A selkie is a mythical creature who lives primarily as a seal, but can assume human form by removing its seal skin. Many stories and ballads about the creatures can be found in Ireland and Scotland, and the myth seems to have originated in the Orkney Islands. Selkies are closely affiliated with seafaring communities, where many people see and interact with seals on a regular basis. They crop now and again in popular culture, in everything from songs to fiction books which incorporate selkies into their plots.
Depending on the region, selkies are also called silkies or selchies. The word is a diminutive form of the Scots word for seal, selk or selch, which is derived from seolh, the Old English term for a seal. According to many of the ballads about the creatures, selkies may periodically emerge from the water to interact with humans, but they do not form lasting relationships, returning to the sea after a brief period. To prevent a selkie from escaping, the seal skin can be concealed or destroyed.
Many of the stories about selkies are romantic tales, either about fishermen who become captivated by the beauty of female selkies, or wives who are frustrated with their absent husbands and their encounters with male selkies. In many of these tales, the skin of the selkie is hidden, and the selkie may settle with his or her spouse for years, producing children and living among the rest of the village. Selkie spouses are said to be rather sad and sometimes lonely, however, as they pine for the sea.
Should a captured selkie find its skin, the creature will return to the sea, which is its natural home. According to myth, once a selkie has returned to the sea, seven years will pass before he or she is seen again. Like other half human, half animal creatures in mythology, selkies seem to struggle with their dual identities, and it is interesting to note that, given the opportunity, they will return to their animal forms.
The origins of the selkie myth are unclear. Some people have suggested that the selkies may have been inspired by real people such as explorers who wore heavy furs and stopped at the Orkney Islands. Other mythologists believe that selkies really did spring from legend. Many of the beliefs around the animals suggest that they are the reincarnations of people lost at sea, or that they are humans trapped in the form of seals.