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Sunday, 23 August 2020

The Seal Girl’s Revenge

A legend from the Faroe Islands
Illustrations by Axel Gjødesen

It was Three Kings’ Eve.1 The Atlantic Ocean rolled in long waves towards the shores of the Faroe Islands and threw the splashing foam up the cliffs. Behind a protruding rock wall lay a young man staring out across the sea, where the moon had recently risen. He had heard the strange legend since he was a child, of how the seals – whom the Faroese believe were once human beings who voluntarily plunged into the sea – would come in their scores to the shore on this night, where they would throw off their animal skins, and in human figure amuse themselves on the rocks, in the caves, on the large stones at the edge of the sea, jumping and dancing until the approach of dawn, when they again in their animal skins would seek to the depths.

Half anxious, half curious, the young man from the southern farm in Mikladalur2 had slipped down here. In breathless excitement he waited for midnight. But even as it approached, he saw the sea growing as if in rebellion, splashing and spraying, snorting and bubbling. Thousands of seals swam, racing one another towards the coast. There they raised themselves up, threw their skins on to the stones, on to the rocks, and they became a swirling sea of white human figures – men and women, young and old – embracing one another, dancing and playing, floating like apparitions in the moonlight which glittered and gleamed around them. The young man was petrified, enchanted. He pitched forward - he had seen a young woman close by him, more beautiful than any maiden he had ever seen before. She laid her skin on the rock just below him and floated, dancing past him.

He was as if out of his mind. His heart beat as if it were about to burst. He clenched his fist and shouted suddenly: “She must be mine!” In a moment he had reached out across the rocks, grabbed her animal skin and hidden it deep down between the stones.

They danced and played all night, but when the day began to dawn, each seal went to find its skin. The young seal girl could not find hers; she searched and searched – the other seals had long since plunged themselves into the sea – when the young man suddenly grabbed her: “I have taken your skin!” he said, “and you will never see it again! You must become the Mikladalur man’s wife, and live and build here with me, as a human!”

She looked at him in horror. “I belong in the sea,” she said. “I cannot live here! I must frolic with the other seals, out in the fresh, cold waves. I hold the biggest and most beautiful of them dear. He loves me; I belong to him! Give me my skin! Quickly! They are leaving me behind. Do not let me remain here alone!” And she stared at him with sad, pleading eyes.

But her gaze caught him like a spell; it cut to marrow and bone, and he cried: “No! No!” Then he took her by force, held her crossed in his arms, and as he carried the reluctant girl away from the sea, up over the land, he muttered again and again: “You shall be mine! You must belong to me. I love you, do you hear? I love you, and I will not let you go. Never! Not before I kill you!”

Thus the man from the southern farm in Mikladalur compelled the seal girl by force to become his wife, despite her throwing herself to her knees and begging him to give her back to the sea. But when she understood that all her supplications were in vain, she seemed to yield, apparently finding peace in his house. A couple of years passed and she became the mother of two children.

The man hid the sealskin locked in a chest. The key hung on a nail where he could see it, but he never forgot to take it with him when he left the cabin. He was good and kind to his wife, so long as she was calm and quiet, but if he saw her staring longingly at the sea, or he heard from his neighbors that she had been sitting down on the foreshore when he was at sea, then he turned harsh and hard; yes, he threatened her too, and she soon learned to hide her secret thoughts from him. If he was indoors, then she was busy with the house and the children, and he followed her proudly with his eyes – there was no maiden on the whole of the island of Kalsoy as beautiful as she was.

But occasionally, when he was out fishing overnight, she hurried to put the children to bed. She put out all the lights, put away the knives and the other things that could harm them, let the fire go out on the hearth. Then she slipped out, ran over the fields to the sea, sat at the extreme tip of the mountains, where they were steepest, and shouted out into the night: “I shall come, some day! I shall come!” And then she could see a large seal appear below the mountain, gazing longingly up at her. The seal girl remained there weeping until the day began to dawn. Then she hurried home again so that she would not arouse suspicion. Her husband knew nothing of these nocturnal excursions; he considered only that she was more introspective than usual, and silent when he had been fishing overnight.

Then one evening a fisherman stuck his head in the door: “Shoals of herring have been spotted out in the fjord by the northern headland. We are going to get the boat ready! Hurry! You must be there in five minutes!” and he was gone. The Mikladalur man jumped up and hurried to put on his oilskins; he took his supper with him. There was almost no time to say goodbye before he was out the door.

The key hung on the hook over the chest – he had forgotten it!

She knew it. She had only thought of one thing while he was hurrying to get along. She could hardly stand on her feet, she trembled so. It was as if the happiness she had been waiting years for would paralyze her, now that it came so suddenly. Would he not remember what he had forgotten and turn back? She hardly dared breathe; with every nerve raw she listened, jumping at every single sound – no, he did not come! An hour passed, an hour full of hope, yearning, the fear of death - he did not come.

Then, with an effort, she turned her thoughts to the children, the two little ones she would now abandon. She was seized by melancholy; the youngest was crying. She took the child in her arms, hushed it, rocked it softly to sleep, kissed it, and laid it gently and quietly on the pillow. The eldest was already asleep. She kissed her too, laid the duvet close around her, put out the lights, as she was wont, and arranged and put away. The moon shone into the cabin; the key gleamed; she took it from the nail with a trembling hand and stuck it in the chest. It opened – she almost whooped loudly with joy – there lay the sealskin. She threw it over her arm, softly lifted the latch, and hurried out into the moonlit evening, down over the field, breathless, fearful of being stopped. But no one had seen her flight. She cast off her clothes, wrapped the skin around her, so her legs and arms shrank into it, and then she plunged into the sea. The skin lay soft and glistening around her slender body. She breathed deeply, liberated, and swam, splashing towards the place where the great seal usually surfaced.

He was there.

For years he had been waiting. He struck the water with his tail for joy when he saw her, and now they were at sea, and the spray foamed around them.

While all this took place, the Mikladalur man was busy with the herring. He had been so preoccupied, first with the work on the boat, then with rowing against the wind, and finally with the abundant fishing, that he had not given his wife a thought. But when they were on their way home, the thought of the forgotten key came like a bolt of lightning to him, and turning quite pale, he exclaimed: “I have lost my wife tonight!” He urged the other fishermen to row with all their might. They asked if he had seen a vision, but he merely shook his head and rowed as if it were his life.

When the boat was close to land, he jumped out, waded ashore, climbed up the wet rocks, and ran up over the fields to the southern farm. When he came to his door, he paused for a moment to catch his breath. He could hear a soft whimpering. He tore open the door and looked first at the bed – it was empty. The little one lay wimpering. Turning to the child, he caught sight of the open chest. He looked down into it and he reeled: he had lost his wife tonight, she whom he had taken by force!

The Mikladalur man was “strange” from this moment. He almost never spoke a word. He did not care much for the children; his sister, the widow of a drowned fisherman, moved in with him and took care of them. The general opinion in the town [sic] was that his wife, in his absence, had taken her own life – she had always hung around down there by the sea when he was out – and that he had seen a portent of this whilst he still was at sea.

A couple of years passed. Life on the island of Kalsoy continued on its quiet, monotonous course, only now and then were folk startled by word of an accident at sea, a stranding, or a fisherman lost out there – drowned. Then once there was talk of embarking on a great seal hunt. One of the elders suggested that several boats should join forces, surprise the seals in the rock caves, and kill them there – dividing the spoils upon returning home.

The man from the southern farm was present when the proposal was made, and he embraced it eagerly, not resting before a day was determined for it to take place. Then he hurried home to zealously begin his preparations. He worked feverishly: he got up with the sun and busied himself until it went down. He polished and sharpened the tools for bludgeoning the seals, he inspected his clothes, he made the boat ready, took down his troughs. The evening before the great hunt, everything was ready. Exhausted, the Mikladalur man threw himself on his bed to take a nap before meeting the others at dawn. It must have been a little past midnight, and he did not know whether he was dreaming or awake, but the cabin door was slowly opened and a bright female figure floated in and stood by his bed. It was his late wife, the seal girl.

“I have come to you,” she said, “to warn you of tomorrow! Do not go on the hunt. But if you do so anyway, then beware! In the great cave you will meet many seals. The foremost one, the big one with the striped skin will rise to their defence; he is my mate. Watch you don’t touch him! The two smaller ones, deeper inside the cave, are my two sons, and you must spare them too. That night, when you violently took me away from the sea and made me your wife, I swore revenge in the quietness of my mind; if you touch any of mine tomorrow, I will execute it. But if you will make sure that they are spared, then I will forget what you have done to me, and forgive you.” With these words the vision disappeared.

Now, when the man woke up, the sun was already shining into his chamber, and he sprang up briskly. His dream was still clear before him, but he dismissed it at first, and then he laughed defiantly, not considering for even a moment to forego going along. Without a word, he took a seat in the boat and grabbed an oar, and when someone asked, “where to first?” he replied: “To the great cave!”

The oars splashed regularly in the water, and it was no more than half an hour before six boats, with the man from the southern farm foremost, lay without the great cave. They could see that there were plenty of seals inside; the catch would be plentiful. They had camped on the rocks and had been taken by surprise; they could not escape. Then the largest of them stood up on its tail, gaped with its mouth and let out a loud bark. It was a bull with a striped skin.

“He’s something of a big brute!” shouted one of the fishermen. “Who dares face him?”

“I do!” cried the Mikladalur man, grasping hold of his axe and jumping from the boat on to a large rock. One mighty blow, and the head of the great seal was split. A strong stream of blood coloured the rocks and the water deep red, and splashed high up on the Mikladalur man’s clothes.

There was a howling cry beneath the water, and a seal shot under the boats and disappeared. But that was the only one that escaped; a terrible massacre began. They jumped out of the boats and beat down the poor seals. The man from the southern farm was always in the lead; he was as if wild. He searched deep into the cave; there he found what he was looking for – two young seals, barely grown. He killed them, and now his day’s work was done, now he could rest.

The seals’ dead bodies were loaded into the boats. There was life and merriment. They were in a fine spirits; the catch had been unusually plentiful. Now all they wanted was to go home and divide the spoils, and then rest after all their toil. The man from the southern farm was the only one silent among the cheerful company; he stared unceasingly at the big bull seal and the two cubs lying at his feet. No one paid him any attention any longer; they were used to his peculiarities, but when he asked only for these three seals at the division, there were a few who whispered: “He has a screw loose!” He was immediately granted what he demanded – it meant more for the rest of them – and he brought home his catch in a wheelbarrow. He began to skin them at once, cutting off the meat and putting it in troughs. He asked his sister to cook the head of the big one and the flippers of the small ones for supper.

When the food was put on the table, there was a violent crash outside, as if from a wave breaking against the door. “The sea!” cried his sister, fleeing into the kitchen. The little girl ran after her, screaming, but the terrified boy clung to his father.

In the same moment there was a great bang, the door flew open and in came the seal girl, like a fearsome ghost. She looked in the troughs and cried: “Here lies the head of my mate! Here are the hand of Haarek, and the feet of my other son! Revenge shall fall terribly upon you, upon all Mikladalur men! You shall perish at sea, and fall from the mountains, until the number of the dead is so great that, holding one another’s hands, you may encircle the whole of Kalsoy!” After screaming this curse, she disappeared, never to be seen again.

From that moment the man from the southern farm was insane. And the seal girl kept her word. Many Mikladalur men had accidents after that hour, on the dangerous waters and in the mountains, as well as when fishing and bird hunting. And there was always a madman in the families that grew up on the southern farm in Mikladalur.

  1. Three Kings’ Eve is the twelfth day of Christmas, 6th January. 

  2. ˈMik-la-ˌdal-ur 

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