There was a current belief that seals, under certain circumstances (or at will?), could assume human form. This they accomplished at their homes or chief haunts, such as distant rocks and breeding-places, and also where they basked in the sun. It would generally happen on definite days or nights in the year, at certain tides, and during certain kinds of weather. Many stories were told of seals coming ashore, divesting themselves of their skins, and then dancing, gamboling, and enjoying themselves in human form. On the approach of man, they rushed for their skins and ran to the sea. There are narratives also about naked seal-women captured by men, who, unobserved, had obtained possession of their skins; without these, the women were unable to return to the sea, and were doomed to remain on land until they could recover them. As seal-folk were very comely and well-proportioned, whoever saw them in human form was almost invariably enamoured of them. In certain accounts, seal-men are described as having had children by daughters of men, and men are said to have married seal-women. Several of these stories differ only in minor details, and relate how a man hid a seal-woman's skin, and compelled her to marry him. After having had a number of children, one day she discovered the skin when her husband was away (or one of her children told her where it was concealed), whereupon she deserted her home and children, and returned to the sea. Her husband went to the seashore and entreated her to return, but without avail. The husband, in one story, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.
The following story belongs to this type.
Once an unmarried man went to a place where the flat rocks on the shore were a haunt for seals. As he wanted to see the seals in their human form, he hid himself and waited until evening, when he saw a number of seals come ashore, throw off their seal coverings, and play and dance in human form. A pretty young woman disrobed near his hiding-place, and left her skin near by neatly folded up. He managed to seize the skin unobserved by any of the seal-people, and sat down on it. The woman danced with a young seal-man who, he thought, must be her lover. At daybreak a great clamor of gulls alarmed the seals, who ran for their skins and made for the sea. The young woman, unable to find her skin and return to the sea with her friends, began to cry bitterly. A single seal, no doubt the lover with whom she had danced, remained near the shore in the sea, waiting for her after all the others had disappeared. Soon the man came up and tried to comfort her, saying that she would be better off on the land, and in him would find a better lover than she could find in the sea. Seeing that he had possession of her skin, she begged him to give it back to her, offering to do anything for him in return. He refused, and went off carrying the skin. She followed him, and at last had to consent to remain with him as his wife. He kept her seal-skin in his trunk, and always concealed the key or carried it on his person. When he was absent, she often looked for the skin, but could never find it. Many years she lived with him, and bore a number of children. Often her lover, the lone seal, came to the shore, looking for her, and the woman was seen going there and talking with him. Some neighbors (or her children) reported this to her husband. One day the man went fishing, and forgot the key in his trunk. The woman (or one of her children) noticed this, and opened the trunk. There she found the skin; and when the man came home, his wife was gone. He went down to the shore, and found her in the water: with a seal at her side. She called to him, 'Good-by!' and told him to look well after their children. She also asked him not to kill any seals, because by doing so he might kill her, her seal-husband, or her seal-children. If he heeded not this request, he would have bad luck. After she had departed in seal-form with her companion, he saw her no more.
Stories about men making journeys across channels of the sea on the backs of seals were also current. Some of these from the west of Shetland relate how a party of seal-hunters, owing to a sudden storm, had to leave one of their number on the rocky reef where they had been clubbing seals. One of the seals, having only been stunned, came to consciousness again after his skin had been removed, and finding himself skinless, lamented his wretched state. His mother (or mate, according to one version), seeing the deserted hunter, offered him a passage across the sound on her back if he would promise to obtain the skin of her son. The man made hand-holds in her skin with his knife, and crossed on her back. He found the skin, and returned it to her for her son.
Offsprings of the seal-folk with human beings are just like other people, except that some of them may have their hands slightly bent in somewhat the same way as seals' flippers, and others may have rather large and hard webs of skin between their fingers (and toes?). According to some, the descendants of these unions usually have a darker complexion, and many of them have some defect of the skin, such as rough, dark, hard spots of varying size, on some part of their body (sometimes the neck and face). Persons descended from mermaids also usually had rough patches of skin — sometimes more or less completely covered with scales — on some part of the body. Transmitted through a number of generations, these characteristics did not appear in all individuals.
Selki-folk, it is believed, nearly always appeared in groups when they came ashore to take human form, while mar-folk and Finn-folk generally appeared singly. Some kind of bond was supposed to exist between sea-gulls, seal-people, and sea-people or mermaids, etc. Thus gulls watched over the welfare of the seals when they were ashore, and warned them of the approach of danger; and seals did the same for mermaids.
It was also believed that seals were fallen angels doomed to continue their existence in the sea. This belief, however, also refers to trolls and other supernatural beings. Mermen or mermaids and seal-people, as well as seal-people and Finn-people, are confused in the minds of some informants. Seals of the larger kinds, called "haf-fish," were credited with the power of doing people harm or bewitching them. In some cases they were Finn-men in seal-form.
From selch, variant of seal, + -ie.
- Teit, James A. (1918). "Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia." JAF 31:180-201, pp. 190-193.
This article incorporates text from Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia (1918) by James Teit, which is in the public domain.