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The Seal Woman

 

Myths and legends have fed the imagination of Faroe Islanders for centuries. Stories of giants and witches, kings and battles, hidden people and magical creatures are found on all 18 islands.

These myths and legends may hold truths that can unlock the secrets of our ancient origins.

This is the story of Kópakonan, the seal woman who was trapped on land as a human after shedding her seal skin.


The legend tells that the seals around the Faroe Islands were once upon a time people like you and I; sad souls who have taken their own lives in the sea.

Once a year, on the twelfth night of Christmas, these seals are allowed to come ashore. And there they will take off their seal skin, and play, sing and dance, recovering their human shapes – but only until the sun rises.

The legend tells of a young farmer from the village of Mikladalur on the island of Kalsoy who had heard that there was a seal cave south of his village. Here, it was said, was the place where the seals gathered for their one night as humans. Wanting to find out if this was true, the young man decided to go and have a look.

As night fell, he hid behind a large rock and watched in astonishment as a large group of seals approached the shore. One by one they popped their heads above the waves, checking it was safe to come out of the sea. And then, they came onto the shore, slipping out of their seal skin and recovering their human shapes.

This twelfth night, there were many seals – male and female, young and old – and they began to sing and dance and play, not knowing that they were being watched.

Suddenly, the young farmer noticed a young female seal, approaching the rock where he was hiding. She took off her sealskin and was transformed into the most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on. Fascinated, he watched her running along to play with the others, and an idea began to grow in his mind: “This woman shall be mine.” He crept out from his hiding place and snatched the seal skin she had cast onto the ground.

At dawn, when the sun rose, and all of the seals began to hurry back into the ocean, the beautiful young woman couldn’t find her skin. Desperately, she searched for it while the other seals waited in the water, calling out for her. But she couldn’t find it, and without it, she was trapped on land. Now, the farmer came out from his hiding place with her sealskin in his arms and the beautiful seal woman realised that she had no other choice than to follow him.

The farmer and the seal woman came home to the village and into the farmer’s house, and the farmer immediately locked her seal skin into a big chest. And from that day on, he always carried the key to the chest in his belt.

After a time, the farmer and the seal woman were married and, soon enough, they had children. For some years, the seal woman lived among the people in the village, doing all her duties as a housewife and mother, trying her best to adapt to life on land. But every day, she went down to the seashore and every day, a big male seal came come swimming close to the beach, as if to greet her.

One day, when the farmer and his men were out fishing, he suddenly noticed that he had forgotten the key to the chest with his wife’s sealskin in it. He shouted out to his men to row home as fast as they could, or else he would lose his wife.

But when he came home, he found his children sitting all alone in the kitchen. They were quiet and did not answer when he asked them where their mother was. But he noticed that she had put out the fire and she had placed all the sharp knives on a high shelf, so that the children wouldn’t harm themselves when they were alone.

In the living room, the farmer found the chest was open and empty, and he realised that his wife had left and would probably never return.

Time passed and one day, the men from Mikladalur planned to go seal hunting by the seal cave, south of the village. On the night before the hunt, the seal woman appeared to the farmer in his dreams. She told him that the big male seal, guarding the outside of the cave, was her mate, and the two little cubs, asleep inside, were her precious sons. She begged him to spare the lives of her mate and cubs.

But the farmer did not listen to her plea, and the following morning, the first seal he slaughtered was the male on guard by the cave. Then the villagers went inside, killing every living creature they found, and when the farmer reached the back of the cave, he found the two cubs. And in anger over losing his wife, he struck both of them dead.

That same night, all the villagers gathered for a big feast to celebrate the good catch and eat the good seal meat. But as they were about to begin, the door suddenly burst open and the seal woman entered in the shape of a horrible banshee. Upon the table she saw the head of her mate and the flippers of her cubs, laid out on a plate.

The seal woman let out a terrible wailing scream, cursing the farmer, the villagers and all of their descendants. As revenge for their cruelty towards her loved ones, she foretold that so many people from Mikladalur would lose their lives at sea, that the drowned would be able to take each other’s hands, form a ring and dance around the island of Kalsoy.

And as it happens, from this particular village, Mikladalur on the island of Kalsoy, many, many boats have wrecked, and many people have fallen from the cliffs or otherwise lost their lives at sea.

If the ring of drowned people has reached all the way around the island of Kalsoy today, or if the curse of the seal woman still lingers over the island, we cannot be sure.

But the children that the seal woman had with the farmer grew up and begot children of their own. And still today, we can see who is descended directly from the seal woman. In the Faroe Islands, many people are born with webbed toes, which is a proof and a sign that the legend is true and that Faroe Islanders carry in their veins the blood of seals.

This version of the well-known story of Kópakonan, the Seal Woman, was written by Ria Tórgarð and read by Súsanna Tórgarð. Sound production by Finnur Hansen.

That same night, all the villagers gathered for a big feast to celebrate the good catch and eat the good seal meat. But as they were about to begin, the door suddenly burst open and the seal woman ...

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