Friday, September 26, 2014

The Culture Column #43: Selkies

We catch hints of selkies in old legends. People of the sea who can take the form of a seal. The stories are romantic trash, most of them, the product of generations of bowdlerization and corrupting details. People forgot, because they were never in a position to really understand it at all, just what selkies are really like. In the end, barely anything factual remained.
“Selkie women are the women you don’t understand. They are the women who know that they belong to another tribe, in another element. And so they seem as though they don’t belong in yours— and they don’t… Selkie women are the ones who look as though they came out of fairytales, because they did.” –Theodora Goss
It’s not just selkie women, though. They are, if anything, the ones that we can relate to the most, for it is through and because of them that the lives of selkies and humans intersect at all in any meaningful way.

What are selkies like, then? Something magic, something Other, straddling a boundary line between land and sea, seal and human, and not really belonging to either species. They don’t need sealskin to become a seal anymore than they need a human’s skin to become human. They are both at once; they are never truly either. They are selkies.

As seals, or something near enough, they match no specific species. They most closely resemble leopard seals but generally top out at a length of nine feet, a little shorter than leopard seals, and their molars are underdeveloped and less effective at sifting for krill. As humans they most closely resemble Inuit or Polynesians but are taller and thinner (in bone structure, that is— healthy selkies can usually be described as “chubby”) and the whites of their eyes are almost completely obscured by their irises, which can be slightly off-putting if noticed.

Their senses of hearing and smell are superior to a human’s (as is their sense of touch, but to a lesser degree) but their vision is worse in most ways. While they can see in the water much more clearly than humans can, their vision in the open air is impaired. Females selkies are slightly nearsighted, but males are highly myopic, to the point that they generally perceive shadowy “floaters” if they try to focus on anything more than a few feet away. While the females can navigate well enough by sight in the air, the males typically only use it as a weak supplement to their senses of hearing and smell. In both cases they are also strongly colorblind, so that they only register green and blue and other colors fade into one of these or into black or white.


Selkies are predators, pure and simple. They could be classed as a kind of psychopath but this ignores the fact that they really are just predators. It isn’t an abnormality. It isn’t a disorder. Approaching the issue from that perspective won’t get you anywhere. In some ways they’re no different from humans, who don’t get thrown in the asylum after confessing that they enjoy hunting deer. Where the line is drawn between selkies and humans, really, is that our pattern-matching software, so to speak, recognizes the selkie as human and thereby makes the killing of a selkie as stressful as the killing of a human.

Selkies, on the other hand, suffer from no such matching error.

To scratch the surface, they view living beings as something like the rest of the world, distinct in their animate quality but fundamentally just a complex process. Killing a human is gutting a fish is smashing a clay pot against the wall. Two of them move, one of them makes noises with the intention of conveying meaning, but these differences only distract from the nature that they share with the pot.

Going further, though, all things are very, very real. Humans, fish, clay pots… All these things are alive, and it is only the animate quality of the first two that deceives one into thinking that the third, by lacking this, is not alive. The root of their behavior, then, lies in their “emotional architecture.” Most humans find it bizarre that someone could, for example, have such a strong emotional attachment to a bridge that there was felt a desire to marry it. A lot of this is because most people don’t psychologically model bridges as something to have that kind of emotional bond with. Similarly, as a rule people grow attached to dogs more easily than snakes because dogs, as mammals and social animals, are far closer to humans than snakes are.

But as stated before, selkies don’t pattern-match like humans do. Appearance and behavior are enough to forge a sense of shared nature for humans but not for selkies. There is but one exception, and that is when selkie females care for human children; a selkie mother will murder and starve herself to protect her children even if they are a different species from her.

Such fostering is the chief cause of intersections between selkies and humans, and it happens regularly. Predictably, even. Before a female bears young of her own she kidnaps one or two human children, preferably two or three years old, and relocate in order to raise them safely. The object is to practice the skills that will be necessary in raising her future children. Unfortunately, while selkies are good enough mothers in their own they aren’t fit to raise humans. Selkie children are more self-sufficient than our own and it isn’t unknown for a young mother-in-training, whose experience heretofore has been mostly or entirely involved selkie children, to leave a foster child alone for days as she conducts business elsewhere. In fact, it is often the case that the first child will die from neglect.

Those that survive this period don’t do so for very long. Sometime when the foster child is between ten and twelve years old it will be time to stop practicing and return to one’s own people. Perhaps the selkie will do this again a few years later, but whether she considers herself fit to raise a child of her own blood or not the result is the same: the evidence needs to be disposed of. When “fostering season” is over, she will kill the child like she kills all her prey. The way that a leopard seal kills.

Selkies don’t consider it aberrant behavior to be devoted to human children. Neither do they consider it aberrant to brutally kill the children after a few years. Both are completely natural feelings, each to be felt in their respective seasons. The concept is so completely natural to them that, let alone how she thinks of what other selkies are doing, a mother-in-training can be infused with loyalty for her adopted children and still, when she thinks forward to the day that she will kill them, suffer no cognitive dissonance.

Everything in its season, both the rearing and the reaping.

Social organization

Seven years after returning to the sea, selkie females head back to land once more regardless of their intent, whether it is to practice another time (which usually happens three times) or to give birth. Either way they remain for several years, until they kill their foster children or take their natural-born children out to sea.

Mothers-in-training are solitary but other selkie females are organized into groups called colonies. These may be considered the foundation of selkie society. They are the link between the present and the past. Descent is traced matrilineally and a female, though she may wander, will remember the colonial affiliations of her ancestors and teach these to her children.

Colonies are amphibious social units, feeling at home at land and at sea. They may integrate into human society as a group of a dozen or so eccentrics or, as is more often the case, live along the coast away from humans. Where they are just scarcely connected to human society they are almost always squatters or something similar. Not all of a colony’s members are out of the sea at the same time— they are usually at sea if they are not raising a child— but some are and the others are nearby.

Males fit into society in one of three ways. The first is through the colony, a path taken by a few males. These adopt a female role and guise in exchange for a place in the colony, and they are considered to be fully female by selkie society at large. The second is in a gang of nomadic, unattached males. The third is based in the lek, a relatively small domain ruled and protected by a single, definitively successful male.

Leks are maintained and defended against other selkies in order to demonstrate their holder’s prowess. If the lek does not include a colony within its borders then one of the chief goals of the lek-holder is to make it attractive enough that a colony will be established therein. Truthfully, that’s always a chief goal of the lek-holder, no matter how many colonies are already present. Selkies are polygnous, and it is the lek-holder that fathers the colony’s next generation.


It might be most accurate to describe selkies as “differently intelligent.” By raw force they’re smarter than humans (from the standpoint of pure ability to soak up information they’re a lot like perpetual toddlers), but they’re far less creative. Their way of life has worked for a long time and they are willing to be content with what it has garnered for them. Not for them the steady push of technological advancement that characterizes human society. Where they do channel creative energy it is in the direction of handling social conflicts (which occasionally turns physical) and the arts, their pottery and their stories, both oral (usually sung rather than written) and written.

Even so, most of their work is variations upon a few settled themes. The originality of Selkie Shakespeare’s plots could be outdone by any human hack (incidentally, most selkies are bad liars). Where they concern themselves is not the What but the How, the way that the story is told. They are very good mimics, whether they’re picking up languages or imitating human behaviors, but not very good at designing wholly original content. This may be the reason for the remarkable consistency of their mythology across both geographical and temporal distances.

They venerate the sun, first of all. It is the light and the life of the world, and they know it well. Still, it is an abstract thing to them. It is an ancient thing and far removed from the world, and it is concerned with other things than them. They are merely accidental beneficiaries.

More important to them are the moon-gods. Over the course of the lunar month each one grows from the bloody remains of its predecessor (the waxing phases) and then tears itself to pieces (the waning phases). This they do in order to fashion souls from their spiritual flesh, to place in the bodies of newborn selkies as the younglings take their first breaths. Every selkie, then, carries a fragment of one of the moon-gods and is both semi-divine and the holder of a great debt, for a god died to make them who they are.

The other relevant deity is the sea itself. It is a terrible and a majestic power. The sea knows all that it is witness to, all that plays out in its midst, and so it is very nearly omniscient. The sea’s awareness can only be escaped by departing to land for a time, and even then it continues to nestle in their dreams and speak to them beneath the light of the moon-god (incidentally, a lot of selkies are just horrible insomniacs).

They believe in the existence of ghosts, but not those of selkies, which go on to live in “the Deeps” after they die. Other beings, however, are without immortal souls and have no place in the Deeps. These are left to wander the land until they dissolve into their constituent parts, which most do immediately after dying.

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