Have you ever looked into the eyes of a seal? As deep as the ocean, and twice as dark, they seem to glow with sadness and ancient secrets, so different from the vacant, dead eyes of the fish they share the waters with. Eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, and anyone who believed animals to be soulless, on meeting a seal's gaze, would realize they‘d been mistaken. Some say that their depth bespeaks something beyond a simple animal-with-a-soul.
There used to be families who claimed to know the secret of the seals--
selchs, as they were known in those days. If you ever have the great luck to chance upon a very old parish birth record of one of these clans, you might know why they asserted such knowledge. These records will appear normal at first, until you reach the details of the babe's mother. Sometimes the details are left blank; sometimes the letters are unsteady and misshapen, as though the one who filled it out was unsure of the truth of what they wrote; on a very few, there is the simple notation, '
frae the faem'.
And 'from the foam' they were.
Selkies. Seal-people. No one was quite certain how often the creatures were allowed to shed their seal skins and come ashore, but when they did visit the land they were in constant peril of abduction. If a man saw one of the beautiful, dark-eyed women, and followed her stealthily, he might discover where she had secreted away her skin. If he was able to capture it, and hide it from her, she would be bound to him as his wife. And an excellent wife a selkie made: lovely, hard-working, and devoted to her husband and children. An observer could almost have said she was happy, as long as they took care to avoid looking into her eyes. A selkie wife's face might be bright and agreeable, but her eyes would still burn with the unfathomable sadness of a seal's.
One wonders why the men of these families were so proud to boast of their heritage, given the sad existence of the selkies themselves, but men have never been the most considerate of creatures where others are concerned. Mercifully, a selkie woman was seldom held captive for long. Her false contentedness would slowly lull her husband into a state of complacency, until the inevitable day he would cease checking that the skin was well-hidden. She would find it then, perhaps while searching for it under the guise of cleaning the boathouse. Her husband would be left with only their children as consolation, for neither love nor money could keep a selkie, upon recovering her sealskin, from her true home.
The tales of selkies have slowly ebbed away, been dismissed as myths and the ramblings of drunken fishermen, much as have stories of mermaids. Some say, though, that selkies still live on the far-flung coasts of this country, having finally become wise to the thieving ways of men, and choosing to stay hidden. Next time you're walking along the shore, and you see a seal, try, in the moment before it flees into the water, to meet its eyes.
Perhaps you'll see something there.
I painted this for an art show that I‘m going to be in!
Selkies are part of the folklore of Scotland (and sometimes Ireland), and are believed to have originated in the Orkney Islands. I’m kind of puzzled why so many people who paint/draw them depict them as mermaids with seal tails instead of fish ones, though.
Please look at the detail picture. You can’t see the selkies very well in the full view:
Acrylic on Bristol board, 14 x 17 inches