One of these mythical creatures is a selmaðr (Old Norse for "Seal Man"), a seal that can magically transform into a human simply by shedding its skin. 

These mythical creatures are part of stories and legends that have continued to captivate audiences for more than a millennium.

Selkies vs. selmaðr

A selkie is a mythological creature that can shapeshift, from a seal to a human, that are littered throughout many folklores of northern Europe, including Scottish, Irish, and Norse. 

Whilst the name may differ, the Norse creature - selmaðr - shares many similarities with the more commonly known (at least in the Anglophone world) Hibernian version. These creatures can seamlessly shapeshift between their human and animal forms by simply shedding their seal skin.

Whilst they share some common traits with the selkies of Irish and Scottish folklore, the Norse selmaðr are slightly different. Throughout the Norse sagas and legends, the selmaðr seem much less able to shapeshift easily and are depicted as being more tied to their original seal form. 

They are also depicted as powerful and more fearsome than their Hibernian counterparts, often associated with romance and hopeless love.

The cultural blending of Scottish, Irish, and Norse folklore is best found on the Orkney Islands. These islands were originally once a part of the Viking world before being handed to the Norwegian monarch and then eventually being ceded to Scotland in the late 15th century CE. 

Almost every island in the Orkneys has a local selmaðr myth, legend, or story associated with it. These tales illustrate how the Norse still can influence Orkney cultural life centuries after its absorption into Britain.

Littered throughout Norse sagas and stories

Despite the maritime prowess of the Vikings, there was an undercurrent (pardon the pun) of mixed feelings toward the power of the open ocean. 

Whilst the Norse god Ægir personified the ocean as benign, it was his wife, the goddess Rán, often pictured with a net trying to capture sailors and lure them to the bottom of the ocean, that had a more malign personification. 

The selmaðr were often associated with Rán and the dark secrets of the sea in Norse sagas.

A selkie is a mythological creature that can shapeshift from a seal to a human. Photo: Nick Fox / Shutterstock

In Egils Saga, the eponymous hero, Egil Skallagrímsson, encounters a group of selmaðr along the coast on a coastal voyage. Much like the sirens of Greek mythology, the selmaðr manage to lure Egil and capture him. 

He is taken to their underwater kingdom and forced to marry their ruler, a queen. Thanks to his cunning and smarts, Egil manages to trick his new wife into disclosing the location of a secret underwater treasure and escapes back to the surface...and bachelorhood.

Like Egil, Hrólf Kraki features as the hero of his own saga (Hrólfs saga kraka). Similar to the story involving Egil, Hrolf also encounters selmaðr whilst sailing. 

He is also abducted against his will and forced to marry their queen. However, unlike Egil, who runs away a rich man, Hrolf manages to usurp the selmaðr queen and rule the underwater kingdom in his own right.

Despite their preference for lone male sailors, the selmaðr often prey on women too. Two stories recount how a lonely creature tries to woo a woman but scares her off when it reveals its true, seal self. 

In another, the creature is tricked into revealing how it can shapeshift to humans and is eventually killed off in a bloody battle.

A vital part of the lure of Norse mythology

The selmaðr play an important part in Norse mythology, sagas, and stories. These powerful and mysterious creatures are associated with the unknown mysteries of the dark blue sea. 

Furthermore, whilst they may often be depicted as dangerous creatures, they can also be shown in a more sympathetic light, underscoring the complex relationship that the Norse had with maritime life and sailing. 

Many are often used to depict the dangers of the sea for sailors who travel into the realm of Rán and Ægir.

The ability of a magical creature to shapeshift between a human and an animal form is a recurring and popular motif that is dotted throughout many Norse sagas and stories. 

There is no better motif, or certainly a more entertaining one, than the selmaðr who epitomizes the Norse complex and nuanced love/hate relationship with the ocean.

The Scotsman has published an article on the Vikings have influenced Scottish culture, available to read here

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