Sunday, April 18, 2010

Selkie Skin, Pallawah Skin

The Selkie mythology derives from cool waters of the northern hemisphere and the language of the seal people. Selkies were seals who could turn into human beings and back into seals again, by shedding their skins like wetsuits. This mythology is easily transposable to Antipodean history and I will show you why.

An old origin of Selkie stories is that of the 'Fin Folk' - a dastardly, frightening mob who swarmed into small coastal colonies, shed their skins and ravished the women, even stole them away. These Fin Folk were Scandinavian men (possibly from Finland) who paddled their animal hide kayaks over to Irish and Scottish outposts. As they travelled this icy journey, their skin canoes absorbed water and sank deeper and deeper. Still they paddled, until they reached the coast and by then they were strange creatures to behold, their ocean-going craft beneath the water and only the trunks of their bodies visible, fleets of human invaders travelling magically through the sea.

You can only imagine the warnings within those Celtic seaside households, from father to mother to daughters, to daughters, to daughters. The people of the Orkney were so afraid of the attentions of these Fin Folk that mothers would paint a cross in blood on their daughter's breasts, to protect them, before they undertook a sea journey.

Eventually the Selkie myth transformed from fearsome invaders to angelic, sexualised sea spirits. Selkies became female, sirens even. Selkies were the seals who, on a full moon, were able to shed their skins and become human. They danced and sang on the shores of the Orkneys. They brushed their manes of long red hair and stroked with wonder the new curves of their pale, pale bodies.

If a man could find a Selkie skin when she shed it on the sea shore, he would have power over that seal woman. He could keep her as a wife and, if he had babies with this Selkie spouse, he could make her stay, so long as he never divulged to her the whereabouts of her skin. She forever hunted for it, torn between her love for her children and for her kin and the sea. Often the husband was desperately in love with his free spirited seal wife, beholden to her and yet tormented by his knowledge that she would leave him the moment she found her own skin.

In 'The Red Curtains', I wrote an Australian version of the Selkie fable. The story crosses over surprisingly well when you consider our history. Most Selkie stories come from regions in the north where people hunted seals. They hunted seals here too - and the sealers, in the tradition of the Fin Folk, stole women right off the beaches.

The Pallawah women of Tasmania were famed for their swimming and diving skills, garnering muttonfish (abalone) and crayfish from the deep. These women, when the sealers hit the Bass Strait, were traded as wives for kinship rights and the more immediate concerns of dogs and food, but they were also stolen away as they went down to the shore to hunt and gather.

Early in the morning the women meander on the beach, with their kid daughters, toeing tidal sands for cockles and oysters, filling string bags with meat and juicy samphire. A whaleboat laden with strangers comes, a dark spider across the water ...

Once a sealer had chosen his wife, her life choices narrowed into a thin string of circumstance. Often she lived with a few of her peers on an island populated with Irish, African American, English, Maori or Indian men and women. Her homeland and family from what is now named Tasmania was being decimated by wars, and Black Line genocide, her people hunted down. She worked hard. She scraped salt, fished, killed seals, hunted tammar and made some mercenary decisions about her numerous pregnancies. A thousand cuts. Always, she looked for her skin.

It is a dangerous place, in changing times, on the sea shore.

Selkie image - Forest Rogers , www.
Pallawah image - Sketch of Van Diemen's Land. D. Colbrun Pearce.


  1. wow. awesome post. i've always had an interest in selkies. what interesting connections you've made! ^_^

  2. Thank you for explaining about Selkies & unravelling the myth.
    The celtic underworld is the realm under the sea & it is also part of faerie. We in my townsland have a story about a faerie wife who returns to her people by jumping into a lake & voices of welcome are heard coming from out of the water.

  3. Wonderful read, Sarah! :))
    what beautiful parallels from our antipodean positions. I need to create more time and read further from your selkie tales :)
    Nat :)

  4. Isn't it brilliant when 'archetypes' emerge in culture like this - crossing between 'real' life and myth and linking them.
    I wonder what the totem animal of these Aboriginal Tasmanian sea-women was? Wouldn't it be fun if their 'skin' name and/or totem somehow linked in too.

  5. Thanks Vencora. A Heron's View: my son's name comes from those same folk you speak of! Michelle and Nat, it amazing isn't it, the roots of these stories and how they ;link up. :)

  6. Ummph! Well I have been tempted but I am now certainly not going to tell 'chelle were her skin is!

  7. I'm sure that's not the basis on which she's hangin' around, Ramsnake. It's okay ... :)

  8. Hello; I happened upon your blog and am ever so pleased I did - what an enchanting place! I found this post fascinating - thanks for telling about the selkies, I've wanted to know more about them myself.

    best wishes

  9. How about you Sarah, who found your skin? Got any ideas of where they might have hidden it?

  10. Ever difficult questions, Tim! thanks for visiting Tree Shadow Moon.

  11. Just got to this one. Another great read. At present I'm working on the idea Edward Edwards was a half-caste. His father a negro, his mother Pallawah.

    My Google search for 'Pallawah' threw this post up as first reference. Impressive!

  12. Great post. This was fascinating. I love Selkies in part because they're not as heavily done as some fantasy elements.

  13. Hello Ciaran and Victoria. Thanks for your comments. Yes, it is very likely EE could have had an African American father and Pallawah mother.

  14. Rhapsodic maids of winedark sea
    I will play a durge for thee
    In grinding tones of lifes laments
    I'll pay the soul, but not the rent

  15. And a damn fine dirge it was too, jubjub. Thanks for the music, the fire and the friendship.