I did not write this essay. It was written some years ago by Dr. James Doubleday, and was Chapter Ten of a projected book on myth that we were working on at the time. I am including it here partly because it is a useful addition to the section of the Meadhall website concerned with myth and archetype, and partially as a reference for one Unit of my online course, "Myth and the Erotic."--Jack Hart
Seals are creatures of two worlds, the sea and the land. Such creatures, like the swan and the wild duck, exert a mysterious power over the human imagination. In Jungian terms, they are creatures of both the depths and the surface, bringing messages from the collective unconscious into the field of consciousness, and so are symbols of transcendence. (1) But the special atmosphere of the seal is quite different from that of the swan. The swan is seen as mysterious and beautiful; the seal, as strange, alien, even ugly, but noble. Beside the seal, human beings are likely to seem, at best, crass and unsympathetic; at worst, possessed by a hysterical cruelty. (2)
The first literary encounter of man and seal in the West set the tone for others. In the Odyssey, Book IV, Menelaus tells of his encounter with Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea. Proteus is also the hersman of the seals: at midday, he comes out of the water, counts his herd, and lies down to sleep on the shore with his seals huddled around him. Menelaus is told by Proteus' daughter how to capture him. He and his companions cover themselves with seal-skins, wait until Proteus is asleep, and then rush upon him. When he is caught, he turns himself into a series of animals and other forms (a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a wild boar, flowing water, a towering tree); but at last, tired, he resumes his own form and tells Menelaus what he needs to know, and prophesies his (Menelaus's) fate and the fates of his companions.
This episode sounds like a rationalization of an earlier ritual in which a shaman, putting a seal-skin over himself, would turn into a seal-man. In other words, the shape-shifting power that in Homer is confined to Proteus alone might well originally have been a power shared by the seal-men around him. And the prophetic knowledge that is bound up with the shape-shifting power would have come with the shaman's transformation as well.
The humans in this story look rather shabby as against the seal-god. Menelaus in this episode is what he usually is in Homer: an ordinary, not especially heroic man. He can do nothing but lament the fact that he is becalmed until Proteus; daughter takes pity on him and tells him what he must do. He complains of the stench of the seals and praises his own enduring spirit, though, as far as the audience can see, he has not endured very much and has not endured that little very well.
The relation between man and seal has always been the relation between hunter and hunted. This relationship is a sacred one: that is, it is an uneasy combination of need for the meat and oil and therefore for the death of the animal, grattitude for its death, fear of its spirit, and a strong sense of identification. The imaginative identification of hunter and hunted is what comes out most strongly in this anonymous Eskimo poem:
I was out in my kayak . . .
And the seal came gently towards me.
Why didn't I harpoon him?
Was I sorry for him?
Was it the day, the spring day, the seal
Playing in the sun
Like me? (3)
This history has evidently given man a bad conscience when thinking of the seal, (4) and this feeling is reflected in the rich and ancient mythology surrounding the seal. In perhaps every country where man has lived close to the seal, and especially among the people of the Hebrides and the west coast of Ireland, a wealth of mythology and legend has been handed down about seals and seal men. In these stories, seals take on human form at will; men marry seal women and women marry seal men; seals talk, sing, save the lives of fishermen adrift and helpless on the high seas, and give warnings of impending disaster. A great number of these tales are collected in a magnificent book by David Thomson, The People of the Sea. (5) These stories have continued to the present day: (Once on an Asatru talk channel I met a man whose family claimed descent from a seal man or woman, I forget which.--note added by Jack Hart.) I heard a few years ago a song from the coast of Maine, "Peter Kagan and the Wind," in which Peter Kagan has a seal wife who not only warns him of an approaching storm but at the end saves his life at the cost of changing back permanently into seal form. (6)
One of the best examples of these stories is the Shetland ballad, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (Child 113). In this ballad the seal is both stranger and nobler than in Homer, and the humans correspondingly more contemptible. At the beginning of the ballad, an earthly "nourris" [nurse] is sitting and singing to her child, and the constant burden of her song is this:
Little ken I my bairnis father,
Far less the land that he steps in.
The "grumly" [fierce-looking] father appears at he bed foot and reveals his double nature:
"I am a man, upo the lan,
An I am a silkie [seal] in the sea;
And when I'm far and far from lan,
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie."
The "maiden fair" can say nothing but "It was na weel . . . it was na weel, indeed" that "the Great Silkie of Sule Skerrie" should have come and had a child by her. The seal-man takes out a purse of gold (in the common imagination, the depths of the sea are the home of untold riches--compare Ariel's song "Full Fathom Five in The Tempest) and puts it on her knee for her ?nourris-fee," and takes his young son to him. Then he prophecies their tragic end:
An it shall come to pass on a simmer's day,
When the sin shines het on evra stane,
That I will tak my little young son,
An teach him for to swim the faem.
An thu sall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I'm sure he'll be,
An the very first schot that ere he schoots,
He'll schoot baith my young son and me. (7)
The seal-man is an uncouth creature, but he deserves the epithet "great." He pays his debts; he loves and tries to protect his young son; he strives against his fate, even knowing it, for he, like Proteus, has the superhuman gift of prophecy, though (as with Cassandra) it brings only grief to him. In contrast, the humans in the ballad are narrow and unfeeling. The woman (who is twice referred to as the child's "nurse," once as "maiden," never as "mother") cannot see any likeness between herself and the seal-man, even after they have had a child together. The "proud gunner," her future husband, merely expresses in action the rejection of the other world that the woman has already expressed in her words and her silence.
There are, of course, many folktales and myths that embody our fear of the stranger, our projection onto him of our worst qualities. The stranger is often an old witch, an ogre, a monster of some kind. This ballad, and the seal-man mythology generally, insists on the importance of the alien, his humanity even in a strange guise, and our need for the gifts he brings. For what is offered is the chance to integrate together the depths of the unconscious and the conscious mind, to fully realize the human potential. Unfortunately, the humans in this ballad reject that chance, and end as rigid, intolerant, and limited.
(1) J. L. Henderson, in C. G. Jung et al., Man and His Symbols (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969), p. 154.
(2) Gavin Maxwell, Seals of the World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), p. 16, describes a typical seal hunt: "For the sealers their arrival at the colony was often the end of an extremely arduous sea voyage, sometimes lasting for months, and the attack upon the colony had a quality of hysteria . . . the killing parties were almost always working against time, and they had been whipped into a sort of frenzy by the captain of the vessel." Maxwell quotes a young Newfoundland sealer, asked by someone how he felt about his trade, who replied, "Well, I don't think I would skin a baby seal alive as some of the others do."
(3) "Spring Fjord," trans. by Armand Schwerner, in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 15th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), p. 929. You never know what you're going to find in Bartlett.
(4) Even Rudyard Kipling, normally no friend to the downtrodden, in both "The White Seal" and "Lukannon" identified himself with the plundered seal colonies. "The White Seal" is a short story of a heroic white seal who leads his people to a kind of seal Eden, with a line of bars and shoals and rocks to keep the beaches forever safe from man. "Lukannon," a better work, is an elegy for the seal, contrasting the idyllic life of the seal before men came with his near-extermination afterwards, "a sort of very sad seal National Anthem." On the other hand, the same volume that contains both works--The Second Jungle Book, in Works, VIII (New York: Scribner's, 1908), pp. 29-59--also contains (pp. 132-133) "Angutivaun Taina," Kipling's version of an Eskimo seal hunter's triumph song.
(5) The People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend, rev. ed. (London: Barrie & Rockcliffe, 1965.
(6) Heard on "Makem and Clancy," WMUL_TV out of Huntington, W. Va., 7: 30-8: 30 p.m., July 28, 1979.
(7) G. L. Kittridge & M. C. Sergeant, eds., English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge Ed.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), p. 240.