Thursday, February 1, 2024



Selkie is a type of mythological creature that removes or wears its seal skin to shapeshift between seal & human forms. The source of this specific term  “selkie” is the Scots word for "seal." People pronounce the term as silkies, silkies, or selchies. These mythological creatures are even called selkie folk, which means 'seal folk.' They are especially associated with the Northern Isles of Scotland where Selkies are used to live as seals in the sea. But they shed their skins to turn themselves into a human on land. Let's dig into the article to learn more about selkie.

What is a Selkie?

Selkie is basically the Scots name for a seal. This mythical creature can become a human by removing its skin. According to some stories, when the Selkies transformed themselves into humans, they used to have webbed hands and feet. Most people believe that they have beautiful brown eyes and hair. People can find stories about selkie throughout Northwest Europe. But selkies are associated especially with Scotland.

Dual Nature Of Selkies:

They have a dual nature. For instance, while they can help humans and are friendly to them, they can be dangerous. When they form the shape of a human, they look seductive and attractive. In many stories, you can see that they have romantic or sexual relationships with people that sometimes results in children.

If someone hides or steals their seal skin, they plan to take revenge on them. In order to do so, they can even do different tricks, like marrying humans.  In such cases, marriages are not happy. The reason is that they always long for the sea. Once they find their skins, they will escape.

These mythological creatures have counterparts in several other cultures like Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, & Manx. People can sometimes confuse them with finfolk, mermaid, or seal-like creatures. However, Selkies have inspired a lot of works of art, literature, music, & film.

Shapeshifting Of Selkies:

Shapeshifting indicates their transformation into humans when they shed their seal coats. But Shapeshifting is draining for many non-magical Selkie. Several selkies are able to transform themselves and get the human form once every seven years. Some of them know how to transform the body more often through magic.

Sometimes, Selkies remain in human form for more than a day. If it happens, then they might suffer, grow ill, and even die. So, it is essential for them to have their seal coat to turn back into a seal. In case the coat is stolen or lost, they get trapped in human form. As a result, they can't return to the sea.

Appearance Of Selkies:

They can't be visually distinguished from the normal seals when they are in their natural form. Similarly, when they transform their body into humans, no one can identify them as a selkie.

Food Habits Of Selkies:

They like to eat fish, squid, shrimp, mollusks, crustaceans, & other seafood. When they are in human form, they can eat “human” foods. But seafood is always their favorite.

In Magical Society:

They have the capability of interacting with magical society rather frequently. Usually, they do it out of curiosity and also when they wish to have company. They know very well that there are risks if they come out from their aquatic home. Selkies could be trapped if their seal skins are stolen.  After living life and enjoying days on land, they start to feel uncomfortable. They want to return to the sea as they have been away from the sea for a long time. Sometimes, when their seal skins are stolen, they need to live a long time on land. As a result, they could even have children. But once they find their seal coats, they will return to the sea. It's not out of any apathy for their family that they made. Instead, due to the deep calling to return to their aquatic home and to turn themselves into their natural form, they are unable to ignore it, once they find their seal skins.

Usually, they are playful and very kind. Also, they are not harmful to humankind. But in order to take revenge on those who kill other Selkies, they sometimes can pose a threat. Generally, seal hunters can kill selkies. 

Usually, their kids are Selkies themselves or humans. They are seen with a few features that seals have. For instance, they have webbed skin between their fingers & toes. Children who get the form of Selkies often join with their selkie parents to their aquatic home when the selkie returns, generally after seven years because of how long the selkie parent needs to recharge the shapeshifting ability. The selkie parents often leave coins behind to those who raise their children (stuck in human form) on land.

Scottish Legend:

You should know that a lot of folk stories on Selkie are collected  from the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland).

In Orkney lore, selkie refers to a variety of seals who have greater size compared to the grey seal and can only transform their body into humans, and they are known as "selkie folk". This kind of large seals are seen on the islands, including:

  • the Greenland seal called the Harp Seal, and
  • the crested seal called the hooded seal.

In Shetland tradition, you can find some similar things are stated that say Mermaids and mermen like it to assume the shape of larger seals, and it is called Haaf-fish.

  • Selkie Wife And Human Lover:

There is a folk tale of a man who has stolen the skin of a female selkie. Then, he found her naked on the seashore. Later, to become his wife, he compels her. But the wife waits for many days in captivity and is longing for the sea, her actual home. She often gazes longingly at the ocean. Although she has several kids with the man she married, after getting her skin back, she will return to the ocean and abandon her children.

Her one kid even discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. She also had a husband of her kind, which is revealed sometimes. However, in some children's story versions, it is said that the selkie goes to her family on land once every year. Again, in a version, it is stated that no one in the family saw the selkie wife again in human form. However, the children would witness a large seal coming near them to greet them plaintively.

 Male Selkies are described as handsome when they transform themselves into human form. They also come with great seductive power over human women who have a lot of dissatisfaction in their lives, like married women who often wait for their fishermen husbands. There was a rumour in a popular tattletale version about a certain "Ursilla" of Orkney, where it was mentioned that she used to shed seven tears into the ocean in order to contact her male selkie.

  • Binding Rules And Sinful Origin:

According to the legends, selkies were able to turn into humans very often whenever the conditions of the tides were suitable. However, oral storytellers did not agree as to the time interval.

 According to Ursilla's rumour, the male selkie whom she contacted came to see her at the "seventh stream" or spring tide. Whereas in the ballad The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, it is mentioned that the seal-husband promises to come back in seven years.

As per a version, selkie was able to assume human form once in seven years. The reason is that their bodies house condemned souls. A notion says that they are those humans who have committed sinful wrongdoing or fallen angels.


People from the Scottish Isles would kill seals to use their blubber and skin. During that time, people used to believe that a seal’s death because of killing might result in misfortune for the perpetrator.

There was a story of crofters who came with their sheep to graze upon holms within the Orkney Islands. In the month of summer, a person placed his seven sheep on the largest holm. But when he was returning home from grazing sheep, he killed a seal. At night, all of his sheep disappeared. However, the sheep of other crofters didn't disappear as they had not killed a seal. 

How Did Folklore Help Archeologists?

 Icelandic folk-tales:

Jón Árnason published a folk-tale called "Selshamurinn" that can provide an Icelandic analogue of the selkie folk story. In this story, you get to know how a man from Mýrdalur forced a woman who has transformed from seal to marry him after he took possession of her seal coat. This woman finds the key to the chest in her husband's regular clothes while he is getting ready for a Christmas outing. Later, the seal woman joined her male seal.

Jón Guðmundsson recorded another story called The Learned in 1641. As per her reports, these seal folk were denoted as sea-dwelling elves. The tale is about a man who comes towards a cave by the ocean where elves are dancing. All of the elves kept their seal skins in a line near the cave. Once they see the man, they rush to get their skins and then return to the sea. But he stole the smallest of the skins. As a result, the skin's owner attempts to retrieve her skin from him. But he took the hold of the young elf and took her to his home to make her wife. For two years, they were together and had two kids— a boy and a girl. The elf didn't have any affection or love for her land husband. During that time, the seal husband of that woman swims by the couple's home along the shore. After finding her skin, she escaped and was never seen again.

Irish folklore:

Hence, the mermaid, which is known as merrow in Hiberno-English, is called a seal-woman. In a story in Tralee, it was said that the Lee family was descended from a man who married a mermaid. However, she later runs away to join her seal husband, which suggests that she is like a seal-folk kind.

Selkies In Scottish Folklore:

In Celtic and Norse mythology, the most famous folktales involve selkies. Mythology says that they shed their skills to transform themselves into humans from seals. When you hear the selkie stories, you get to know about the passionate relationships between humans &  these creatures. But usually, such tales have unhappy endings and serve as cautionary tales.

Although there are many variations of selkie tales that we find throughout Scotland, the common element is that they need to cast off their seal coats for shapeshifting. These magical skins provide them the power to go back to their seal form and return to their aquatic home. In case their seal skins were stolen, the species continued to hold their human form until seal skin was discovered.

Selkie Children:

According to several versions of the selkie myth, the selkie kids are born with specific physical characteristics. Because of these, the Selkie children become different from normal kids.

In The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland, as per the story from Ernest Marwick, a woman has given birth to a son who has a seal's face after she married and loved a selkie man. Marwick mentioned that there was a group of selkie descendants who had greenish, white colored skin and they had cracks ( which exuded a fishy odor) in a few places on their bodies.

Modern Treatments:

George Mackay Brown, a Scottish poet, wrote the story's modern prose version. It is known as "Sealskin".


In this article, we have discussed almost every detail about selkie. Along with elaborating on their characteristics, appearance, food preferences, we have discussed their nature, behavior and so on. For further queries, do ask us via comments.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the myth of the Selkie?

They are mainly associated with the Northern Isles of Scotland. Selkies lived as seals in the ocean, but to turn themselves into humans, they shed their skin.

  • Are selkies only female?

Selkie species also have male members in mythology. Usually, we know them as mermaids with seal attributes instead of fish. Besides, they can shed their skin to behave as humans on land. They have both males & females of their kind.

  •   What does the Selkie symbolize?

Selkies are the symbol of their calm & bountiful temperament, who save the lives of fishermen or kids who have fallen into the ocean.