A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a screenshot of a book cover between my photos taken in 2016. Apparently it was important to me to save this photo, taken by a social media friend. Let’s have a look, I thought. I searched for the title with my e-reader “If women rose rooted” by Sharon Blackie and yes it was available. I felt drawn by the book and voilà, just one click away and I got it. The luxuries of the digital world. I’d rather support a local bookshop, but the only bookstore on the island is no longer alive. Besides, in our tiny home I don’t have any space for more books…
No regrets of this purchase as it is absolutely brilliant and so well written! There is a strong connection to the classic “Women who run with the wolves” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, the famous book about the “Wild Woman” archetype. I was hungry for more when I finished the book. Blackie is so eloquent and with each page I got more and more involved in her stories. It’s a book about her Heroine’s Journey – her rocky path from corporate business, where she was successful, but felt she didn’t belong — to her authentic life in which she chose to search for connection with the natural world she had always longed for.
Sharon Blackie writes about our disconnection from the Earth, female power and the oppression of female energy by the patriarchy and how to reclaim our female power — by stories and myths. She found explanations through ancient Celtic myths. They all read like fairy tales. For parts of the book she has interviewed some remarkable, inspiring women to hear their visions about these subjects. “Earth lawyer” Polly Higgens was one of these women.
There’s one old story, told all along the west coasts and islands of Scotland and Ireland, and which I read earlier in “Women who run with the wolves”. This tale is so intensely beautiful I’d like to share it here so you can find out what this old story could mean to you.
From the book “If women rose rooted” by Sharon Blackie:
The Selkie’s New Skin
There is an island to the far west of these lands, close to the end of the world; somewhere in your dreams you’ve seen it. Long white beaches, rocky coves, stormy seas. From the cliff-tops on its westernmost shores, you might sometimes catch a glimpse of Tír na mBan, the Isle of Women, way out on the horizon. When the sky is blue and the air is still – which happens rarely enough in those parts. Here, the wind blows hard and long through the dark of winter, and summer is precious and fleeting.
Somewhere along the stormiest section of that westernmost coast is a high, inaccessible cave where they say the Old Woman of the World lives still, with her companion Trickster Crow – but no one I’ve met has ever found that cave, though many have searched, and many have drowned in the process. Maybe she’s still there, stirring the soup which contains all of the seeds and all of the herbs and the essence of all the growing and living things in the world. Maybe she’s still here, working on the most beautiful weaving in the world, with its fringe of sea-urchin quills. The island’s beaches are haunted by seals. Neither common seals nor grey seals; I’ve never seen them like elsewhere. But then they’re not just ordinary seals: they’re Selkies. And for one night every month, on the night of the full moon, they can take on human form if they choose, and it is said that on those nights they slip off their sealskins and dance on the beach under the moonlight.
On this island, once there lived a fisherman. He was a handsome man with coal-black hair and bright blue eyes, and he stood tall and strong. Although many of the local girls mooned over him and dreamed of being his wife, he never seemed to find anyone that represented the qualities he wanted. He was something of a dreamer, you see. They said that it was a miracle that he managed to catch any fish at all, for all the time he would spend staring out to sea when he took his boat. He believed that love would come upon him like a clap of thunder or the crashing of the waves on the rock. And he never had that feeling with any of the girls he had grown up with: they were all too familiar, somehow. He wanted mystery. He yearned for something that he couldn’t name. One night he was feeling restless, and so he took a barefooted walk along the beach as often he did. The sky was midnight-blue velvet, the stars shining brightly, and the full moon smiling down on him as he stared out into the waves. His eyes rested on a large smooth rock that lay in the far shallow waters of the bay, and it came to him that he could see movement on and around that rock. As he paddled slowly and quietly towards it, he saw a small group of women dancing in the sea. Their hair shone like the moon, their eyes glistened like the stars and their skin shimmered like milk in the water. Their bodies were long and graceful, their voices soft and lyrical as they called and laughed with each other. They were so beautiful that he stood quite still, drinking in the sight of them as they drifted farther away from the rock, playing in the shallow water.
After a while he noticed a pile of what looked like animal skins lying on the top of the rock. Chilled to the bone and yet strangely excited, he recalled all the old tales about Selkies. They could change into women, he remembered, by slipping off their sealskins. Without those skins they would remain human and trapped on the land, unable to return to their home beneath the waves. The man was overtaken by a strange yearning as he watched the women in the sea, and a feeling crept over him that this was the mystery he had been looking for, all his young life. Somehow, these women personified his love of the sea and her beauty and mystery, and he wanted one of them for his wife. So he crept quietly to the rock and stole one of the sealskins, folding it tight and tiny, and pushed it into the pocket of his jacket.
After a while the women called to one another and began to swim back to the rock, each one finding and putting on her sealskin, transforming herself back into a seal in the wink of an eye, and then slipping away into the water, disappearing beneath the waves. All but one of them. She searched high and low, clambering over the rock and diving into the sea around it, but she failed to find her skin. Seeing her distress, the man stepped out from where he had been hiding behind the rock.
“I have your skin”, he said to her. “But I don’t want to give it back to you. Won’t you stay with me, and be my wife?” The seal-woman shook her head and shrank back from him, but slowly and carefully, as if he were gentling a wild animal, the young fisherman stepped closer to her, and as he looked into her eyes he saw hers change, widen, soften. “Seven years”, he whispered to her. “Just seven years. Give me seven years, and then I’ll give you back your skin. After that, I’ll let you decide. If you still want to leave after seven years, then I’ll let you go.” And at that moment the first light of dawn crept into the sky, and the glow of the moon began to fade. Reluctantly, then, the woman went with him, understanding that without her skin she could do nothing. She had no choice. But he seemed to her to be a handsome young man, and strong. And his eyes were kind, for all that he had visited this fate upon her. With one last yearning look over her shoulder, she waved goodbye to her sisters, their seal heads popping up from the sea, their eyes glinting like dark jewels in the fading moonlight.
The young man was happier than he had ever imagined might be possible. As he lay beside his wife in bed at night, he fancied he could smell the sea, and as he listened to her breathing beside him, he fancied that he could hear the whispers of the waves. He was content.
As for the seal-woman: she bore him a daughter, nine months after they were wed. At first she seemed happy enough with her life and with her child. Mara, she called her, after the sea. She would take her daughter down to the shore and teach her the ways and the lore of the waters, telling her stories of her people and of other mysteries beneath the waves. The child loved the sea with all her heart, but she was half-human, and so she loved the land too, and could not imagine ever forsaking it. She was at home in her skin and knew her place in the world. But then so had her mother been, when she was her daughter’s age.
The Selkie did her best to look after the child and care for her husband, but as the years went by things began to change. He went away from the house more often — either fishing, or drinking with his friends in the local inn — and she was left alone. She began to creep out by herself at night, stealing down to the shore, looking always for her sisters. But they had abandoned that beach on the night she was taken, fearing that the same fate would befall them. So she watched and she wept and as all hope began to fade she became more and more sorrowful. Her skin began to dry up, and her eyes and her hair grew ever more dull. When the seven years were up, hating herself for needing to leave her daughter, but knowing that she must find her way back to herself, which could come only with finding her way home, she asked her husband if he would return her skin. But he simply laughed and refused. She was still the most beautiful woman on the island, and she was his. Why ever would he let her go free?
The seal-woman grew slower and sadder. Frightened that she might lose her, Mara asked if she was ill, and finally her mother told her that she was fading from yearning for her lost home beneath the sea. Fading, because although she loved her husband still and loved her daughter even more, she was stranded in this place where she could not find a way to belong.
Mara feared the blank emptiness that had begun to reside in her mother’s eyes. And so she started to search for the Selkie’s lost skin. She searched every part of the house and every part of the land, but she couldn’t find it. Then eventually, one night, after she had spent hours searching again while her father was out and her mother asleep, she found herself yawning in the boatshed and crept into her father’s boat to take a nap…and there under a heap of fraying ropes and soiled sailcloth she finally found the sealskin, hidden still inside the pocket of the old jacket that the fisherman had been wearing on the night he stole her mother away. As Mara pulled at it and the skin rolled out, she caught a faint whiff of the sea — the smell of her mother. But as she picked it up from the floor where it had fallen, the skin began to disintegrate in her hands. It had not been used for a long time, and now it could never be used again.
Maria hurried home and wakened her sleeping mother, and with tears in her eyes brought her down to the shore where she presented her with her old shredded skin. She watched as her mother sank to her knees and wept. She saw the hope and then the life begin to drain out of her eyes — and then she acted. She half-carried, half-dragged her mother down to the sea, where she rolled her into the shallows and let the seawater cover her body. Slowly, slowly, the Selkie woman began to revive, but as she walked back to the house with Mara, there was nothing but emptiness in her eyes.
For many weeks the Selkie woman stayed in her bed. Her heart was a black hole; there was no help to be found, and her life stretched ahead of her, endless, dark and hopeless. She would never find her way home, never find her place, never again find a way to belong. But Mara would not let her mother die. And so she went to visit the wise old woman who lived in a small stone cottage, up in the hills at the far end of the village. She asked the old woman what she should do to help her mother — whether, indeed, anything could be done.
“Your mother must help herself,” the old woman told Mara. “You cannot do it for her. And though I know the ways of herbs and moss, and the paths that animals take through the old woods, I do not know the ways of the sea. But there is one who does, and if your mother can find her way to her, it may be that she will tell how she might be saved.”
And so Mara went home, and told her mother that she must find the Old Woman of the World, who was sometimes to be found in those days, still — if you had endurance enough to make the journey, and courage enough to face her in the darkness of her cave. At first the seal-woman said that she could not possibly follow this quest. She was too tired, and too ill. The way would be too difficult, and there was no guarantee of success. But Mara pleaded with her mother and pleaded some more and then she wept, until finally, one morning, the Selkie could bear her daughter’s despair no longer, and she roused herself from her bed and put on her strong boots and wrapped herself in a warm cloak. She took nothing else with her, for the old woman had told Mara that the journey must be made while unencumbered with unnecessary things of the world.
The Selkie did not know where to go; not really. All she knew was that she would find the Old Woman of the World somewhere on the high westernmost cliffs of the island. And so, pulling her cloak tightly around her, she began to walk north. She walked in the rain along beaches with the wind so strong in her face that every step took twice as long as it ought. She clambered over rocks so slippery that she fell constantly into the water and had hardly the strength to haul herself back out. Her boots were cold and wet and heavy, and her heart was heavier still. She drank from icy burns and ate seaweed for her only nourishment. It was hard, and she was weak, and when one wild day the storm raged more fiercely than ever and the wind finally whipped away her cloak and carried it over the cliff top where she was walking and on down to the sea, she sank to her knees and lay her forehead on the ground, and began to despair. But as she knelt there a strange rumble in the ground below her set her body vibrating, and she threw back her head and listened. And it seemed to her that, carried on the wind, in snatches, she heard a woman singing a song, somewhere down below, somewhere deep inside the cliff.
She stood, and looked around her, and walked and peered and poked until finally she came upon the first step of the long stairway which was cut into the face of the cliff, seemingly ending in the sea, narrow and slippery, precipitous as could be. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath and slowly, carefully, down the stairs she went. And at the bottom, she found the cave: the cave of the Old Woman of the World. The Old Woman herself sat there, spinning a fine thread shining with all the colours that ever existed, on a rich golden wooden wheel in front of an enormous frame on which was displayed the most beautiful weaving that had ever been created. The Old Woman turned, and looked at the Selkie. “So you’ve come to find your skin”, she said, and it was all the seal-woman could do to hold herself erect, to lift her chin and stop her teeth from chattering, and to nod a faint yes. The Old Woman beckoned her over to a glowing fierce fire at the back of the cave, over which an enormous cauldron bubbled, and it seemed to her that the steam rising up from the soup in that cauldron contained the scent of all of the seeds and all of the herbs and the essence of all the growing and living things in the world. She sat, and the warmth began to creep back into her bones, and she listened while the Old Woman spoke.
“So your old skin was no use any more,” she said, looking long and deep into the fire and nodding, as though she could see pictures in the flames. “That’s the way it goes, often enough. I’ve heard all the stories they tell of Selkies who find their old skins and slip them back on, and away they go, out into the ocean, and live happily ever after, just as if nothing had ever happened to them, and nothing had ever been learned. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes it shouldn’t.” She passed the Selkie a cup of something hot and herbal and sweet, and she took it gratefully and sipped, and it seemed to her as she sipped that all the strength and vitality she had lost began flooding back into her bones.
“You’ve done well to make it this far, Daughter,” the Old Woman said. “But there’s more for you to do before you’re done.” And she told the Selkie what she must do.
The Selkie set off again when her tea had been drunk, fresh and fit as the day her husband had first discovered her, there on the beach. The sea was calm now, and the air still, and she found the small boat at the base of the cliff just where the Old Woman had said she would find it, and she climbed in and slowly she rowed across the tiny island a mile to the north, and a mike to the west. She brought the small boat to rest on a long white strand in a calmly sandy cove on the north side of the island, and there too she found the cave that the Old Woman told her she would find it. And as she entered into the cave she saw what she had been told she would see, and her hands flew to her mouth and it was all that she could do not to turn and flee and throw herself into the sea and wait to die of grief. For there in the centre of the cave were the skeletons and skins of eleven dead seals. These were no ordinary seals; they were Selkies. They had been killed and then skinned. Eleven skeletons, and eleven skins.
The Selkie crept close, dread in her heart, but there was no help for it, for she knew her eleven sisters and recognised the markings on their beautiful silver skins. A seal-hunt, the Old Woman had said, and the corpses abandoned by the men in the storm, ready to be picked up some finer day. But the hunters had never returned, and the bones and the skins of the Selkie sisters had rested in the cave ever since. But there was more to be done before she was done, and so she did as the Old Woman had told her. She lit a fire in the darkening cave, and she sat vigil over the skins and the bones. And as night fell she began to sing the old lament over the bodies of her kinsfolk. And as she sang on she heard a rustle out in the cove beyond the cave, and through the growing gloom she peered out and saw an old grey seal crawl up onto the sand and make its way into the cave. And the grey seal, who she saw was an old, old Selkie, began to sing the song too. And as the old Selkie sang, throwing back her seal head (for the moon was new, and she could not take on her human form unless the moon was full) a wondrous thing began to happen in the cave. Slowly, slowly, the flesh began to reform on the bones of the dead seals — all but one: the smallest and the youngest. And little by little the skeletons began to reshape and to seem more like seals, and they grew fatter and then they shuddered and breathed, and finally, when they were strong, rolled over and slipped into their skins — all but one: the smallest and the youngest. And ten of the eleven seals formed a circle around the sister-child who could not live again, and they lifted their heads up and sang a song of mourning. When they were done, they crawled out of the cave on their bellies, and came again into the ocean, beckoning to their sister to follow.
The Old Woman had told the Selkie that she would know what to do when the time came, and it seemed to her now that this was the thing that must be done: she reached for the skin that remained and held it to her breast, inhaling the faint scent of a lost sister. It would have been easy for the Selkie woman to go then. Her sisters were waiting for her, and if she followed them, they would lead her home. But there was one thing more she must do, one thing that could not be abandoned so lightly. So she folded the skin tiny and tight, and tucked it safely into the belt of her gown, and she found the small boat on the beach and she began her long return.
She came to Mara when her husband was away fishing, and she took her down to the sea and told her all that she needed to know. Mara was still young, but there was something in her that understood that she must let her mother go. She could see that the seal-woman wanted to stay with her, but something called to her, something so deeply a part of her nature that she could not — and must not — resist it. The need to find her place, to find her element, to find her way home.
And so the time came for them to part. Taking her daughter’s face in her hands, the Selkie looked deeply into Mara’s eyes and breathed her breath into her lungs, three times. Turning to the sea, she began to sing a strange song in a high voice. She pulled out her sister’s skin: newer than her own, younger, less marked by the cares and woes of the wold. But it was the seal-woman’s bones that this skin covered now, and which shaped it; the two merged together, old and new, and in this merging a new form was created. With one last long look at her daughter, the Selkie slipped into the sea and vanished beneath the waves.
The daughter and her father mourned long and hard. Mara would often go down to the shore at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of her mother — but she never came. And then, exactly one year later, Mara’s patience was rewarded. A seal was sitting on the rock and as it saw her approaching, it slipped off its skin and there she was: her mother. And yet somehow she was different.
Her eyes and hair and skin were shining; and something in the way she held her body told Mara that she was at peace and at home with herself once more.
And so it happened ever afterwards that once a year, on the same anniversary of her departure into the sea, on the night of the closest full moon, the Selkie woman would come to the beach and talk with her daughter and tell her stories. She taught her to sing the song that she had sung in the cave. She taught her the song so that one day, if ever she should to choose, she also could take to the sea. She taught her the song that would sing her soul back home. “The Seal-woman’s Sea-Joy”, the Selkie called her song, though it had once been known as a song of mourning.
For all mourning may be transformed into joy if you have endurance enough to make the journey, and courage enough to face the Old Woman in the darkness of her cave.