There is something curiously human about seals, about their dark, dilated eyes and friendliness towards us. It is not surprising that there is such a wealth of stories about seals taking human form and walking in our world, or acting as guides and protectors as we venture into theirs. One of the most famous of these stories – retold beautifully by Clarissa Pinkola Estés as ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’ – tells of seal-maidens who take off their seal-skins to dance in human form by the light of the moon. My personal favourite folkloric encounter with these creatures, however, takes the form of a human journey into their world, deep in the waters beyond John O’Groats.
The Scottish story of the Seal-catcher and the Merman, as told by Elizabeth Grierson in the Penguin book of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, is initially a tale about “the one that got away” – the king seal, stabbed by the seal-catcher for his enormous pelt, who escaped into the water with the knife still in his side. Having given up the chase and turned for home, the seal-catcher meets a stranger on the road who takes him to the edge of the water and pushes him in, dragging him down to the deep-lying kingdom of the seals, where the king now lies dying. Only the hand that struck the blow can heal him. The seal-catcher, now transformed into a seal himself, finds he is deeply sorry for the harm that he has caused, and half-expects the seals to seek revenge. But these are peaceful creatures:
“they crowded round him, rubbing their soft noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and implored him not to be afraid, for no harm would befall him”
All they ask of him is that he removes the knife and washes and dresses the wound – and that he swears an oath to never harm another seal again. So he swears, even though he knows his family may starve without the money that the seal-pelts bring. When they return him to the shore, and his seal-form falls away, the reformed seal-catcher turns to shake the hand of the stranger/seal who had accompanied him – but into his outstretched hand, the stranger places a bag of gold, with the words:
“Men shall never say that we took away an honest man’s work without giving him some compensation for it, and here is what will keep you in comfort to your life’s end.”
The tale is fabulous in the truest sense – it could be a fable for these troubled times. There are not so many seal-hunters now, but seals are still hunted, culled and killed in conflicts with fisheries; they also face contamination from marine pollution, and entanglement in fishing nets and in the human debris that litters our seas. And only we, who wield these knives, can heal these wounds.
Yesterday, I put my name forward to volunteer with the Friends of Hilbre Island. One of the many services they offer is seal-watching sessions for the visiting public. On this island – and in many other places like it – we really can visit the realm of the seals. And with compassion, with the sight of what we have done, we can inspire the desire to undo it, and the resolve to never see it done again.