Akron Irish: Selkie Selfie
by Lisa O’Rourke
“Hey, I am thinking about writing about Selkies this month, you know with summer ending and all?” “Yeah, sounds good. Make sure that you tell them not to be backin’ up around the Cliffs of Moher, that is a dangerous place for a selfie.”
This silly story is courtesy of a certain pair of eejits, but I had to include it, because not even my seaside loving Irish husband thinks about Selkies, ever. Maybe that is why one of the most pervasive Irish myths swims in relative obscurity in mythical folklore. I’m not sure what to say if you don’t know what a selfie is, but ignorance of the Selkie can be forgiven.
Sailors and the Celts are familiar with a type of mermaid that is part human and part fish. OK, the Selkie is not really a fish, but human and seal, and the parts are not visible at the same time, unlike the mermaid, who is usually half and half.
The Selkies’ appearance is one or the other, human or seal. They are humans who possess a removable seal coat. At some point in their lives, they decide to live on shore with a human family. That could make them seem more like capricious, swimmy humans. Only when they are in their human guise and living on land, they feel the call of the sea incessantly. That call compels them to put their seal coat back on and return to their ocean life.
In the stories that I have heard, the Selkie is female, but they can be both. I need to read more because whatever sex, they are very attractive. Honestly, they would have to be attractive to be that complicated.
The object of their desires is often a sad, tragic person who lives in a small, sea-side town; it’s just about a Hallmark movie. They live and love with their selected human until the call of the sea beckons to them and they find their lost seal skin. I may not have mentioned that the human love object always finds and hides the Selkie’s seal skin to try to eternally capture their beloved. It never works, of course. The lure of the underwater kingdom is always better than whatever is going on up here.
This one-way love affair can pay off though. If this mortal, residing near the sea, should ever find themselves in danger, in a stormy sea with no way out, help is on the way. Magically, the Selkie comes to the rescue.
It turns out that they have been watching out for our love-struck protagonist and are ready to save the day. Kindness is repaid; the Selkie knows that he only stole her seal coat because she is so wonderful.
That is the basic Selkie story format. There are stories where the genders are flipped, but the idea remains the same.
It did until the Selkie story somehow went really far south. Instead of being doe-eyed sailor fans, they morphed into a comic book femme fatale. There are other depictions which show the Selkie as dangerous.
However, based on prior adaptations, this idea seems a bit against the Selkie code. One disclaimer here, the standard Selkie can be dangerous if you are a threat to their loved ones, that is kind of fairy tale ethics. I think that those other Selkie depictions come from authors who are not invested in myth nuance and who have decided to morph the characteristics together for their own purposes.
The Undine Legend, The Kelpies
The Undine is more of what we think of as the standard mermaids. The Undine can range from beautiful fish people to something a little slimier and serpenty. They also have stories about living on the land.
Then there are the Kelpies. Kelpies are a kind of sea horse. They are more of the trickster types that you don’t want to encounter at sea. A cynic, looking at these myths, would deduce very quickly that these stories could be figments of a water-crazed person, a symptom of a person too long at sea. And they might be correct. The experience of being at sea itself could be what drove the ancient storytellers to create their legends and what informed their particular vision.
The Secret of Roan Inish, Ondine
Still, it is interesting to think what drives the modern interpretations of the Selkie myth. There have been several fairly recent Irish movies made on the Selkie theme: The Secret of Roan Inish, and Ondine. They are both variations on the standard boy meets seal-girl, loves seal-girl and loses seal-girl format.
Modern criticisms state that these stories may be about the lack of control in relationships. That may be true. So then, what about the fanged, seductive, dangerous sea monsters? What are those people thinking?
Maybe, Selkies are selfies after all. The qualities that we imbue in our myth certainly have more to do with our perceptions that what is really there. They are myths, after all. In some way, this bittersweet story is evocative of the end of summer. You knew it couldn’t last and still, you wouldn’t change a thing. But darn.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at email@example.com.
Please send any Akron events to my email!