Monday, 19 December 2011

Song of the Sealmaid

My apologies, dear reader, for not posting in a very long time - the seasons shift, time passes and so too do my daily opportunities to post anything meaningful or worthwhile for your enjoyment.

However, suffice it to say I was extremely pleased to hear that my Flash Fiction piece 'Tideline'was chosen to win the Hallowe'en Short Story competition. You can read the piece here!

I have long been fascinated by the notion of shapeshifting, and particularly our own Scottish mer-folk, known as Selkies.  It was to these mysterious people that my mind travelled when I read the theme for the competition: water.  My great friend and artist, Jennie Cooper drew the most deeply evocative image of a Selkie I have yet seen and it was this image I had in my mind's eye for my sealmaid.

Bealtinne Eve by Jennie Cooper
So it was with a great sense of synchronicity that I have recently encountered this Icelandic folk tale about  a Selkie:

The Seal's Skin

There was once some man from Myrdalur in Eastern Iceland who went walking among the rocks by the sad one morning before anyone else was up. He came to the mouth of a cave and inside the cave he could hear merriment and dancing, but outside he saw a great many seal skins.  he took one skin with him and carried it home and locked it away in a chest. Later in the day he went back to the mouth of the cave: there was a young and lovely woman sitting there, and she was stark naked and weeping bitterly.  This was the seal whose skin it was and the man had taken. He gave the girl some clothes, comforted her and took her home with him. She grew very fond of him but did not get on so well with other people. Often she would sit alone and stare out to sea.
After some while the man married her and they got on well together and had several children. As for the skin, the man always kept it locked up in the chest and kept the key on him wherever he went. But after many years he went fishing one day and forgot it under his pillow at home. Other people say he went to church one Christmas wit the rest of the household but that his wife was ill and stayed at home; he had forgotten to take the key out of the pocket of his everyday clothes when he changed. Be that as it may, when he came home again, the chest was open ad both the wife and the skin were gone. She had taken the key and examined the chest and there she had found the skin; she had been unable to resist temptation but had said farewell to her children, put the skin on, and flung herself into the sea.
Before she woman flung herself into the sea, it is said she spoke these words:

"Woe is me, Ah! woe is me!
I have seven bairns on land
And seven in the sea"

It is said the man was broken hearted about this. Whenever he rowed out his fishing boat afterwards, a seal would often swim round and round his boat and it looked as if tears were running from its eyes.  From that time on, he had excellent luck in his fishing and valuable things were washed ashore on his beach. People often noticed that when the children he had by this woman went walking on the seashore, a seal would show itself near the edge of the water and keep level with them as they walked along the shore and would toss them jellyfish and pretty shells. But never did their mother come back to land again.

The origins of this sealwife folk tale goes back to the 1600s, though this version of the story was retold by the Rev. Skuli Gislason before his death in 1888.  Traditionally the belief held that seals, or Selkies (the Orkney term for seal) were descended from the drowned soldiers of Pharoah, who shed their skins at Midsummer or on the twelfth day of Christmas. So I find it fitting that I should leave you with this tale of denizens of the mysterious realm beneath the waves and wish you a blessed and beautiful Yule. May you cast off the sealskin of your old year, in the dark nights and chill winter days, to be reborn anew at the advent of the New Year, full of love and light.

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