The legend of Kópakonan, literally meaning “the Seal Woman”, or Selkie, is one of the best-known folktales in the Faroe Islands.
Myths and legends have fed the imagination of Islanders for centuries. Stories of giants and witches, kings and battles, hidden people and magical creatures are found on all 18 islands.
This is the story of Kópakonan, the seal woman who was trapped on land as a human after shedding her skin.
Well, seals were believed to be former human beings like you and I, who voluntarily sought death in the ocean.
Once a year, more precisely on the Thirteenth night, they were allowed to come on land, strip off their skins and amuse themselves as humans, with dance and other entertainments, but only until the sun rises.
As story goes, a young farmer from the village of Mikladalur on the northern island of Kalsoy, 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.
Wondering if this story was true, he went and lay in wait on the beach one Thirteenth evening.
He watched, and saw the seals arriving in large numbers, swimming towards the shore. They clambered on to the beach, shed their skins and laid them carefully on the rocks.
This night, there were many seals – male and female, young and old and, divested of their skins, they looked just like normal people.
The young lad stared at a pretty seal girl placing her skin close to the spot where he was hiding, the most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on, and when the dance began, he sneaked up and stole it.
Dancing and games went on all night, but as soon as the sun started to peep above the horizon, all the seals came to reclaim their skins to return to the sea.
The seal girl was very upset when she couldn’t find her skin, though its smell still lingered in the air, and when the man from Mikladalur appeared holding it, he wouldn’t give it back to her despite her desperate entreaties, and she was forced to accompany him to his farm.
He kept her with him for many years as his wife, and she bore him several children. 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, where a big male seal came come swimming close to the beach, as if to greet her.
And the man always had to make sure that she didn’t have access to her skin.
He kept it locked up in a chest to which he alone had the key, which he kept at all times on a chain attached to his belt.
One day, while he was out at sea fishing with his companions, he realised he had left the key at home.
He announced to his companions, that he would lose his wife, explaining what had happened.
Despite the men pulled in their nets and lines and rowed back to the shore as fast as they could, when they arrived at the farm, they found the children all alone and their mother gone. Their father knew she wasn’t going to come back, as she had put out the fire and put away all the knives, so that the young ones couldn’t do themselves any harm after she’d left.
In fact, once she had reached the shore, she had put on her sealskin and plunged into the water, where a bull seal, who had loved her all those years before and was still waiting for her, popped up beside her.
When her children, the ones she had had with the Mikladalur man, later came down to the beach, a seal would emerge and look towards the land, and people naturally believed that it was the children’s mother.
Years passed and one day it happened that the Mikladalur men planned to go deep into one of the caverns along the far coast to hunt the seals that lived there.
The night before they were due to go, the man’s seal wife appeared to him in a dream and said that if he went on the seal hunt in the cavern, he should make sure he didn’t kill the great bull seal that would be lying at the entrance, for that was her husband.
Nor should he harm the two seal pups deep inside the cave, for they were her two young sons, and she described their skins so he would know them.
However the farmer didn’t heed the dream message, he joined the others on the hunt, and they killed all the seals they could lay their hands on.
And, in anger over losing his wife, he struck both of pups dead.
That same night, all the villagers gathered for a big feast to celebrate the good catch and eat the good seal meat.
But, when the head of the large seal and the limbs of the small ones had been cooked for dinner, there was a great crash in the room and the seal woman appeared in the form of a terrifying troll.
She sniffed at the food in the troughs and cried the curse: “Here lie the head of my husband with his broad nostrils, the hand of Hárek and the foot of Fredrik! Now there shall be revenge, revenge on the men of Mikladalur, and some will die at sea and others fall from the mountain tops, until there be as many dead as can link hands all-round the shores of the isle of Kalsoy!”
When she had pronounced these words, she vanished with a great crash of thunder and was never seen again.
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.
And still today, it so happens from time to time that men from the village get drowned at sea or fall from the tops of cliffs.
It must therefore be feared that the number of victims is not yet great enough for all the dead to link hands around the whole perimeter of the isle.
But 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.
In any case, 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.
The statue of Kópakonan was raised in Mikladalur in August 2014, and it is designed to withstand 13 metre waves.
Images from web – Google Research