#IrishMythology

Selkie: Old Skin, New Skin

The Selkie is a creature that is seal in the ocean but takes the form of a human woman on land. The version I learned is Irish but the Selkie mythology can be found in Scottish, Icelandic, and Scandinavian heritages highlighting its cross-cultural thematic importance. Let’s begin…

 Fadó fadó… a group of Selkies were bathing their human bodies under the light of the moon. Their sealskins sat casually to the side, on a rock. As they bathed they all laughed and chatted easily in each other’s company. 

A fisherman, who lived close by on the shore, heard the sweet sound of laughter and decided to investigate. He got into his little rowing boat and headed out towards the melody that sparkled on the water. As he drew near, he gasped at the sight of the lovely creatures, naked, relaxed, and at one with themselves and nature. Hiding behind a rock so he would not be seen, he saw the Selkie’s begin gathering up their sealskins. The fisherman was so enamored by the beauty of the naked women it stirred a sense of longing in his heart which highlighted his intense loneliness. So, with a sense of entitlement, most women have had to endure at one time or another throughout their lives, the fisherman stole her skin. 

The older ones sensed something was amiss and re-skinned quickly. Like most creatures that live in collective coherence, once one member of the pack senses danger, the others are quick to notice the signals and take action. One by one the Selkies dressed and dived under the water to the safety of their liquid home. All except one. She could not find her sealskin anywhere and the more she looked, the more she panicked. When she was all alone the fisherman emerged from the darkness. 

The traditional version of this myth romanticizes him offering his hand in marriage. Naked and separated from her pod she is held hostage but lets not get ahead of ourselves. She agrees to become his wife on the condition that she is allowed to review the agreement after seven years. 

As the seventh-anniversary approaches, her human skin begins to dry out. Her hair becomes lackluster and brittle. The light within her, which always shone from her eyes, begins to fade. Day by day, she became a hollow version of herself. 

One day during this time, her child came running up from the dock with the giggle and delight children have when they have discovered some fabulous treasure. In his clutched little hand was her sealskin. She was over come with emotion at the sight of her skin, the skin she thought she had carelessly lost all those years ago. Her beloved child reveals it was never lost, but hiding in his daddy’s boat. Difficult as it may be, she knows what she needs to do in order to survive.

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There are a lot of different themes within this beautiful Celtic myth. The aspect I wish to focus on today is the return of her skin. In the traditional myth, the Selkie slips into her newly found, yet old skin in the middle of the night and returns to her pod who have come to welcome her back to the ocean. But there is something amiss in that version for me; namely that after seven years it is unlikely that she fits perfectly into her old skin. 

 One of the dynamic aspects of life is that it and we are in constant motion. Seeds germinate and push through the ground, they unfurl to form stems or trunks and unfurl again for form leaves or petals. They live as their magnificent selves then when they have reached their peak and shown their beauty to the world, they change again. On every level of human existence we are growing, changing, dying, renewing, rewiring, healing, and feeling our way through this lived human experience. Physically, our cells split and replicate, die off, renew, or regrow on a regular basis. For example, heart cells renew every 25 years, heart muscle cells every 40 years, fat cells every 8, the lining of the stomach renew every 7 days, and a neutrophil cell which is a particular white blood cell, last about 2 days. 

Psychologically there is a wide range of development which changes from conception right through to death. Remember the pre-frontal cortex not being developed until we are 25? Developmental psychology is a specialized field. Spiritually, we mature in our understanding and either deepen or break the framework we were born into. We are tested, learning, unlearning, growing, breaking, mending, and healing day after day in every aspect of our life.

How then can the young naïve Selkie’s old skin still fit 7 years later? After all, she has had one child, a marriage to a human and a period of time on dry land. Surely she has grown?

There is an unconscious assumption that when we make a decision, whether that be from a place of youth, vulnerability, or to survive, we are locked into the particular choice forever. The phrase, ‘you’ve made your bed now must lie in it’ sums this up well. But as a good friend of mine highlighted, “even with mattresses we don’t sleep on the same one our whole life!” We have been taught by those whom it benefits that it is noble to die in an agreement that no longer serves us rather than save ourselves or honor our development. For some reason, we must go right to the end (death) continually sacrificing ourselves, until our skin has dried up and our eyes reflect our internal death process. How then could our old skin fit?

Rarely do we hear (any of us but in particular women) “this is not the last choice you get to make” or “you can make a different choice at any time.” Thankfully, I’ve had this whispered in my ear by a fierce wise woman. When I begin to feel trapped by the ways I developed as a means of survival, when it is time for me to shed the parts of myself, thoughts, clothes, relationships I have outgrown she reminds me: you have a choice, always a choice. 

The Selkie did not return to an empty ocean, the ancient feminine called her home. Over the seven years, she spent onshore her pod returned repeatedly and called out to her. Each time they called it highlighted the fact she lost an essential part of herself. The original myth says she put her old skin on before returning to her deep and true home. Perhaps after all she had endured her old skin was all she had the energy for. I see her slipping into that musty old skin as a means to an end; do what you need to do to renew yourself. 

What do we do when we outgrow our current lives, our identities, current self-expression, lives, old attitudes, old patterns, habits, or means of surviving? There is no point in longing for what was, for what no longer fits instead we must recreate ourselves anew.

What if she created a new skin for herself, one that fit her changed self? What would it look like? For my undergraduate senior synthesis project, I presented on the Selkie myth but from the perspective of choosing a new skin in which to walk in the world. Titled “women who use tattooing as a way of remythologizing stories of trauma”, I held a photo exhibition and a lecture on this theory. I’m not advocating tattooing, rather think of this more symbolically than literally as a way of creating a new identity. If we are paying attention to our hearts, we know the places in our lives that no longer serve our growth.

Meditation: 

Sit quietly for a moment and just follow your breath as you inhale. Place a hand on your heart. Ask your heart…what parts of yourself have you outgrown? What am I ready to renew or reclaim of myself? 

Perhaps it is a hairstyle that you have had for years or the color of your lipstick that no longer goes with your skin tone. Perhaps it is an attitude that is a little too tight or friendship that is one-sided and draining. Perhaps it is larger, like the Selkie you need to strip yourself of a perceived identity to align with who you are on the inside. Just notice and be gentle with yourself as you hear the whisper of your own hearts longing. 

Citations and other interesting reads/ films:

Song of the Sea. Film. 2014. (AMAZING!) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1865505/videoplayer/vi3133192729?ref_=tt_ov_vi

The Secret of Roan Inish. Film. 1994. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111112/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1

“What cells in the human body live longest.” https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/what-cells-in-the-human-body-live-the-longest/

Pinkola Estes, Clarissa. Women Who Run With the Wolves.