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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Selkie Myth: Guest Post by Kristin Gleeson

The Selkie. The name conjures up romantic images, even if you’re not quite sure what they are--seals that come ashore and take on human form at midsummer’s eve.  You can almost believe it when you look at their baleful eyes with their long lashes that look so human.  And their mournful cries that convey such sadness.  Is it a myth?  Some people, especially in times past would have said, ‘not so.’ 

The myths of the selkie are usually found among people who inhabit the coastal waters of Scotland, Ireland and even far flung areas where the Saami (Laplanders) and the Inuit live.  One of the theories used to explain their existence is that selkies are the souls of dead fishermen and other people lost at sea. Another theory is that they are fallen angels, doomed to live out their days as animals until judgement comes; or that they are humans forced to take animal form for some grave misconduct. 

The various myths that feature selkies show them as either men or women who come ashore either Midsummer’s Eve, “every ninth night,” or “every seventh stream.”  I use both types of selkies in my novel, Selkie Dreams.  A myth of a woman selkie tells of a fisherman who spies a selkie woman on the shore and compels her to go with him after he steals and hides her seal skin.  She bears him a child, but eventually she finds her seal skin and she returns to the sea, leaving her child behind with the promise she will come when the child calls. 

Yer mam left but she had no choice, so,” Cook would tell me as she watched Polly, the kitchen maid, chop the vegetables, or Annie the house maid collect the tea tray.  “She went back to the sea, back to her seal folk.  They live ashore for a brief spell, following human ways, until after a while the pull from the sea comes over them, strong and forceful like.  It’s their true folk, the selkies, who call them home, so it is.” 
Excerpt from Selkie Dreams.

A male selkie myth is also a running theme in my novel and comes from the song The Silkie of Sule Skerrie, the song that frames the novel.  It tells the story of a selkie man who comes ashore and seeks out a lonely woman.  After spending only one night together the man departs and the woman spends her days searching the shoreline awaiting his return.  Eventually, after she gives birth to a son, the man appears and gives her a gold chain for the son.  Years later, when the son is seven years old, the selkie comes again to claim him.  Though she mourns her son and lover, she marries a hunter who, not long after their marriage, shoots two seals, one with a gold chain around its neck.  

With all the many versions of the myth, each contains the unmistakeable theme of transformation and the idea of humanity’s unbreakable link with the sea.  That idea underpins the novel as well as the song. 

It wasn’t just the song and the myth that influenced the novel.  Though it starts out in Ireland, in the north, the main character, Máire travels to Alaska, another place that seals inhabit, to teach the Tlingit.   I was inspired to select that area and the Tlingit to set the novel from my work with the Tlingit when I was an administrator at an historical society.  A Tlingit elder phoned me and asked for help trying to prove that Tlingits inhabited a section of land in Alaska when the U.S. government appropriated it for their own uses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  He also wanted information about some of the land assigned to Presbyterian missions that had fallen into disuse.  It seemed incredible since the archives contained so many reports and letters from that area stating the contrary.

Author Kristin Gleeson
While I worked to assist the Tlingit elder and his clan I learned much about the Tlingit view of the effects of settlement and missionary efforts and realized how much that view was lacking from books and official records.  I was fascinated.  Some of it was heartbreaking.  Children were often ripped from their families and sent off to boarding schools.  When the children returned to their families sometimes they couldn’t even communicate with their families because they forgot the language.  It was clear that the missionaries, though often well intentioned, were driven by the idea that they were the superior culture and race and treated the native people for the most part as barbarians in need of civilizing. I’m not saying the Tlingits were peace loving angels, but their culture at that time period I felt need to be seen in context.  What better way than through a novel?  And like my main character, Máire, the Tlingit have myths that influenced their lives and how they saw the world, it seemed a good match. Then add American mission views and racial myths and there is much to make for an exciting story. 

Kristin Gleeson

Selkie Dreams will be published June 7, 2012, by Knox Robinson Publishing $23.99 hardback and  $5.99 ebook and will also be available from Amazon, Book Depository, the publisher’s website and wherever fine books are sold.

Purchase links: hardcover

Check this blog on Thursday for a review of Selkie Dreams!