In Celtic tradition, land and goddess were one: each particular place, each hill or mound, forest or well had its own fairfolk or guardians associated with it. They and the land were one: if harmed or insulted in any way it was the land that suffered. Kings were given their sovereignty when they married the land. Oftentimes in stories the land was in the form of a beautiful maiden who had shown her deep connection to the landscape and its natural inhabitants.
Women were not only the custodians of the wild: they were the wild. Their intuitive understanding of the plants and animals, of the woods, of secret caves or dark wells came not through distance or thought, but an instinctive, whole person immersion into the ways of the land. Nothing was airy fairy. These are practical, grounded women who lived through their challenges and problems with the utter belief that the land would support and help them in their distress. And it is true.
We – as a whole – have lost that deep connection. To call it connection is already a distancing. We are nature. Our bodies are of the wild, our souls speak of rivers, the quiet of woods, the murmur of wolves nursing their young. Our hearts beat with the slow steady rhythm of the earth. As sure as we take our environment in with every breath, our intuitive selves understand it, and in releasing that breath we communicate on the deepest of levels.
And yet we forget. To scrape our modernity aside, to allow our intuitive selves to breathe and perhaps even to sing: that is the challenge we face today. If we are to live fully in these times as women, we must allow ourselves to experience the land, to surrender to that part of ourselves that belongs to the earth.
Like the selkie who has had her skin taken from her, we are out of our element, always looking into the far away searching, longing.
And how to begin? Trust ourselves. Listen to that intuitive voice within, that ‘gut feeling’. Be imaginative, creative. Talk to plants, better still sit with plants and listen to them. Read mythology and folk tales, full of deep wisdom and a knowing of place. Seek the folklore of your heritage, if you’re not sure which, go with the one that speaks to you the most. Touch the earth.
In the furthest islands off the coast of Scotland, there lived a fisherman. He was a young man, quite handsome and the girls of the village liked him well enough, but the man showed no interest in them. He was in love with the sea. He spent his days fishing and often at night he would sit by the water, listening to the waves and watching the phosphorescence glitter like fallen stars. One night as he was sitting quietly he heard a noise above the waves, a noise like laughter. He was far from the village and it was late in the evening, no one would be out at this time. He followed the noise to a cove where he kept his lobster pots, and crawling up the rocks to look in (for it was high tide and there was no entrance by the beach), he saw a wonderous sight. Below him dancing and laughing were 12 beautiful young women with skin as pale as the moonlight, eyes as deep as the darkest well and long graceful limbs. He watched in awe, hardly could he take his eyes from them, but after some time he looked about the cove, and sure enough, quite close to him, lay a pile of skins. Selkies. Unable to stop himself he carefully made his way down into the cove and took one of the the skins, wrapping it tightly and placing it carefully inside his coat.
Before dawn the women left their dance and came for their skins. One by one they slipped back into their seal selves and slid gracefully into the waves. All but one. She laughingly had followed each sister down to the water and splashed in the waves with them, but now she was looking for her skin. And looking more and more frantically. Almost with embarrasment the fisherman clambered down the rocks and showed himself. “I have your skin and I ask that you stay with me for 7 years. By then I hope that you will be happy enough to stay with me forever.” The selkie looked at him for a long time. She could not return to the sea and her sisters without her skin. She would have to go with this man.
At first her life was awkward and hard on the land. But the fisherman was always gentle and sweet to her and by and by she grew to like him and to like the life on land. She learned how to milk the goats and how to find the chicken’s eggs, how to eat the kale and the nettles, how to wear clothes of wool and linen, how to make bread and spin. And she was strong and quick and fearless. After a year or so the selkie gave birth to a daughter, and they named her Orac, after the seal’s word for sky. And Orac was a beautiful child, with skin as pale as the moon, eyes as deep as the darkest well and long graceful limbs. And so life went well, for a time.
Little Orac was a joy, and she had begun to love the fisherman, but always, and now more than ever, she missed her own people and the sea. She would find herself lost to her work, staring out at the water, or lying awake at night listening to the waves, straining to hear her people’s laughter. More and more she would find herself standing on the cliffs looking out, not for her husband’s boat, but for any sign of her sisters. Month by month she became quieter, more distant. Her hair began to dull, her skin to dry, her deep dark eyes seemed a little less lively and quick. She counted the days til the 7th anniversary of the fisherman’s arrival in her life. When it came she asked for her skin.
It seemed that the fisherman had forgotten all about the promise he had made. He loved his wife dearly and did not want her to leave and so, without understanding the significance, he told her no, she could not have her skin.
The selkie was devastated. From that moment she changed. Joy left her, and though she loved Orac with great intensity, she was unhappy in her daily life. The child was aware of the change in her mother and begged to know how she could make her happy. The selkie who felt as life itself was slipping from her told her daughter about a beautiful pelt that she was missing. Orac beamed, she knew of a pelt that her father kept hidden in his boat and ran to fetch it. But the once beautiful skin had lain too long without care or use. When the woman held it to her, breathing deeply its salt and seaweed scent, the skin began to fall apart. It was too late. The selkie collapsed and Orac half pushed, half dragged her mother to the water’s edge and rolled her in the waves. This saved her life, but it was a poor creature that lent on the child’s shoulders on their return to the house.
Orac was as strong and as quick and as fearless as her mother. Young as she was she set out along the cliffs to the cove where the old woman lived. It was said that the old woman was a witch, a sorceress. Orac hoped that was so, for maybe she had a cure for her mother’s distress. The old woman admired the courage of the girl but told her that it was only the mother that could save herself. She did however tell Orac how it could be done.
The following full moon Orac helped her mother as far as the old woman’s cove. The selkie, who was very weak, continued on alone. She was to walk out towards the headlands in search of the cave of the Cailleach, she was to go alone, and take nothing with her. She kissed her child, held her close, then walked away. Even though the night was calm and the moon shone her light generously, the woman struggled. Her boots had become heavy on her feet, her shawl scratched at her dry, painful skin, her eyes saw the world in a blur. She had no idea where she was going; the waves below her looked very inviting, though she knew in this state she would surely drown if she entered the water. In her exhaustion and despair she dropped to the rocks. As she lay she could hear the blood pounding in her chest and the waves crashing below her, and something else. She stopped her breath to listen and there was another sound, a sound like the whirring of a spinning wheel, coming from somewhere close by. She crawled to the cliff’s edge and peered down and a foot or so below her she saw a step. It was barely a step, uneven and narrow, with no rail or hand hold, but it was a step, and looking further she saw more leading down the cliff face. There was nothing else to do but to lower herself over the edge and with the too heavy boots, feel out that first step. Hugging the cliff with every pore of her skin she edged further down, one slow breath at a time. After an age she stood at the entrance of a cave. A faint light glowed inside and the noise of a spinning wheel spinning fast rose above the waves.
“I know who you are and why you’ve come” the Cailleach spoke without turning. Her voice was like great stones moving against each other and she sat with her huge bulk crammed tight against the walls of the cave. “You must undress and dive down into the water here, you will find a cave entrance below this one and there you must enter and there you will find your answer.” The Cailleach took up her spinning again and said no more. The selkie was cold and tired and weak. She looked at the water for a long time, the waves hit hard against the foot of the cliff sending great salt sprays at her as though to catch her. She was afraid. Slowly she undressed. Her skin that had once been as pale as the moonlight was now grey, her limbs once long and graceful, were buckled and clumsy. She did not know if she had strength enough.
The water hit her like an ice wall. It stung her eyes and clutched at her chest, the current pulled her down, it was all she could do to hold on to the cliff and search for an opening. Her breath was almost gone when she felt a gap in the stone. She pushed herself through the narrow opening and found herself in a dark cold space, “like a tomb” she thought, “maybe I am dead”. She stood there dripping and shivering waiting for her eyes to grow accustomed to the dark. The moment they did she wished with all her heart for darkness again. There in a pile before her were 11 seal skins and 11 seal carcasses. Her screams and keening echoed back and forth as she recognised the skins as those belonging to her sisters. Someone had done this terrible thing. Had killed the seals for their skins and left them here somehow. The woman fell atop the carcasses and wept and as she wept she began to sing the old songs, the oldest songs she knew in her seal tongue. Why had the Cailleach sent her here, was her body and heart not already broken? The selkie cried terrible tears of loss. She rocked the bodies of her sisters in her arms and kissed their skins and felt that it would be fitting for her to die here alongside them. And then in her mad grief she imagined she saw movement in the bodies and feel warmth coming back to them. It was true, slowly the bodies of the sisters began to wake as though from a long deep sleep. All but the youngest sister. Each kissed thewoman who had been taken from them so many years before, then each hurried into her seal skin and slipped out the opening into the sea. The woman was left alone with her youngest sister who had not awoken, who’s body was not warm. Gently she kissed the girl, bathing her with her own tears, then she took her skin and slipped it over her own body.
At once strength seeped back into her. She closed her eyes and felt her heart. Then she too slipped out and into the water.
Orac grew to be a beautiful young woman. She was strong and quickand fearless, and that was why they said she chose to live alone down by the water. They said too that she was a little wild and strange, for at night, sometimes, above the sound of the waves, the villagers heard her laughing and singing, swimming naked in the cold waves.