Ursilla and the Selkie-Folk

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Mythologies from various cultures have given us numberless tales where the world of humans and that of animals blend into each other. Shapeshifting or therianthropy is a common motif appearing in various nations across the continents where human beings possess the magical ability to metamorphose into other animals. From the 2nd BC century where Pausanias recounts the story of Lycaon, the first lycanthrope or werewolf, to the cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, and from the Irish cycle narrating the transformation of Lir’s children into swans to the Navajo’s tribal belief in skinwalkers, shapeshifting is deeply rooted in humanity’s imagined reality.

A particular form of therianthropy can be found in Gaelic accounts from the Northern isles (Orkney and Shetland) where narratives of the selkie folk abound.  The selkie folk are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. The majority of these yarns centre on the love affairs between mortal men and female selkies.

A man steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife. But the wife always yearns to reunite with her brethren in the sea, and often stares with longing at the ocean. She usually bears several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she leaps into the sea, abandoning forever the children she once loved and took care of.

Sometimes, one of her children discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. Others  it is revealed she already had a first husband of her own kind, from whom she was forced to separate. In some versions, the selkie wife is never seen again by the family in her human form, but the children are approached by a large seal, the animal “greeting” them plaintively.

Male selkies are rumoured to be very handsome as humans and invincible when it comes to seducing human women, usually seeking those dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands.

During the 19th century, in 1893, the Orkney antiquarian and folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison,  published in the pages of the Scottish Antiquary the semi-mythical yarn of an Orcadian woman who engages in an affair with a selkie man and gives birth to children with distinctive physical traits. 

Dennison, reluctant to ”bring shame on the family and embarass her descendants” and willing to protect her honour and reputation, doesn’t disclose her real name. Instead, he calls her Ursilla.

Ursilla was the daughter of a laird belonging to one of the oldest families in Orkney.

She was handsome and pretty, but had a sternness of manner, and that firmness of features which often presents a masculine exterior in families of Norse blood, and often hides, as with a film of ice, a loving heart within.

Ursilla was not one to wait patiently till some one turned up to offer himself as her husband. Indeed, had any one presumed to approach her as a lover, she would have treated him with haughty disdain, regarding his bold presumption as sufficient ground for his rejection.

She determined not to be chosen, but to choose for herself.

Her choice fell on a young handsome fellow, who acted as her father’s barn-man. But she knew that any disclosure of her passion would mortally offend her old father and bitterly mortify his family pride and might lead him to disinherit her.

So she locked up her love in her own breast; kept watchful eye on the object of her love, and treated him to a full share of the scoldings she daily bestowed on the servants.

When, however, her father died, and her [dowry] was safe, she disclosed her passion to the young man, and commanded him to marry her—a command which he was too gallant to disobey.

Her marriage excited among the gentry great indignation; to think that one of their class should marry a farm-servant. Ursilla treated their contempt with indifference; she made a good housewife, managed her house well, and also, it was said, managed her husband and the farm.

Yes, Ursilla was married, and all went well and happily, so far as outward appearances showed; Yet Ursilla was not happy. If disappointed in her husband, she was far too proud to acknowledge it, knowing that the gentry would only say in derision, “She shaped her own cloth, let her wear her ill-fitting dress.”

Whatever the cause might be, there was a terrible want — a want that Ursilla felt bitterly.

And she was not the woman to sit down and cry over her sorrow; she determined to console herself by having intercourse with one of the selkie-folk.

She went at early morning and sat on a rock at high-tide mark, and when it was high tide she shed seven tears in the sea. People said they were the only tears she ever shed. But you know this is what one must do if she wants speech with the selkie-folk. Well, as the first glimpse of dawn made the waters grey, she saw a big selkie swimming for the rock.

He raised his head, and says he to her, “What’s your will with me, fair lady?”

She likely told him what was in her mind; and he told her he would visit her at the seventh stream [spring tide], for that was the time he could come in human form.

So, when the time was come, he came; and they met over and over again. And, doubtless, it was not for good that they met so often. Anyway, when Ursilla’s bairns were born every one of them had web hands and webbed feet, like the paws of a selkie.

And did not that tell a tale?

The midwife clipped the webs between every finger, and between every toe of each bairn.

“She showed the shears that she used to my grandmother.” So said the narrator. And many a clipping Ursilla clipped, to keep the fins from growing together again; and the fins not being allowed to grow in their natural way, grew into a horny crust on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And this horny substance is seen in many of Ursilla’s descendants to this day.

Whatever may be thought of this tale, its last sentence is quite true.

The horn still appears on feet and hands of some of the lady’s descendants. One, two, or three in a family may show the abnormal horny substance; while brothers and sisters are entirely free from the troublesome horn.

Some ten years ago, while engaging a harvest hand, I said to one of these men, “Of course, you can do all kinds of harvest work?”

“Oh na, sir,” said he, “hid’s nae use tae tell a lee aboot hid; but I cinno’ bind a sheaf wi’ this plaguid horn in me livs.”

Another of the same family told me that when, through the growth of the horn, he was unable to walk or work, he would, with hammer and chisel, cut off large slices of horn from the soles of his feet. This growth is by no means confined to those engaged in manual labour. I have felt it on the hands of one of the same race who followed a profession where manual labour was not required.

This curious phenomenon seems well worthy of careful investigation by the physiologist. Pity it could not be traced to the seal; we might then be in sight of the missing link.

Many wild tales were told of the offspring of such strange parentage who had webbed hands and feet; but the foregoing will serve to illustrate a once popular belief.

In his account, Dennison emphasised the distinction between fact and fiction, reminding his readers that the information provided until Ursilla’s marriage to her human husband was true but the second half of the account was merely “an imaginary tale, invented by gossips, in order to account for a strange phenomenon visibly seen on her descendants.”

Dennison himself lent no credibility to the fantastical elements sprinkled throughout the tale and only exposed it to the public to better ”illustrate one of the popular beliefs.” However, even though he disbeileved the folklore origin of this horny crust found on the hands and feet of some of Ursilla’s descendants, the condition at least was medically and scientifically verified.

In the end, what are we to infer from such colourful narration? Is the existence of selkies a charming but ignorant way to offer an explanation for a medical anomaly for which they couldn’t account back then? Do the selkies function as a symbol of sexual desire that must not be suppressed but satisfied? Are they an expression of longing for things beyond our mortal reach, for the forbidden, for what we term as ”the other”? Or are they a reminder of sin and loss of honour associated with spousal infidelity?

No matter the meaning we attach to it, one thing is certain: the call of the wild and the primordial still resounds in our collective unconscious, harkening back to millions of years when we ran alongside beasts and shared a home with them.

 

 

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Fragments of Annwn – Depths

Fellow blogger, poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, Lorna Smithers presents through the following fragments her own personal vision of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld housing the dead and the fairies. Haunting, mysterious and melancholic, these fragments of fiction and poetry excel at transporting the reader to a parallel dimension full of strange charm and sublime truths.

From Peneverdant

No-One Knows

the extent of the marshland of Annwn. Some cross it in a day. For others it goes on forever like the mist that obscures the musical birds, the shriekers of the mournful shrieks, the droners of the ancient drone, the players of the carnyxes that gurgle beneath the waters. You never know what is splashing behind on countless feet until it is too late. Sometimes you get lost following the will-o-wisps like lost hopes to where all hope fails. Sometimes you make sacrifices or become the sacrifice see your bog body your ghost flying free like a lonely bird. You become an inspirer or a guide only to bring doom to the unwary. When you think you know the way you slip. When you think you have found the awen you find it escapes words, that the sigh of its name is already escaping your lungs, that breath…

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The Druids in Fact, Folklore and Fiction – Part One

For a couple of years now, if mot more, I’ve been around collecting material that will help me with my first attempt at my second novel. A work of historical fiction, it takes place during the reign of emperor Claudius and focuses partly on the terrible clash between the Romans and the Druids.

I’ve long harboured a strong fascination for all things Celtic and the subject of Druidry and the mysterious figures of the Druids is one that holds a special place in my heart.

After reading various books and academic articles written by archaeologists, historians and scholars on Celtic culture, in my online wanderings I stumbled upon this excellent blogpost that sheds light on the topic of Druidry and the role it played within the Celtic society. Well-researched, it offers a concise yet thorough overview on the Celts and their cultural, social and religious beliefs, the role of the Druids themselves, the sacrifices and religious rites they were involved in, the existence of female Druids and how these sage folk disappeared from the historical record and ended up the stuff of legend and folklore.

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The Horror of it All CategoryThe Druids in Fact, Folklore and Fiction – Part One

The Druids were a high-ranking priestly class among the Iron Age Celtic Peoples of Europe, they were at their most influential within Celtic society starting sometime between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE up until the 1st century CE when the Romans started to prohibit their activities. Little is actually known about the Druids and their practices for they kept no written records themselves, having a purely oral tradition. It is only from a few (probably biased) contemporary snippets of information given by Classical writers that any details can be gleaned, though perhaps also some can be (cautiously) deduced from later Early-Medieval British and Irish histories, myths and folktales, as well as from other surviving folklore that can be reasonably sourced to an ancient Celtic origin. Practically everything we know about the Druids is hugely debatable – and that even includes…

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Book Review: The Lion and the Lark

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Written by Doreen Owens Malek, The Lion and the Lark is a historical novel that takes place in 44 B.C. and focuses on the conquest of the isle of Britain by the military forces of Rome.

Right after the assassination of Julius Ceasar, the various Celtic tribes of the North instigate a successive wave of rebellion to break free from the Roman yoke. In the wake of such resistance, Octavian along with Mark Antony dispatch General Scipio and tribune Claudius Leonatus to Britain to quell the natives and further the Roman agenda.

In a political maneuver, it is decided that Claudius will enter into matrimony with Bronwen, the stunning princess of the Iceni tribe. And thus begins a journey of emotional upheaval and personal growth whose consequences nobody could have ever foreseen.

Malek is a writer with a keen eye for historical detail and, apart from a couple of inaccuracies, the novel is infused with the spirit of the ancient era. With colourful descriptions varying from ancient customs, clothes, food and cultural mentalities to the landscape of both Rome and Britain, the reader is transported back in a time and place where people were no less genuine, flawed, complex or humane than we are today.

With both sides intent on serving their own interests by attempting to outwit and outfight each other, the enemy suddenly ceases being a faceless monster and becomes a breathing person of flesh and blood. By marrying Claudius, Bronwen works as a spy for her tribe while the Romans consider her nothing more than a hostage in case the Iceni renege on their bargain.

Claudius, however, drawn to his wife’s beauty and vulnerability, proves to be much more than the brutal conqueror Bronwen had initially thought of, for beneath his national identity he’s a man of honour, capable of profound emotion and passion. Something which throws a spanner in Bronwen’s plans as she gradually realizes that things are not as clear-cut as they were supposed to be.

Deeply traumatized by her mother’s rape and death at the hands of the Romans, she initially refuses to peer beneath her husband’s exterior but Claudius’s gentle and respectful treatment of her is the catalyst that turns their marriage from a political agreement to a genuine bond of love and sensuality.

In a parallel fashion, the reader follows the progress of another couple as well, that of Brettix, the mighty warrior of the Iceni and brother to Bronwen, and Lucia, the young daughter of General Scipio. Captured as a slave on the battlefield during an uprising against the Romans, Brettix arranges with the slave trader to be sold as a horse trainer to Lucia so as to observe the comings and goings of the General and collect all the information he can get regarding the Romans.

But just like with his sister, things don’t go according to plan for Brettix either and he ends up getting much more than he had hoped for. Initially thinking of Lucia as a means to serve his cause, the more he spends time with her, the more attached he becomes for, although, spoiled, Lucia proves herself a woman of strong will and caring disposition. And what starts out as a self-serving deal soon develops into something deeper and much more meaningful, even though completely unexpected.

An important theme of the novel is that of moral ambiguity with various characters remarking how similar in some aspects the two cultures are, therefore highlighting the hypocrisy of the colonial perspective. Boundaries become blurred, and people respond with a sort of pathos and personal code that renders it impossible to strictly characterize them as either good or bad.

That is best evident with Claudius and Bronwen as when things escalate and the treaty between the two parties is considered null and void, both become victims of a tremendous inner conflict, torn between duty and love until they get to enjoy their happy ending after their much anguished tribulation.

The Lion and the Lark is a beautiful and moving novel that sweeps the reader into a world where the individual rises from the collective as a powerful and intricate force, preconceptions crumble, right and wrong becomes an elusive matter and the human factor takes central stage.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nine Priestesses of the Isle of Sena in Brittany

Cults, rituals, divinities, worship, mysticism. Religion in fiction, especially in the fantastic, has always held an irresistible fascination for me. My own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, couldn’t be an exception of course. Trying to trace the origins of the solar goddess my main characters worship in their homeland, the isle of Rumia, my mind immediately drifted to the ancient tales of classical Roman and Greek writers who, in their recordings of the ancient Celts, spoke of the doctrines and teachings of the Druids.

My novel being heavily influenced by the Celtic tradition and the world of the stories contained in the Mabinogion, I thought it would be a great opportunity to take advantage of such recordings, especially one that refers to the nine priestesses who lived in isolation in the isle of Sena in Brittany. Tradition has portrayed them as Druidesses, strong in shapeshifting, healing and controlling the elements.

The following blogpost offers insight into who these mysterious women were and what their role upon the isle was.

Celtic Mythology

The nine priestesses, or druidesses, of the Isle of Sena were known in the legends of the Celts in Brittany as the Gallizenae. The Isle du Sein, or the Isle of Sena, was a small island off the west coast of France.

The maidens venerated a god of prophecy at a shrine on the island. They were renowned for their supernatural powers as seers and healers.

Pomponius Mela was a Roman chronicler during the first century AD. He mentioned the nine priestesses of the Isle of Sena in his literary works.

The nine virgin priestesses worshipped a Gallic god of prophecy in a temple on the island. They were famous for using their magical powers to shape-shift into animals and raise great storms at sea at will.

The nine priestesses of the Isle of Sena were also healers and prophetesses. Their supernatural gifts healed ailments and diseases which were thought…

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The Arthurian Realm: The Quest for the Sangreal

Under the influence!

The Sangreal

In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier. It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest. The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice. There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le…

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