“Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. The legend apparently originated on the Orkney and Shetland Islands and is very similar to those of swan maidens.” source: Wikipedia
A dream I often revisit began with me taking a walk I’d often repeated through childhood – we’d had a caravan by the sea and the walk between that park and the quaint 15-minutes-away harbour town was traced by a high grass bank flanking the shore, which sloped steeply after only a sliver of beach into water deep enough to moor boats.
In my dream, as I was walking this route, I looked down across to the shore to see, wandering along the beach, a painfully thin girl. Even during my dream I felt a rueful awareness of her resemblance to my self. I worried for the state of her; she was almost naked in the sense of being visibly neglected and needing nurture. A certain detachment in her manner, a single-minded aloneness, made me realise that something was wrong with her reason for being there. At the same time, as I assessed my footing, intending to scramble down the bank to meet her, I realised, with a sense of foreboding but not surprise, that the bank had risen into a strange, twisting distortion of its previous version and was now suspended high above the ground, leaving me no way of reaching the girl.
I saw her just as clearly, even so – and as I watched her edge towards the tide line, I knew in my heart that she was going to try to commit suicide by drowning herself. The knowledge held an inevitability; a sadness, and yet a tiredness, as though I could no longer be surprised by such things.
As I fretted over what I could do to stop her, rendered impotent by height and distance, I glimpsed in the water not far from her, a seal; mottled in its adult coat, sleek and fat and watchful. I felt hope bloom, as well as urgency.
Without knowing how this piece of information could change anything, and feeling faintly ridiculous, I called down to her: “Look! There’s a seal!” I heard how childishly excited my voice sounded, and how incongruous it was with the gravity of what could happen. In my mind, I could hear my thoughts trying to justify themselves: if she could just notice the seal, she wouldn’t want to kill herself; because everyone gets excited seeing something as lovely as a seal, surely?
The girl did stop; not in wonder or gratitude, but palpable anger at the intrusion of the seal – she was brimming with pent-up frustration at its presence; whereas I was of no greater consequence than the bank or boats, it was clear that she didn’t feel able to attempt her plan while the seal was watching. It was spoiling it; it was too innocent; it would be like trying to kill herself in front of a puppy. Glowering, she stomped off along the water’s edge, leaving the seal behind, and I started to panic as I watched her disappear, knowing what she was going to do and not being able to follow. But the seals had other plans. As she stormed off, further and further, every time she stopped, another seal bobbed up to thwart her plan anew; until as far as the eye could see they traced the shoreline – and I woke up, feeling vaguely reassured and triumphant even before I could work out why.
The main strands that I pulled from this dream were myself as the impotent observer, myself as the malnourished and suicidal child, and the other: the Seal.
The interesting thing about ‘myself’ in the dream was that in the beginning, I feared myself useless – and yet I triumphed through literally finding my voice. A message any budding writer would hold dear! Particularly in the face of having quit my role of 4 years to retrain and in the same year seizing the opportunity to submit to 54 publishers only to now be in the position of finding it impossible to get back into work and having received nothing but (often polite and encouraging but still) rejection letters- my last-ditch attempt at fulfilling my waking dream of becoming an author was finally and conclusively being trampled beneath the demands of reality.
I was thrilled with the inclusion of the seal – I have always loved them. According to my research, and indeed my instinct, seals represent the ability to inhabit two worlds; that of the land and that of the sea. Jung consistently equates the sea with the unconscious realm of the psyche, and considers creatures such as seals and otters to represent the ability to move through the threshold; to inhabit and facilitate access between the twin realms of the conscious -the realm of intellect, logic, social convention- and the unconscious -the realm whence all creative impulses, with their ecstasies and terrors, originate.
Other resources, about the seal as a power animal, refer to its role as facilitating the move between the realms of normality and magic, and reason and creativity. And the seal is in its element in this dream: it is a creature of the ocean, creativity, imagination, magic. Examining honestly the personal aspect of the seal added another level of meaning to its symbolism in the dream. Seals, to me, are extraordinary; transcendently beautiful creatures that I always feel privileged to witness. In my eyes, one cannot sully such an experience by attempting anything so basely dangerous in their presence. That was my first free-association when I asked myself why the figure could not attempt suicide in front of the seal. They always seem to me a reminder that just below the surface is lurking something magical. It might not always be visible, but it will always be there. On a personal level, without any particular theory, I took from the presence of the seal the message that when reality crushes, look for the magic, let it find you, and it will keep you afloat. Furthermore, I took something extremely comforting from the tenacity of the seals and the implication in the dream that if, stressed and angry and intent on hurting myself, I blind myself to the goodness and magic in the world, another seal will pop up, and another, and another, until I take notice. There is always magic to be found. There is always a reason to live; to not hurt yourself; to hold out one more day. There is always a seal.
I thought long and hard about the role of the original seal. It prevented the suicide attempt merely by being there. Or did it? And why a seal, and not some other (sea) animal, for this role? Firstly Jung’s answer – and yet also because the seal was satching: an act dripping in meaning itself; in Lacanian theory, the gaze of the other is a deeply primal need. Not only watching, however, but doing so in a way peculiar to seals, who have the most incredible large, soulful, deep eyes. They fix their whole attention on you; at least, that is the impression: an expression that seems to be all glistening eyes and trembling whiskers (as if vision weren’t enough, the seal positively bristles with ways of perceiving what it cannot see); enhanced by the human roundness of the face. There is something so very human about their demeanour – no wonder they birthed mermaid legends when sailors saw them gazing back. Your sense is that they watch without judging; there is something quite dog-like about that wordless, unspoken acceptance (as well there might be from ‘sea hounds’). There is something utterly healing about the feeling of being watched in that way: not the sneaking, predatory glimpse of a spyhopping killer whale, nor the disinterested, short-sighted glance of a walrus, not the accidental vision-crossing of a sea bird; a guileless, honest, in-plain-sight: ‘When you think that no-one will notice; when you think that no-one will bear witness: I will be there. I see what is really happening to you. And I’m not turning away, or leaving you. I’m staying. For what it’s worth.”
Seals are fat!
There’s no getting around it! In a complete contrast to the anorexic girl on the shore, the seal is fat – and comfortable with it! One could assume the seal’s fatness represents a sense of being full; a lack of wanting; a lack emptiness – the lack of the kind of void the malnourished girl has not been able to fill. The girl is reminding me that the malnourishment is there and is a problem, whilst the seal assures that there is a solution. It IS possible to be full, in the way that our souls need; in a way that works for us. The only options are not painful emptiness or grotesque gluttony. We can join the seal, and emulate it. Seals, plump as they are, are svelte and streamlined, supremely suited to their environment; they are swift and joyful; they are completely unhindered in the water. This is the key – in THEIR environment. Not the environment society dictates. Yes, they know they must spend some time out of the water, and they do so as they must, but if they were confined to the land, they would all be flopping around, exhausted and frustrated, harassed blubbery lumps prevented from ever reaching their potential.
If dreams are a means of clarifying one’s position and carving a way forward, I believe that the two human characters in my dream represented the two options I had for so long felt trapped by. I was becoming increasingly disillusioned; convinced that I must confine myself to the ‘land’ of dutiful yet draining work and resign myself to the frustration of the inevitability of that endeavour sapping all the energy that had once flowed into my creations, leaving me impotent and voiceless. My unconscious fear was visualised: I would have got to the point of angrily rejecting the seal because it represented a dream I could no longer sustain; it was too painful to have it clamour in my head when I had neither the time nor the energy to guide it to completion. Another fear, as reflected by the actions of the malnourished child, was that my only other response would destroy me in a different way: dreams are all very well, but how could I get a job again; how could I support myself; if I fled into fantasy? What if I ‘drowned’ there? Jung viewed the unconscious as the reservoir not only of creative inspiration and dreams, but also the uncontrollable aspects of what he believed to the same realm, manifested in intrusive thoughts, hallucinations, etc. If I attempted to lose myself -literally threw myself into the waters of the unconscious in trying to cope- I could no better sustain myself longterm than could the malnourished girl.
I am convinced that the seal, the third character in my dream, was illuminating a third way: a way of being a creature of both worlds. Juggling the two had begun to feel impossible – but Seal proved it was possible. It wouldn’t weaken me. It would make me whole.
Borrowing Freud’s supposition that in dreams every character is an aspect of one’s own personality – thus drawing attention to hidden or neglected aspects- there is a final implication. The seal was not just a guide, or threshold guardian – it was a present aspect of my self. I already had it in me.
Not long after, I received a contract for the publication of my first two novels. I still have to spend a fair bit of time exhausting myself on land, but I know the ocean is all around me and I make sure I take the plunge daily to keep it thrumming in my veins: I’m still writing that third book and yes, it has a strong Selkie theme.
There’s always a seal.
As a qualified Occupational Therapist with a Master of Arts in Psychoanalysis and experience working in a variety of psychiatric settings, Laura is especially passionate about using writing and other creative pursuits therapeutically to help children, teens, and adults cope with and recover from mental illness and trauma. A steadfast believer in the value of fantasy as a nurturing space and safe escape, she draws inspiration from everywhere wild and magical and seeks to both celebrate and inspire the indomitable nature of the human spirit through her writing. Bio courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing
Look for her young-adult fantasy, Air-Born, August 2013.