Myths & Mysticism

by Rosalind Bush

| On Myth in History | The Selkie |

On Myth in History

Myths are part of our fascination with the past, a time of brutality, uncertainty and pageantry, not all that much unlike today. Myths bring that past into our present with tales about eras that are not too distant to whet our imagination and yet not so close that we scoff at things magical and mystical.

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The oldest cultures in the world have these mystical, mythical tales. They were an attempt to explain mankind's existence. Traditionally a myth is an ancient story involving supernatural beings that serves two functions. One is to answer mankind's oldest questions: who created the world, how will it end, what happens after death? The second exists to explain the traditions, rites and customs observed by the society at that time.

Myths cover the entire spectrum of human experience: birth, self-identity, heroes and heroines, love, war and conquest, revenge, and self-sacrifice. They tell of magical and mystical worlds, monsters, faith, death and the hereafter. Myths change to accommodate revolutions, invasions, migrations and anything else that occurs or alters the basic society of their creation.

Scalds, Bards, troubadours and minstrels indulged their passion for storytelling in long and detailed accounts of tournaments, banquets, feasts and battles. They traveled from hut to motte-and-bailey to castle to village to manor house to town, passing on tales of customs, habits, dress, manners and characteristics of the places they had been before.

There are Celtic, Irish, Polynesian, Indian, Norse, Greek, Roman myths and many others too numerous to list. Mythology preserves the attitudes, religious practices, endings and beginnings of these cultures. Through these myths we can learn about how societies viewed their world, the roles of the sexes, their gods, etc. In all, there seems to be an instinctive, mystical belief in a supreme being - a higher ruler or creator who made the world.

Creation myths tell of the formation of the world. An all-powerful being may make the world from nothingness and remain, becoming the center of a religion or may withdraw and view their creation from a distance. Some cultures tell of their world emerging from an egg or a slow emergence from lower worlds. There is a world-parent myth where two beings bear offspring who later oppose and defeat their parents whose bodies then make up the world. Still other myths see the world beginning as a piece of earth resting on the back of a turtle or bird.

Culture myths are about beings who provide a part of the society or a piece of technology that did not exist before, such as Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and allowing mankind its use. Birth and re-birth myths are about life renewal, time reversal or human beings reborn after death. Myths about the end of the world tell of the supreme being, the creator, destroying their creation. This catastrophe tends to occur when the message of the god(s) is forgotten or when mankind oversteps their limits.

Myths differ from fairy tales in that the time of a myth is 'other' time, usually before the ordinary world. For my purposes the line between fairy tales and myths will be blurred. Time has created a distance, leaving the present sources of myth open to many and varied interpretations.

References:

  • The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, Penguin Books, 1986
  • Myths of the Norsemen by Roger Lancelyn Green, Puffin Books, 1970
  • The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Chancellor Press, 1996
  • The Giant Book of Myths & Legends by Mike Ashley, Barnes & Noble Books, 1995

The Selkie

The Sun God sinks below the horizon, chased by the Moon Goddess in their endless battle for dominion over the heavens. Against the darkening sky, a form emerges from the sea, shedding a dark, fur-covered skin to reveal iron-hewn muscles.

Who's to say that a similar scene was not the beginning of the selkie myths, ages ago when coastal lands were raided time after time? The actual origins of the selkie myths are shrouded in mystery and history, never to be known. Those long-ago raiders came ashore by some method, and to the people of those coastal villages would have appeared to have come from the very sea itself.

Also known as silkies or roane (Gaelic for seal), selkies occupy the seas around the Orkney and Shetland isles. They are believed to be able to shapeshift into their true forms as either fairies or humans. On the Faroe Islands it is believed that every ninth night these 'seal-folk' shed their skins and dance on the beaches. They may live in undersea worlds enclosed in giant air bubbles, only changing to seal form if they need to travel from one air breathing area to another. What a benefit that would be if their lovers lived in another bubble or on a different island.

When humans and selkies 'mix', the offspring are likely to be 'chimerical' - have webbed feet and hands. The clan MacCoddrum is said to be descended from such alliances. Many tales tell of female selkies being 'coerced' into marriage with a human male, by his possession of her seal-skin. As long as the skin remains hidden from her she will be a fine, if somewhat wistful, wife. But once she finds her seal-skin she will return to the sea leaving the husband to pine away for his lost 'love'.

A tradition in Iceland and the Shetlands says that if a human- woman wishes to have a child with a selkie, she must weep seven tears into the nighttime sea. A ballad, The Great Selkie of Sule Sherry tells the tale of a male selkie who has left his human lover with child. He returns later but only because he knows that the woman's husband is likely to kill both her and the child.

Though male selkies often court human females they hardly ever form lasting relationships with them. The males seem more inclined to spend their time raising storms and damaging the boats of the seal-catchers in revenge for the indiscriminate slaughter of seals. Roanes are said to be the gentler of the seal-folk for they do not participate in these acts of vengeance.

For examples of human/seal shapeshifting try the following stories:

  • The Lion in His Attic by Larry Niven
  • Seaward by Susan Cooper
  • The Dragon Knight by Gordon R. Dickson

For romances with selkie heroes, try the following:

  • Storm Prince by Teri Lynn Wilhelm
  • Galway Bay by Morgan Llywelyn in the anthology Irish Magic (this short story is an LLB favorite!)
  • A Dark & Stormy Night by Anne Stuart

Christina Dodd's A Well Pleasured Lady has a strong secondary character rumored to be the son of a female selkie; his story, A Well Favored Gentleman, is to be released in February 1998.

(If you enjoy stories about selkies, you must also check for the John Sayles' film The Secret of Roan Inishe - it's an LLB favorite.)

References:

  • The Encyclopedia of Fantasy John Chute & John Grant, St Martin's Press, 1997
  • Faeries Brian Froud & Alan Lee, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1978
  • Magickal, Mythical, Mystical Beasts D. J. Conway, Llewellyn Publications, 1996

 




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