Selkie Folklore: Should we force soul to serve us?

Sep 21, 2023


Art Credit: Jano Tantongco jano.tantongco@gmail.com


The Selkie swims ashore at night, sheds her seal skin, hides it, and delights in her human form. In Celtic lore, she is the wild feminine soul, a creature of land and sea, innocent and beautiful, who cannot thrive in domesticity.

In folklore, the seal-folk are discovered by humans. Their natural, joyous spirit, grace, and affection invite contact. Humans are drawn to them, but if they touch, parting is unbearable. Many a young man, desperate to maintain the life-giving embrace of nature, steals a Selkie’s seal skin, locking her into a human form. Helpless, she is led into domesticity and motherhood. Isolated from the sea, in a role alien to her nature, the Selkie diminishes until her seal-skin is reclaimed. Called home to the sea, she leaves all behind and is restored to her authentic being.

Theft of a Selkie’s skin is a kind of archetypal initiation we all may face. Our naive spirits are all too often robbed or captured through lack of foresight. We lose touch with our wild spirit as we accept our assigned social roles, accommodate marital expectations, and forget what we once loved. Drained and disaffected, midlife may cast us into our inner wilderness to renew and restore our original being.

We lose our connection to life-giving instincts slowly. Attending the family alma mater, selecting a sensible career, and sacrificing our wildness to corporate culture can leave our souls withered. Deprived of the water of life, we may abandon everything once we find our true skin and smell the brine carried on the east wind.

In the ancient stories, seal-folk were male and female, and either might find themselves trapped through naïve curiosity. For young men and women, innocence is unrewarded in the adult world and often leads us into harsh agreements that force us to abandon our intuition and accept domestication. We turn from our inner world and stare only at the culture. Deep desire is replaced by snacking on what has been advertised. Our uncouth delight is curated into meticulous etiquette. 

When we neglect our animal side, the unconscious howls at us. Injured animals surface in our dreams, along with roaring vague creatures that chase us and savage impulses prompting us to bite and claw. If we linger too long in alien domesticity, emptiness, exhaustion, and neglect may drive us to chew our way out of our current situation. But actions of last resort might be avoided by learning to listen to the wild one within.

Carving out time in nature, setting unyielding boundaries, and questioning societal expectations are vital to protecting our true nature. If we are sons and daughters of the open water, we need time off, solitude, and uninterrupted periods of self-reflection. Art, music, and poetry can call forward our animal nature, granting us deep relief.

Listen to your seal-song and answer it.


“I requested to present to local government an opportunity to help people out with repair and replacement of septic tanks if they couldn’t afford it, including replacement of caps to prevent toddlers from falling in and drowning. The Chief Executive, an inexperienced and clueless fellow, introduced me to their new consultant, who looked just like the guy who played Prospero in my senior year production of The Tempest; I played Caliban. The guy was good-looking but a terrible actor who never studied and couldn’t seem to memorize his lines. As the consultant to our local government, he informed me that to make any assistance possible for people in need, I’d have to first make a public presentation pledging I would worship Thanatos and Eros and that I would only award assistance to those who also swore their religious allegiance to Thanatos and Eros. I was outraged and stomped out. My friend, who is in the same field and with whom I often collaborate, sat in the audience calmly taking notes. I asked her if she would do it, and she said she didn’t see any problem with it, which I thought was completely out of character, as she is a very principled woman who stands up to anything unethical. I woke up angry and a little confused.”


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  1. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Deb, Lisa and Joseph,
    I love the Selkie stories. Thank you for this episode. I’m wondering if we can see the story as a metaphor for the manifestation and journey of the ONE consciousness (in Vedanta – the Brahmin or the sat-chit-ananda) through manifestation in the material world and back to its source in the unmanifest. I’m really into Vedanta lately, and I was thinking about this story in those terms. The Selkie transforms into a woman who basks on the rocks or shore. So she’s in kind of a liminal space. She’s not really in the water (unconscious or unmanifest) and she’s not really part of civilization yet. Then the man comes and wants her to be part of the civilized world. She is sad and upset (kind of an existential crisis here) and doesn’t want to go and leave behind her true nature. I almost get the feeling that her going into the civilized world is inevitable. She MUST do it. The unmanifest MUST take this journey because it is part of the inherent nature of things. When she gets to her new home, she is very good at everything she does and has a family but there is really no feeling tone in the story. It’s almost like she’s just there but her spirit or true nature is elsewhere. It’s hidden from her as symbolized by the hidden seal skin. And WOW! Isn’t this how we feel sometimes in our lives – like we are just kind of here in the world doing worldly things but our spirit – our true nature is elsewhere!?!? Well, ok, how do we find it again? How do we reconnect to it? Our child-like nature leads us to it IF we can listen to it and follow it as the Selkie does in our story. She doesn’t just poo poo it and think of it as just a child. She listens and follows. The child is close to the Self side of the ego-self axis. The child hasn’t yet the strength of ego consciousness – conceptualization, rationality, having to live by societal rules. I see the seal as a parallel image – a being who is manifested but yet closer to the Self. So, the Selkie takes the seal skin and says that she HAS TO leave now. Again, I get the feeling of inevitability. Once she has found it, she , MUST go back to it. This is the way of nature and by realizing our true nature while alive or at death, we MUST go back to it. It’s the cycle of the transcendent-immanent and back to the transcendent again. We tend to see this as sad because she is leaving her family and we value that in our lives so we see it as sad that she would leave. But don’t we leave everything we love at some point? Perhaps the wise person knows that there is something greater than this material world and doesn’t see the loss of things we love as a final loss. It reminds me of the Vedantic concept of vairagya which is a kind of dispassion of the world and its pains, pleasures, gains and losses. It’s like when you realize or experience that there is a greater wholeness to the manifest world and the unmanifest or spiritual world, then you can have a kind of detachment from the constant change here and KNOW that there is a wholeness or oneness. It is interesting that the Selkie or the manifestation of the one consciousness , is FEMALE. In one of his talks, Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Vedanta Society of NY said that Shiva (Brahman or the One consciousness) turned OUTWARD is Shakti (the female principle of the oneness). And Shakti turned INWARD is Shiva (the male principle of oneness). But Shiva and Shakti are both aspects of the One so they really cannot be separated. This is why this is often portrayed as the God being half male and half female. So, we could say that the turning outward is the material world which is often symbolized by the female because it’s woman that is the bridge between the manifest and unmanifest. Thus we have our female figure of the Selkie. The images that come to me for this story are the Shiva/Shakti image and also the yin-yang image and the feeling tone that I have is of a flowing or maybe a back and forth movement. Or maybe like traveling on an infinity symbol is more like it. It’s like a deep movement from unmanifest to manifest and back and that this is the movement of a very deep principle in nature and psyche which are one and the same. Thank you again for your work!!! It’s always deeply thought provoking and moving.

  2. Mamie Allegretti

    Hi again,
    I would also add that Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Vedanta Society of New York gives some WONDERFUL lectures on Vedanta and consciousness. He is really an engaging speaker and so very knowledgeable. Vedanta and Jungian studies – the practice and philosophy of both – have re-enchanted the world for me and maybe you’ll find his lectures of interest as well. 🙂

  3. Ruth

    Lisa especially, I think you’d love The Song of the Sea, a selkie tale that has been turned into an animated film.

  4. Lori Wallace

    I will be marinating on this story and the deep interpretations for months to come. Thank you! I am new to This Jungian Life and I’m hooked!

    I’ll be pursuing more knowledge into Jungian philosophies for sure, and have managed to find a series and certification for lay people (who are without a master’s degree) at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, and feel very grateful for the creation of this estuarian space.

    In regards to this deep tale, I have this warming sensation about the reunion between heart (soul) and mind (ego) / the feminine and the masculine, as it plays out in our modern word of fear and rampant separation. I observe in the outer and inner world around and in us a rejection of the unknown or the uncontrollable (ie, the ocean, feelings, the feminine). The separation happens at birth when the child is expelled from the oceanic waters of the womb. There and then begins the yearning to return, but the outer world shames humans from living in union with mother creator as that human would be god like and would overwhelm the ego’s need for control.

    In the Selkie story, I noted that the farmer was entranced by Selkie Folk (and not to any one or to a female, in particular). His theft of one of the skins was for the skin itself and had nothing to do with his attraction to a female. This part of the story shows me that he wished to keep a part of the wild for himself. He certainly was setting in motion a dynamic of being confronted by the wild (the soul).

    It’s interesting that the farmer was already leaning towards rewilding himself, having rejected the pressures of the town maidens, and most particularly their exacting mothers. When the farmer sees the Selkies, he steels a skin in response to that inner voice of rebellion.

    The farmer finds out after the fact that the skin belongs to a female Selkie and that she is beautiful. So now he is confronted by beauty, which he also covets. He must have it; he must control it. There seems to be a tension here of attraction and repulsion. He wants her, but not as she is (fully wild). To have her, he must control her. By controlling her he taps the wild, but in its unwilded state. The skin is hidden. He splits and falls into domestic life.

    From a psychic perspective, the ego battles the soul’s call for the wild constantly. It’s too much to let soul merge with reality. The ego won’t have it. The closer it can get to a soul merge is to imprison it (an obedient form). The tactic for control is to escape within duty (7 children).

    The youngest, the child closest to the womb, gives the Selkie mother back her authentic self. And the Selkie (the soul) doesn’t hesitate to return home to the sea. The Selkie is remembered there by her kin and even a male Selkie notices her and that notice is in turn, noticed. In other words, the soul does not need the egoic world to be whole. It is already whole.

    This story for me is one of the failed union between the ego and the soul within the human life. The ego will destroy life before it surrenders to a merge with soul.

    The ego is weak. The call of the soul is true.

    The lesson here is to invite union. To collaborate with chance. To negotiate compromise.

    I pray as a species, we finally pivot and practice, “yes”.

    PS I have an idea for revenue for your podcast that I’d like to share with you that could be quite prosperous and in line with your gifts. If you’re open to ideas, please email me and I’ll share back. Thank you for the gift and brilliance of you three!!


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