Seal Woman

10 10 2008

“Sealwoman/Yundah”

Words & music by Mary McLaughlin

 

Over the waves, you call to me

Shadow of dream, ancient mystery

Oh how I long for your sweet caress

Oh how I long for your gentleness

 

Torn between sea mists and solid land

Nights when I’ve ached for a human hand

I’ll come to you while the moon shines bright

But I must go free with the first strike of light

 

Over the waves, you call to me

Shadow of dream, ancient mystery

Oh how I long for your sweet caress

Oh how I long for your gentleness

 

(incorporating YUNDAH, a traditional Hebridean chant; on Celtic Voices: Women of Song CD)

 Hear the song:

Seal Woman

I love this song, with its haunting melodies and rhythms which speak of longing and lust. It reminds me of my trip this past summer to the mystical coast of Scotland.

Mary McLaughlin explains:

There is a legend in the Scottish and Irish islands that tells of of “silkies” or “selkies.” These “seal people” assume human form, come to the land to mix with humans and then return to the sea in seal form. This version of the sealwoman chant comes from the Outer Hebrides and I learned it from Joan Mills via Frankie Armstrong in a singers’ workshop. I’ll never forget the magic of standing in a candle-lit church and hearing 20 fine singers lift their voices in harmony to sing the “Yundah” chant. I wrote the sealwoman song to try to capture the ambivalence of the seal people—on the one hand, attracted to human life and, on the other, valuing their own free existence in the waves.


 

 

 

In Orkney mythology, the seal woman, or selkie, becomes a woman by putting aside her seal skin. If she does not put the skin back on, she generally is condemned to live as a human; sometimes, she chooses to do so and marries a fisherman, but she must eventually go back to the see. Human males who find the skin can enslave the selkie. She is often the source of tragic romances.

The story captures some of the mysteries of those who live along treacherous coastlands; danger and the unknown loom at every horizon and in every fog-enshrouded inlet. The seal, which often follows fishermen, has a knowing look and can be mistaken for a human, but the myth, I think, also comes from the desire of men to control women and from the need to explain our connections with each other and with nature.

The selkie fulfills the archetype of the Trickster. According to Lewis Hyde,

Trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the grey-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. . .Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox. (Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, & Art [New York: North Point, 1999], p. 41).

 

 

        John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the book by Rosalie K. Fry, plays with these paradoxes, as do the films Selkie, The Seventh Stream, and Sea People. As with most works in which a male director adapts a work by a woman, the male’s point of view becomes dominant. The selkie, as the Other, destabilizes the boundaries between animal and human, nature and human, the wild and civilization. Her longings for the sea echo our longings for Nature, for the freedom to swim and frolic without the cares of the world.

 

 

She ties us to our mythical past, and points to the mysteries in life—mysteries that may appear at any time if we are open to them. Her journey to land, and back to the water, is a different kind of journey than the more traditional epic quest, as hers is usually much more personal. She thus offers a different type of archetypal journey, a more spiritual one, that may be worth exploring in light of Gilligan et al.’s discussions of the female quest.

 

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