The legends of the selkies
Legends of seals that emerge from the sea, shed their skin and become humans are found in many variations in many countries and groups of islands, including Scotland, Ireland, Shetland, the Orkneys and the Faroe Islands.
These legends can be considered ancient tales of the meeting between man and nature, intellect and instinct, the tamed and the wild. The stories themselves have developed over centuries and have been kept alive as oral traditions. They were not written down until the late 19th century.
Our tribute to the selkie has emerged from these legends. This work – with its poetry and music – finally gives the woman from the sea a voice of her own.
The unique Kingo-song, which is deeply rooted in Faroese church culture, is part of the soundscape that takes us back to an island community of the past. This also makes this work a powerful meeting between Christianity and Pantheism.Read more...
The Faroese legend of the seal woman – retold
It is said that twelve nights after Christmas, on the night of Epiphany, the darkest time of year, the seals climb the cliffs to dance. In the moonlight they shed their skin and, on this one night of the year, they become humans. On the black stone plateau, between sea and land, they celebrate memories of a time when man still lived in harmony with nature. They dance through the night, until the sun rises again.
One night, everything changes for one of the seal women. A young man – from the village of Mikladalur – climbs the rocks in the darkness to watch the wild creatures. He brashly sneaks closer and closer and is irrevocably enchanted by one of the dancing seal women. Unable to take his eyes off her, he decides to steal her skin.
The dance ends as the sun rises like a flaming wheel on the horizon. But as the other seals wrap themselves in their shiny sealskin and move towards the salty sea, the seal woman is still looking for hers. Suddenly they stand face to face – a woman and a man from separate worlds.
The waves break on the rocks and the seabirds cry. The man nervously backs away from her, clinging to the skin. The selkie can see his beauty, but also his fear. She instantly decides to follow him, curiously watching him clutching her skin. She is drawn by his fear and his desire. He wants something from her, and even though she can hear the ocean calling her back, her attraction to the man is stronger. They arrive at the village, and she follows him into his house and gives herself to him. They become lovers.
Time makes demands on the seal woman. She marries the man and they have children. For a while they are happy, and everything is new. But the man is never able to conquer his fear of losing her, and so he locks her skin in a chest. And every day he carries the key on a chain around his neck.
Days follow days, and years follow years. The seal woman often finds herself standing on the very edge of the cliff, looking at the sea that still flows in her mind. As the years pass, her yearning becomes a powerful force within her. The price of being tamed is steep, and she knows that one day she must leave dry land and her children, sacrificing everything to throw herself into the depths of the sea again. This is a great sorrow, but a deep certainty – an instinctive choice to survive. The sea is her true home.
So, early one morning, the selkie does what she must do, she steals the key from her husband before he goes out fishing, and leaves her children. But before she goes, she puts out the fire and hides all sharp objects that might hurt them. One after one, she kisses them goodbye and commits their faces to her memory. She then opens the chest, takes the skin and walks out of the house.
“My beloved, my beloved”, her thoughts repeat as she runs for the beach. This last battle within her is between the sorrow and the joy of her decision to leave. She mourns all the love that she has to leave behind, but is exhilarated by the freedom what awaits. And then she disappears, diving into the cold abyss never to return. The man does not realise that he has lost the key to the chest until it is too late, and he is inconsolable when he understands that the seal woman has abandoned him. The children sometimes hear their mother’s voice in the surf, and they know that she will watch over them forever.
Marjun S. Kjelnæs
Mads Emil Nielsen
Hallur Johnson (on Trettanda nátt)
Samples on 4 & 8
Trad.Tjørnuvík (sung by Vilhelm Magnussen)
Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs
& Nicolai Abrahamsen
The Danish Radio Big Band
Soloist – Tenor horn & electronics:
Jakob Munck Mortensen
Nicolai Schultz (solo on 3)
Trumpets & Flugelhorns:
Steen Nikolaj Hansen
Mette Termansen (on 5, 7, 8 & 11)
Jeu de Timbres & Klop Organ:
Percussion & Drums:
The Danish Vocal Ensamble
Astrid Kastensson Navarro-Alonso
Malene Nordtorp (solo on 3)
Asger Lynge Petersen (solo on 7),
Rasmus Kure Thomsen
Martin Røen Hansen
The Danish Radio Big Band &
The Danish National Vocal Ensemble
Nicolas Koch Futtrup
Peter Gundestrup Tönshoff
Niklas Antonson – NOTATION