In the minds of some people, Finn-folk were large seals that took on human form, rather than men (or Finns) who could transform themselves into seals; while the small seals were the real seal or selki-folk. It seems, however that the great majority of people hold the reverse to be true; i.e., that the Finn-folk were real people who had the power of assuming seal-form.
Many stories were known about these Finns, who were great magicians and wizards, who could make themselves visible or invisible as they chose, or transform themselves into seals, particularly the large varieties called "haaf or haf-fish". The seal-form was assumed by these people at will, especially when they wanted to go fishing, to travel rapidly from island to island, or to journey to and fro from Norway and elsewhere.
Some claim that each Finn possessed a seal-skin garment, covering, or envelope wherewith he clothed or enclosed himself when he went into the sea. If he lost this skin, he could no longer go into the water. Stories were told of Finns having journeyed to or from Norway in only a few hours, and of long journeys between islands occupying only a few minutes. While these journeys were made in seal-form, it seems that Finns could also travel rapidly in boats, for it is stated that in rowing these were skin boats; and the Shetland and Orkney traditions of Finn-people casting off their skins on coming ashore, it is thought, they advanced nine miles at a stroke. According to Spence,1 they were the only people who could ride the njogel or water-horse, and they sometimes utilized him in their rapid movements.
The Finn-folk were secretive, wise, and gifted with magical powers. They understood the languages of birds and animals; and, besides enjoying the power of assuming seal-form, they (or at least some of them) could also transform themselves into porpoises, ravens, dogs, beetles, etc. These powers, however, were also ascribed to some wizards and witches who were not Finns. The Finn-folk could to a great extent control the weather, making it fine or stormy as they wished: therefore they were good weather-prophets. They also knew the future, and could foretell calamities,—what was to happen to people, animals, boats or ships, when people were to die or be sick, and so forth. They were acquainted with all kinds of charms to ward off trouble, obtain good luck, prevent sickness, cure diseases of men and cattle, bring about the recovery of cattle that had been "elf-shot" (i.e., bewitched or hurt by fairies or elves), and drive away trous or trolls (fairies) or elfs (elves), etc., or counteract their evil deeds. They could find objects lost in the ocean or on land, and indicate where stolen goods were. Payment was often offered them for services rendered in some of these matters Acknowledged as lucky fishermen, they could catch fish whenever they wanted, as they could tell where and how many fish were to be caught. On the whole, it seems that they seldom used their powers to do people harm, although some have been known to cause storms which overturned boats. Partly on account of a belief that they were not exactly human, but were in some way related to seals, they — like wizards and witches — were feared, and to some extent shunned, or at least looked upon with suspicion.
Some Finn-folk were well known as such, because of their open practice of magic. They, moreover, never tried to deny their identity. Others were known to be Finns only on account of certain peculiarities, physical or other, such as their rather small stature, dark complexion, odd appearance, and the blemishes of their skin resembling that of the descendants of selki-folk.
All these peculiarities do not seem to have prevented intermarriage between them and other people. Some Finn-folk, moreover, were so much like other people in physique and behavior, that they lived all their lives among them without betraying their identity. Some stories relate the harpooning, shooting, or wounding of Finn-folk by men who had mistaken them for large seals, the external appearance of which they had temporarily assumed. The true character and race of certain men hitherto quite unsuspected of being Finns have thus been discovered. An example of such a story is as follows: "Somewhere in the east of Shetland, a man came upon a large seal lying asleep among some rocks on a beach, and stabbed him with his tolli ("large knife"). The seal managed to get away to the sea with the knife sticking in him. When at Bergen (or some other part in the west of Norway) some time afterwards, this man called on an old friend there whom he had known well for years. In the course of conversation, the old man inquired as to whether he had lost a knife at such a date and place. Answering in the affirmative, the Shetlander then related how the seal had escaped with it. The old man then showed his visitor a knife, which was at once recognized as the one he had lost, with the remark, 'It would not have been so bad if you had not twisted the knife when you put it in.' It was thus made clear that the old man was a Finn who had been stabbed while he was disguised as a seal."
In another story a man wounded a large seal, which succeeded in escaping. Shortly afterwards it was discovered that a man living in a neighboring district had been wounded in some mysterious way in the very part of the body where the seal had been hit. The wounded man was thus discovered to be a Finn. For this reason some men had an aversion to killing the large seals or haf-fish, for fear that they might kill some Finn in seal-form.
In stories about men hunting large seals with guns, it is said that each time a certain seal was aimed at, the gun missed fire; this was considered a sure sign that a Finn in seal guise had by his magic prevented the gun from going off; no further attempt was then made to shoot at him. It was said to be very unlucky to shoot or wound a Finn in disguise.
- Spence, J. (1899). Shetland Folk-lore. Lerwick: Johnson & Greig, pp. 20 ff.
- Teit, James A. (1918). "Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia." JAF 31:180-201, pp. 193-196.