sealskins, Selkies and Sea goddess folklore

There were certain guidelines that the Inuit were supposed to follow to make the spirits happy.
They had rituals for hunting and eating food to deal with the spirits that lived in the animals.
They had to pay a deep respect to the spirit of the animals that they hunted, so that the spirit reappeared in another animal that could sacrifice its life again. If they did not pay their respects to the spirit, the spirit would reappear as a demon.

Sedna, Goddess of the Sea

One of the most important spirits in Inuit culture was Sedna, the Goddess of the Sea.
She lived at the bottom of the ocean and controlled the seal, whales and other sea animals.
The belief was that if Inuit made her happy, she would continue to provide them with food
Inukshuks were large rock Cairns made from balancing rocks that were heaved to the surface by the frozen earth (permafrost)


Japanese emperor’s ascension ceremony involves a bed of sealskins and the royal myth recorded in the Kojiki includes the tale of the Hoori and Hoderi brothers (see The Myth of the Goddess of the Undersea World and the Tale of Empress Jingu’s Tale of Subjugation of Silla), where gifts of the sea vs. gifts of the land as well as a princess of the Undersea world, feature importantly. The sealskins in a chest, represent the Selkie’s sealskin which is symbolic and representative of the fisherman’s liaison and power over the sea goddess: see Selkie (Wikipedia);

Icelandic Folktale – For introduction see Selkies: Norse Mermaids. Viking Runes – Norse runes and symbols speak an important message for those who abide by the Viking Age heritage, values, and beliefs

The Seal’s Skin: Icelandic Folktale

Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.
In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea.
Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared.
She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:

Where have I to flee?
I’ve seven kids in the sea
And seven kids on dry land.


Selkie Folk: Orkney tales of the Finfolk

In the 17th century, Orkney saw a spate of sightings around Orkney of people referred to in the contemporary accounts as “Finn-men”.

These kayak-paddling visitors were seen in Orkney and Shetland on a number of occasions and possibly resulted in new elements being grafted onto the existing finfolk and selkie-folk mythology.

For example, one was seen off Eday in 1682, but rowed away quickly when the islanders tried to catch him. In 1684 another was sighted off Westray and a “Finn-man’s boat” was once housed in the Burray Kirk.

The paddlers were renowned for the speed of their vessels, and accounts of fruitless chases by the islanders were obviously the root of the traditions surrounding the finman and his unparalleled rowing ability. The kayak also accounts for folklore’s insistence that the finman’s magical boat travelled with no sail.

Mermaid solutions
The sea-going properties of the skin-covered craft also seem to offer clear answers to a number of other elements relating to finfolk, selkie-folk and mermaids.

The most obvious of these are the Orcadian accounts of mermaids, which insist that the mermaid’s tail was not fishlike but was pointed.

Being made from sealskin (or other animal skin), these kayaks would also lose buoyancy, as the skin got wetter. Sodden kayaks have to be pulled clear of the water regularly to dry out, hence the descriptions of mermaids with pointed or triangular tails sitting on skerries.

As their buoyancy decreased, the wet kayaks would also drop beneath the surface of the water – once again neatly explaining the mermaid sightings in which the sea-creature was viewed from the waist up travelling at speed through the water.

Seen from above, the underwater kayak’s form could also taken for a “tail” of sorts.

But perhaps the most interesting of all, is the idea of the kayakers removing their seal(skin) garments. Thus the sea-going creature becomes human.

The significance of the sealskin
But what of the selkie-folk? What do these kayakers have to do with the folktales surrounding Orkney’s seal-people?

The answer is simple. The sealskin.

Tradition dictates that the selkie-folk became human after removing their sealskins. Without this skin, the shape-shifters were unable to return to the sea.

Immediately we can see parallels in the accounts of the kayaking finfolk, with their all-encompassing skin garments. Just like the kayak, these garments would have grown waterlogged over time and required drying.

The documented sightings of naked “finfolk”, with their “skins” lying nearby undoubtedly lent much to the existing folklore.

The above account, from the Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, refers to the vessels of the “Laplanders” – boats which were constructed “with deer sinews, without nails and with withes of willow instead of knees.”

Like the vessels of the Finfolk, these boats were so light that no ship could overtake them in the water.

This account, written in the late 12th or early 13th century, shows that the skin-boats had made an impact on the mind of the Vikings. This alone provides a good link to the folklore of the finfolk, but around 400 years later there came an interesting twist in the development of the legends.

In the 17th century, Orkney saw a spate of sightings around Orkney of people referred to in the contemporary accounts as “Finn-men”.

These kayak-paddling visitors were seen in Orkney and Shetland on a number of occasions and possibly resulted in new elements being grafted onto the existing finfolk and selkie-folk mythology.

The Selkie Bride: A Scottish Tale

“Kind sir,” she said, choking back tears, “you have my sealskin. Kindly give it back, for I belong to the Selkies, and I cannot live under the sea without my skin.”
The fisherman could not stop staring. You see, he had fallen in love at first sight, and because he was a young man, and terribly headstrong, he thought he must keep her with him. He clutched the sealskin to his chest, pressing it to his pounding heart. 

In the Alaskan story of Sedna, for instance, a beautiful young woman is tricked into marriage with a man who is really a sea–bird in disguise; he takes her to live among the birds, where she’s cold and miserable. Sedna seizes an opportunity for escape when her father comes to visit her: she hides in his kayak and he paddles away with the bird in hot pursuit. The sea gods send a storm, angry with Sedna for breaking her marriage vows. Her father, in order to save his own life, casts the girl into the sea. As she clutches onto the kayak, her father stabs her fingers to loosen her hold. Three times he stabs her with his knife, and each time that her blood flows to the sea new creatures emerge from it: the very first seals, walruses and whales. At last Sedna sinks to the bottom of the ocean, the new creatures following after her — and there she’s lived ever since, joined by her father and her faithful dog. Men now pray to Sedna to send them whales, walruses, and seals to hunt. Bitter and capricious, nursing her sore fingers, sometimes she honors the hunters’ requests, and sometimes she takes their lives from them, just as the sea gods once took hers.”

Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms in Folklore and Fantasy
by Terri Windling
The legend in my husband’s family is that the McPhies were originally descended from selkies. As a storyteller and a McPhie, I have long been intrigued by this legend. I have read many, many versions of selkie tales and have given much thought of how I could tell this story myself. Finally, I wrote a version that felt true to me, and I first told it in a lecture to a university storytelling class a couple of years ago, and then in a concert for adults at the same university. It has been a very personally satisfying process. I really enjoy telling this tale.
So What Is A Selkie? by Susan MacInnes

“All around the cold Northern coastlines, folktales are told about Selkies; they are a merfolk who take the shape of a seal in the water but who can shed their seal skins on land and can pass for human, often with tragic consequences.

Selkie stories date from old times and are recounted around the coast of Britain and Eire, but especially in the North of Scotland and the Orkneys, Shetlands and Hebrides. They are also told in the Faroes, Iceland, Siberia and by tribes in the Northwest of America.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an eminent Jungian psychologist and storyteller, shares her Inuit version called ‘Sealskin Soulskin’ in her book, ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’. She says that, “This tale is told across the world, for it is an archetype, a universal knowing about the issue of soul. Sometimes fairy tales and folktales erupt from a sense of place, from soulful places in particular… The story tells about where we truly come from, what we are made of, and how we must all, on a regular basis, use our instincts and find our way back home.” (p.57, ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’)

The female Selkie is beautiful and gentle, often choosing to shed her sealskin to dance upon silver sand in the moonlight. Many stories revolve around how human men use this opportunity to steal a sealskin and force the land-stranded Selkie to marry them. The accidental discovery many years later of her stolen sealskin, either by the Selkie or her part-human child, gives her the freedom she craves and the ability to return to her people and the sea, her natural environment… but there is a heart-breaking price, for she has to leave her beloved child on the land – without a sealskin, they cannot follow her into her world.

The male Selkie is thought to drown people and raise storms to sink ships in retribution for seals being killed. A darker story of how they sometimes lure beautiful, unwary young women to their deaths in the cold depths of the sea is also told.

There is something soulful, wistful about a seal’s almost human, intelligent eyes which makes it very easy to to believe in Selkies. The dark knowing depths of their eyes reach into some ageless depth of our emotions.”


Sealskins are associated with sea goddess

Homer, the Odyssey 

Now, just in front of Egypt there’s an island,
right in the crashing sea—it’s called Pharos—
as far off shore as a hollow ship can sail
in one whole day, when a fine stiff breeze
blows up behind her. There’s a harbour there
with excellent moorage, and from that spot
men launch well-balanced ships into the sea,
once they have taken on supplies of water.
For twenty days the gods detained me there. 480 [360]
Not once was there a favourable wind,
the sort of offshore breeze which makes men’s ships
race out across the broad back of the sea.
Then my provisions would have all been spent,
together with the spirit in my crew,
if a goddess had not felt pity for me
and rescued us—the goddess Eidothea,
daughter of the Old Man of the Sea,
great Proteus. For I had moved her heart,
more so than other men. When she met me, 490
I was by myself, for I’d wandered off,
away from my companions, who’d gone out,
as they always did, to scour the island,
fishing with bent hooks, their stomachs cramped
from hunger. She came up close to me and said: [370]

‘Stranger, are you a slow-witted idiot,
or are you happy just to let things go
and find delight in your own suffering?
You’ve been stranded so long on this island,
unable to discover any sign of help, 500
while your companions’ spirits waste away.’

“That’s what she said. So then I answered her:

‘Whoever you may be among the gods,
I’ll tell you I have not been pent up here
with my consent. Something must have happened
to make me act against immortal gods,
who occupy wide heaven. But tell me this—
for gods know all things—which immortal one
keeps my feet shackled here and blocks my way? [380]
Tell me how I find my way back home, 510
how I sail across the fish-filled seas.’

“I finished speaking. The lovely goddess
immediately gave me her answer:

‘All right, stranger, I’ll be truthful with you.
The Old Man of the Sea comes here from Egypt,
I mean infallible, eternal Proteus,
a god who knows the depths of every sea,
Poseidon’s servant and, so people say,
my father, too, the one who sired me.
Now, if somehow you could set an ambush 520
and catch hold of him, he’d show you your way.
He’d chart the course for your return and map
how you could sail across the fish-filled seas. [390]
And, Zeus-fostered man, if you were willing,
he’d tell you all the good and evil things
which have been taking place in your own house
while you’ve been travelling away from home
on such a long and arduous journey.’

“When she’d told me this, I replied and said:

‘Could you yourself produce a strategy 530
to ambush this divine old man, in case
he sees me first and, knowing all my plans,
escapes me. It’s difficult for mortal men
to overcome a god.’

“Once I’d said this,
the lovely goddess answered right away:

‘Stranger, I’ll be frank—tell you the truth
in everything. When the sun has made its way [400]
up into the middle of the heavens,
that infallible Old Man of the Sea
emerges from the brine, where he’s concealed 540
by dark waves stirred up by the West Wind’s breath.
Once he gets here, he lies down to rest
in these hollow caves, and around him sleeps
a herd of seals—they are the offspring
of the lovely daughter of the sea and swim up
out of the grey water. Their breath gives off
the sharp salt smell of the deep sea. At daybreak,
I’ll take you there and organize an ambush.
You must carefully select three comrades,
the best men in those well-decked ships of yours. 550
Now I’ll describe for you all the sly tricks [410]
that old man has. First, he’ll inspect the seals.
He’ll count them, numbering them off by fives.
Once he’s looked them over, he’ll lie down
in their midst, like a shepherd with his sheep.
As soon as you see him stretched out to sleep,
then you must use all your strength and courage
to hold him there for all his desperate moves,
as he struggles to escape. For he’ll attempt
to change himself into all sorts of shapes 560
of everything that crawls over the earth,
or into water or a sacred flame.
You must not flinch—keep up your grip on him—
make it even tighter. And finally,
when he begins to speak and questions you [420]
in the same shape you saw him go to sleep,
then, warrior king, you can relax your grip
and let the old man go. Ask him which god
is angry at you and how you’ll get back,
charting a course across the fish-filled seas.’ 570

“Saying this, she plunged into the crashing sea.
I went to where my ships were on the beach—
my dark heart thinking, as I walked, of many things.
Once I’d reached the ships along the shore,
we prepared and ate our evening meal.
When immortal night arrived, we lay down [430]
beside the breaking surf. Then, as the streaks
of rose-fingered early Dawn appeared,
I walked along the shores of that wide sea
praying in earnest to the gods. Then I took 580
three comrades, the ones I trusted most
in any enterprise. That sea goddess,
who’d plunged into the bosom of the sea,
brought up four seal skins from the ocean depths,
each one freshly skinned, then set up the plot
against her father. She scooped out in the sand
some pits to hide in, and then waited there.
Once we’d come up really close beside her,
she made us lie down in a row and threw [440]
a seal skin over each of us. That ambush 590
would have been too horrible to bear,
for the atrocious stench of sea-born seals
was dreadful. Who would let himself lie down
with creatures from the sea? But Eidothea
personally helped us out by thinking up
a useful remedy—she got ambrosia,
sweet-smelling oil of the immortal gods,
and put it under each man’s nose. That killed
the foul stink coming from those animals.
With patient hearts we waited there all morning. 600
Crowds of seals emerged and then lay down
in rows along the seashore. At noon,
the old man came up out of the water, [450]
discovered the plump seals, looked at each one,
and made his count, beginning first with us,
whom he included with the animals.

The website The Origin of the Selkie Folk( writes on the evolution of the selkie folk idea further from its source and over the ages:

“Selkie and Fin — one and the same?
Over the years, and probably because of the way in which the tales were recorded, the Finfolk and selkie-folk in Orkney came to be regarded as two distinct supernatural races.

They practically became polar opposites — the selkie-folk said to be beautiful and reasonably benign, while the Finfolk were dark, malevolent creatures.

But when we look further north, to the folklore of Shetland, we find no distinction between the two. The ability to shapeshift into seal form, for example, was simply one of the many magical powers attributed to the Finfolk.

This fact led Orkney’s most respected folklorist and antiquarian, Walter Traill Dennison, to exclaim in the 19th century:

“Writers on the subject, trusting to incorrect versions of old stories, have often confounded mermaids and seals together, and have treated the two as identical. (Samuel) Hibbert in his valuable work on Shetland has fallen into this error, and has been followed by most others whose writings on the subject I have seen.”

Quoting that his “old informants regarded the selkie-folk as a wholly different race of beings from the Finfolk”, Dennison’s interpretation of Orkney folklore has since become cast in stone.

However, what if these Shetland tales were not actually as wrong as Dennison believed, but were actually closer to the original tales — a purer strain of lore.

… and looking back to some of the fragments of Orkney’s earlier, and lesser-known, selkie folktales, we can catch glimpses of their original darker, malicious nature.

It is hard to say whether the fragmentation into selkie-folk and Finfolk tales took place over a long period of time, or was simply the result of interpretation and “categorisation” of later folklorists such as Dennison.

However, either through variations in telling, or shifts in emphasis, the original shapeshifting aspect of the Finfolk became detached, gradually developing until the islands were left with a distinct race — the selkie-folk.

In the same way, it is also possible that these traditions merged with an existing element of Celtic myth that would explain the existence of the motif down the west coast of Scotland and into Ireland.

So, now we have seen that the selkie-folk and the Finfolk were once one and the same, we need to investigate the roots of the Finfolk mythology to understand the development of the legends.”

Elsewhere on the Orkney Jar website, the origin of the Selkies and Finfolk is traced to the “finnar” folk who are found north of Norway and who are known as the Saami people(incidentally who are also known as dvargers, i.e. The original dwarfs), “The Root of the Finfolk Myth” (

“The root of the Finfolk myth

So, if the Finfolk and the selkie-folk were once one and the same, where did these tales originate?

For the answer, we need look to the north of Norway.

Norway was, and still is, home to two distinctly different people – the Norwegians, and the indigenous inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia, the Saami.

Referred to in the Old Norse sources as “finnar”, the Saami were regarded as great sorcerers with the power to control the weather, travel great distances in magical trances and shapeshift – usually into the form of a sea animal or bear.

The Saami led a nomadic life, with a completely different culture and society to that of their Norwegian neighbours.

They lived primarily in the far north of Norway in a territory known as “Finnmark”. The Finnmark of ancient times was much greater than the current area, with records showing that the Saami were also found in areas of southern and eastern Norway.

Although the two peoples may have influenced various aspects of each other’s religion and culture, there remained distinct differences.

After the Norwegians adopted Christianity, for example, the Saami remained pagan – a fact that no doubt enhanced their reputations as heathen sorcerers.

Living apart from the Norwegian people, the “otherworldliness” of the Saami can also be seen from Old Norse literature.

Here they are sometimes referred to as jotnar (giants) and dvergar (dwarfs) – descriptive terms unlikely to refer to their size or stature, but instead firmly placing them in a realm of myth, magic and the supernatural.

The Saami had a shamanistic “religion”, something that undoubtedly served as the basis for the later Norse traditions that the “Finnar” were renowned magic workers. Their powers of healing and prophecy, control over the weather and the ability to shapeshift are all magical abilities that are also found clearly attributed to the Finfolk and selkie-folk in Orkney and Shetland folklore.

In Norway, the Saami’s reputation was such that there were laws forbidding Christians from having any contact with the “Finnar” or going to them seeking knowledge of the future or healing.

One of the oldest accounts relating to the Saami culture was written in Sweden after the 30 Years War. During this conflict, we learn, that the Swedes were accused of using Saami witchcraft.

I believe that the traditions surrounding the “Norway Finns” – as they later became known in Orcadian tradition – travelled with the Norsemen into Orkney and Shetland.

There it took root and gave birth to the folklore of the Finfolk.”

As it turns out, genetic evidence is the smoking gun and the close relationship between Orkney, and Scandinavia, as well as iceland is borne out by a 2001 DNA study on mtDNA and the islands of the North Atlantic:

“… the Icelanders have the lowest proportion of lineages shared exclusively with Gaels, and the islanders of Skye have the highest. More surprising is the observation that the islanders of Skye and Orkney share a greater proportion of their lineages with Scandinavians than do the Icelanders. However, if only lineages shared exclusively with either of the two source populations are examined, Iceland (0.38) and Orkney (0.35) are revealed as having the closest relationship to Scandinavia…”

2 thoughts on “Study notes: Investigating Sealskins, Selkies and Sea goddess folklore

  1. sam says:

    i learnt a lot from the piece of info and i found out most tribes from the sea parts of the world tend to have a strong connection with the seas,also posses a unique sense of spirituality.

  2. […] Study notes: Investigating Sealskins, Selkies and Sea goddess folklore […]

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