The Selkie myth has been sitting with me for about 18 months, when I found it described in Women who Run with the Wolves. At the time, I could not articulate why this myth called to me on a soul level, but in reading other material and coming across the story specifically or metaphorically, I recognize what is so very resonant. Intuitively, I know that this myth would call others home, if they knew the story.
The Selkie is a seal in Celtic mythology and parallels mermaid mythology. Selkies can be male or female, and in the essay below, I will be focusing on the female selkies (referred to as selkie or seal-woman). The female selkies can take human form once a month, removing their seal skins under a full moon to dance together on a beach, in community. One day a fisherman spies them, steals a skin, and the seal-woman who owns that skin cannot return to her ocean world with her sisters/friends. She agrees to stay with the man and be his wife for 7 years; then, he promises, he will give back her skin so she can rejoin her former life at sea. In that time, she has a child (sometimes referred to as a boy child, sometimes a girl child) and is pulled into domestic life, but her light is dimming – she is growing thinner, drier, more lifeless. After 7 years, she asks the man where her skin is, and he claims to not know. The child worries about the mother and learns the seal-woman’s story. To help the mother, the child seeks out a Wise Woman, who, the child learns, cannot help the seal-woman-turned-mother. “Your mother must help herself” the wise one tells the child (Estés, 75). In some versions, the child finds the skin, worn and threadbare, and returns it to the mother. In another version, the seal-woman sings her lost seal sisters back to life and obtains a skin from them.
“And at once you could tell she wanted to stay with her child, she wanted to, but something called her, something older than she, older than he, older than time” (Estés 281)
The woman puts on the seal skin and returns to her home with her sisters, in some versions bringing her child with her to her under water home for a time; in other versions, she returns to the rocky beach in human form to reconnect with her child once a year.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés reflects that the seal/Selkie in this story functions as a metaphor for the wild soul, the instinctual nature of women:
“The symbol of seal as representation of soul is all the more compelling because there is a ‘docility’ about seals, an accessibility well known to those who live near them. Seals have a sort of dogness about them; they are naturally affectionate. A kind of purity radiates from them. But they can also be very quick to react, retreat, or retort if threatened. The soul is like that too. It hovers near. It nurses the spirit. It does not run away when it perceives something new or unusual or difficult” (283) “The sealskin is symbol of soul that not only provides warmth, but also provides an early warning system through its vision as well” (289, in reference to piloerection)
Further, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes that this myth incorporates a theft motif – which many men and women can relate to in the form of a lost opportunity, a theft of love, a robbing of spirit, a weak sense of self, a distraction or a blind-siding from naïveté or poor insight.
From Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted:
“These Selkie tales resonate strongly with women, for the Selkie’s song is our song. It is a song of yearning – yearning for a part of ourselves that we feel we have lost – or maybe a part that we feel we might once have had, but never know………The Selkie story is a story of a woman who breaks. Taken literally out of her element, trapped on the land, where she cannot find a way to belong. She has lost her place in the world, and consequently lost her stories. Like the Selkie, so many of us lose our skins, and all too often we lose them early. This can happen in so many ways: it might be stolen by another who does us harm; we might give it away to someone we trust, who then betrays us; or we might hide it for safekeeping and then forget where we hid it” (81).
And from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
“Our skin is our greatest sensing organ; it tells us when we are cold, too warm, excited, frightened. When a woman is gone too long from home, her ability to perceive how she’s truly feeling and thinking about herself and all other matters begins to dry and crack” (301)
“The archetypal core of the ‘Sealskin, soulskin’ story is extremely valuable, for it gives clear and pithy directions for the exact steps we must take in order to develop and find our way through these tasks” (284). The story serves as an initiation to explore what has been stolen, make self-discoveries, and provide directions on how to develop a “healthy wildish soul.” (285)
“The only way to hold on to this essential soulskin is to retain an exquisitely pristine consciousness about its value and uses” and “guard our psychic territory” – this psychic territory, soul territory, is our home. And, as Dr. Estés points out, every creature on earth returns home. Vacations and time-outs are nice, but cannot be a permeant solution or refuge, and there are so many instances in life that will pull you from that refuge and steal your skin – your work; your obligations – caregiving, children, parents; your to-dos; the needs/wants/wishes of others; life and death disaster. “When a woman is too long gone from home, she is less and less able to propel herself forward in life. Instead of pulling in the harness of her choice, she’s dangling from one” (302)
The psychic terrain, the pulls from your refuge, and the length of time that equates to an “overstay” away from your refuge differs for all women (and all men). How do you know when your soulskin is calling? How do you know when you have overstayed and need to return Home?
“Some women are afraid that those around them will not understand their need for return. And not all may. But the woman must understand this herself: when a woman goes home according to her own cycles, others around her are given their own individual work, their own vital issues to deal with. Her return to home allows others growth and development too” (303-304, emphasis is mine)
How do you go home?
“There are many ways to go home; many are mundane, some are divine. ……I caution you, the exact placement of the aperture of home changes from time to time, so its location may be different this month than last. Rereading passages of books and single poems that have touched them. Spending even a few minutes near a river, a stream, a creek. Lying on the ground in dappled light. Being with a loved one without kids around……[examples continue]… Beholding beauty, grace, the touching frailty of human beings. “(304) “It is an internal place, a place somewhere in time rather than space, where a woman feels of one piece. Home is where a thought or feeling can be sustained instead of being interrupted or torn away from us because something else is demanding our time and attention……Home is a sustained mood or sense that allows us to experience feelings not necessarily sustained in the mundane world: wonder, vision, peace, freedom from worry, freedom from demands, freedom from constant clacking……Home is the pristine instinctual life ……Whatever revivifies balance is what is essential. That is home. ” (306-307)
How one gets home isn’t important and it varies for all women. But, Dr. Estés mentions that when home, “There is not only time to contemplate, but also to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused, and the buried. There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next” (308). Home and homing are meant for self-reflection, sustenance, alchemy, metamorphosis, and growth.
Dr. Estés discusses why it is so difficult for women to return home. That women identify with the healer archetype, wanting to tend to everything. This is a cultural trap of sorts that exhausts women.
“Women’s ‘heal everything, fix everything’ compulsion is a major entrapment constructed by the requirements placed upon us by our own cultures, mainly pressures to prove that we are not just standing around taking up space and enjoying ourselves, but that we have redeemable value” (305)
Women must be able to acknowledge their relationship with this archetype and allow her “wild instinct” to set limits to the endless giving and work.
I will avoid getting too personal here so as to not color your experience and reflections, to not redirect the focus from your interior life and interpretation to mine.
There are many themes here that I find resonant, both intuitively and experiential. First and foremost - the duality that women often face – that of mothering or family or obligation vs her own inner life and light; this is the sacrifice that is often required of women. This duality is explored further in At the Root of this Longing by Carol Lee Flinders, and the duality presents as dissatisfaction with the either/or mentality of women as being simple or not having or needing complex, richer lives. The sense of dualism is in not feeling whole as a mother in a patriarchal culture that says that mothering is the ultimate expression of femininity and should be the ultimate satisfaction and a fulfillment of a woman's desires. This is the dichotomy of intimacy or complete sovereignty, what Flinders calls “the common divide”. Both Blackie and Estés explore the theme of women and sovereignty in their books (If Women Rose Rooted and How to be an Elder), noting that the solution to the age-old question of “what do women want?” IS sovereignty.
Flinders repeatedly emphasizes throughout her book that to heal women from this divide (and other cultural wounds), women need to reconnect with themselves and their desires (ie her soulskin), reconnect with other women (the selkies gather as groups of women), and reconnect with the sacred (also her soulskin, her wild instinct and nature). Flinders speaks of the inner world, the importance of meditation and cultivating a sense of one’s self, despite worldly interruptions (what she refers to as 'Woman, Interrupted'), and refuse to “compartmentalize spiritual practice” (265) to allow for a woman’s full unfolding. Further, Flinders recognizes that dissocation from one’s desires (soulskin) becomes disconnection from others (seal sisters), which leads to isolation, pain/wounding, and trauma (123). Though Flinders doesn’t draw specifically from the Selkie myth in her book, the parallels are striking.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, originally written in 1955 (!!), is the story of a woman going Home. She takes a trip to the beach alone, without her husband or 5 children, exploring how complicated and distracting her home life has become.
“I have shed the shell of my life, for a few weeks of vacation……My shell is not like this [whelk shell], I think. How untidy it has become! Blurred with moss, knobby with barnacles, its shape is hardly recognizable any more. Surely, it had a shape once. It has a shape still in my mind. What is the shape of my life?” (16)
“What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. It puts the trapeze artist to shame. Look at us. We run a tight rope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head. Baby-carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now! This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul” (20)
“The bearing, rearing, feeding and educating of children; the running of a house with its thousand details; human relationships with their myriad pulls – woman’s normal occupations in general run counter to creative life, or contemplative life, or saintly life. The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in” (23, note how this quote implies the emotional and mental work that many women speak to now)
Lindbergh states that most of all she wants
“to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact – to borrow from the language of the saints – to live ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term strictly in a theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. “ (17)
Lindbergh’s grace sounds like Dr. Estés’ wild instinct and Flinders’ inner life. How fitting that to find her grace, Lindbergh chose the ocean – the Selkie’s native landscape, and of course, there is the spiritual cleansing associated with water (see religious ceremonies like the Christian baptism and the Jewish mikvah) . Women, it seems, have been aware of and identifying with this duality for decades, even hundreds of years ago at the time of Celtic mythological origin.
This duality of women’s life has been a personal struggle of mine, and until I discovered these stories and voices, I felt alone in my struggle. My own female lineage as well as the one I married into did not speak of this “common divide”. In fact, some recognize that this kind of wounding (the splintering/spliting of women’s lives and subsequent silencing and shaming, which equates to a betrayal of sorts) is often projected onto mothers from daughters in the form of anger and resistance (Flinters). And so I write. I write to break this cycle. I write, not just about this myth, but other topics of course, in an attempt to help others feel a sense of recognition. Writing is one part of my medicine, my homing, and my aid to help others in their own growth and re-homing.
Another major theme from the Selkie myth - the healer archetype. The seal woman heals by returning to her skin, her women/sisters/friends, her instinct. She was empowered and possessed her own medicine. Can we also heal ourselves by returning to our inner lives? Belonging to ourselves? With radical self-care and self-inquiry? Similar to what’s been suggested as Island Time (Lindbergh) – this interior space where you are enclosed to be whole is a place of freedom. This theme of return to instinct and inner life resonates with female rites of passage that generally incorporate enclosure, metamorphosis, and reemergence (Flinders). How ironic is it that women, according to Dr. Estés, risk over identification with the healer archetype, and yet, we need to heal ourselves to be truly free.
Healing in the selkie myth also comes to the seal-woman from her community of women – returning to them to be complete, singing to them to acquire a new skin. Flinders recognizes a returning to other women as essential for the evolution of a woman’s life (personally and at a greater societal, global level). The re-uniting of women is the driving force behind many of the women’s circles today, including the WILD Woman Project Circle, in which I participate and facilitate where I live.
Women, historically, used to be the healers in their families and community, the keepers of the wisdom of plants, birth, death (see Barbara Tedlock’s book). Shamans are also known as shape-shifters, depending on their medicine gifts, taking on the form of another, an ancestor, animal, or element. Shamanic practitioners do their healing work in the psychic landscape – that interior guarded ground. Celtic shamanism requires of their shamans a 7 year illness as initiation into the practice (see Tom Cowan’s book), resulting in the shaman paralleling the Wounded Healer archetype. They can heal as a result of their own work, struggles, and trials, bringing their gifts of learning to those that need medicine. Could it be that the shape-shifting seal-woman turned healer that sacrificed the required 7 years is also a shaman of sorts? Are women their own shamans? – it seems, as the Selkie implies, we have our own medicine, for ourselves and our women.
What about the men?
Yes, what about the men? The books I have read are women-oriented, focused on giving women voice and call to action to return to their whole selves, after centuries of having rights and ways of being stripped away. But does that mean that men are whole? Or that they don’t have this struggle? I find that hard to believe. Men *might* have more of a creative outlet by being able to focus their pursuits outside of the home. Men *might* not over identify with the healer archetype in such a profound and wounding way as women. Men *might* not have the same mental and emotional burden of work that women do. But that’s a generous number of “might”s. Men deserve recognition of the duality that all individuals face in being pulled exteriorly from your inner, spirited life. Men deserve recognition too on how they desire to heal, possibly to a fault (the white knight archetype, anyone?).
I am also increasingly uncomfortable in drawing lines between men and women. Those lines are damaging and keep people separated and isolated, beyond the basic fact that gender and sex are no longer being recognized as strictly binary. While I cannot change the focus of the works I’ve reference, I can offer a hand to men – you are welcome to this mythology too. Take a seat, settle into the story, and see how it resonates for you.
What about those women that are not parents/mothers/caregivers?
Yes, another group that might feel left out of the Selkie mythology. If that is you, you deserve a part of this story too. You do NOT need to be a caregiver or mother to identify with the themes here – the healer archetype likely resonates in other ways (toxic romantic relationships or friendships, for example). You might sense the “common divide” as your work life (paying job) from you avocation (your artistic expression or what gives your life meaning). Please do find a place here and use it as a way to explore your inner world and heal, if needed.
1) How does the Selkie myth resonate with you?
2) What happened to your sealskin (soulskin)? Was it stolen? Lost?- How?
3) What calls your wild instinct? Where is Home? And when were you last there?
4) How can you make space in your life to find Home?
5) If you identify as female, have you been to a women’s circle? – If not, I would encourage you to try at least one; the more, the better, as every circle is as diverse as the group of women attending and the facilitator.
6) If you identify as male, how does the Selkie myth resonate for you? Is it a false distinction to make this story emphasize the feminine?
7) If you are not a parent or caregiver, how does the selkie myth and healer archetype show up in your life?
My suggestion for ritual play is below. Please be aware that this suggestion is just that - not a prescription, strict must-do, or a replacement for medical care. You know yourself, so be open to adapting and experimenting with what speaks to you.
Tea bath ritual: To be used to bathe in your intentions, blessings, as well as self-care and connecting with your seal-skin (soul-skin).
Gather dried herbs that are meaningful to you. We used rose petals and lavender flowers; these are usually associated with Pisces.
Epsom salt or Himalayan salt
Reusable tea bags (these can be hand washed and air dried; found on amazon)
Add-ins - we used spiral shells (spiral is a goddess symbol as well as representative of other mystic traditions). Other suggestions would be crystals or rocks; avoid selenite - this one can absorb water).
Mixing bowl and spoon
As you transfer your selected herbs into your mixing bowl, say blessings or an intentions for the current moon cycle. We used themes that arose during the meditation specifically (related to intentions and actions for Healing, the theme of March 2018's new moon). We sealed our bath tea mix with the following: “As we connect to the healing flow running through ourselves and all of life, we awaken the healer within”
Feel free to make a large bath mixture and use as needed during the moon cycle. Or make a single "dose" for 1 bath. If you are interested in only 1 bath, my suggestion would be to utilize the tea mixture during the full moon, which is the time of manifestation of intentions.
Blackie, Sharon. If Women Rose Rooted: A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging September Publishing; 2016.
Cowan, Tom. Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco; 1993.
Estés, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves. New York City, New York: Ballantine Books; 1995 (original copyright in 1992).
Estés, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola. How to Be an Elder. Boulder, CO: Sounds True; 2012.
Flinders, Carol Lee . At the Root of this Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco; 1998.
Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. Gift from the Sea New York City, New York: Random House, Inc.; 2003 (original copyright in 1955).
Tedlock, Barbara. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. New York City, New York: Bantam Books; 2005.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT)
RYT 500, reiki master
Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please do not copy this material. All writing is protected by copyright.