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  The Origin of the Selkie-folk

The root of the Finfolk myth

Beach Rocks: Pic Sigurd Towrie

So, if the Finfolk and the selkie-folk were once one and the same, where did these tales originate?

For the answer, we need look to the north of Norway.

Norway was, and still is, home to two distinctly different people - the Norwegians, and the indigenous inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia, the Saami.

Referred to in the Old Norse sources as "finnar", the Saami were regarded as great sorcerers with the power to control the weather, travel great distances in magical trances and shapeshift - usually into the form of a sea animal or bear.

The Saami led a nomadic life, with a completely different culture and society to that of their Norwegian neighbours.

They lived primarily in the far north of Norway in a territory known as "Finnmark". The Finnmark of ancient times was much greater than the current area, with records showing that the Saami were also found in areas of southern and eastern Norway.

Although the two peoples may have influenced various aspects of each other’s religion and culture, there remained distinct differences.

After the Norwegians adopted Christianity, for example, the Saami remained pagan - a fact that no doubt enhanced their reputations as heathen sorcerers.

Living apart from the Norwegian people, the "otherworldliness" of the Saami can also be seen from Old Norse literature.

Here they are sometimes referred to as jotnar (giants) and dvergar (dwarfs) - descriptive terms unlikely to refer to their size or stature, but instead firmly placing them in a realm of myth, magic and the supernatural.

The Saami had a shamanistic "religion", something that undoubtedly served as the basis for the later Norse traditions that the "Finnar" were renowned magic workers. Their powers of healing and prophecy, control over the weather and the ability to shapeshift are all magical abilities that are also found clearly attributed to the Finfolk and selkie-folk in Orkney and Shetland folklore.

In Norway, the Saami’s reputation was such that there were laws forbidding Christians from having any contact with the "Finnar" or going to them seeking knowledge of the future or healing.

One of the oldest accounts relating to the Saami culture was written in Sweden after the 30 Years War. During this conflict, we learn, that the Swedes were accused of using Saami witchcraft.

I believe that the traditions surrounding the "Norway Finns" - as they later became known in Orcadian tradition - travelled with the Norsemen into Orkney and Shetland.

There it took root and gave birth to the folklore of the Finfolk.