When I entered the room, Vilhemina was sitting by her piano, rehearsing some old traditional faroese music with a friend.
She’s a tiny woman who lives in a small village surrounded by cliffs and mountains. A few steps away from her house, you hear the sound of a rocky beach where the little stones rub each other moved by the waves.
“It’s easy to see seals in that beach, maybe if you are lucky you will as well.”
Vilhemina puts aside her music sheets and starts to arrange a tray with coffee and cookies.
“Well, I can say that I married the legend because my husband belonged to the Trondesen family from Skalavik which was considered to be one of the descendant of the seal woman. Not him, but I remember a lot of his relatives had webbed fingers and the whole village called them 'the seals’.”
“Many years ago...,” she speaks browsing the pages of an old book of tales and legends;
“I have been invited over by some friends to a dinner where they cooked a seal meat. I didn’t know about it and when I realized that I was going to eat a seal, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to look rude and reject the food but on the other hand I didn’t want to eat it. There’s a special relationship between us and them: seals are unique creatures and maybe, as the legend says, they are even humans.”
Everyone in Faroe Islands knows the Seal Woman story. It’s one of the most famous tales in the country and still today both young and old people have heard about it.
The first record written down in the Faroese language is from 1841 by V. U. Hammershaimb in which he tells us about two different faroese version: the Mikladalur one from Kalsoy island and the Skalavík one from Sandoy island. They are pretty similar to each other, the only difference is that in the Skalavík one there’s no trace of the Seal Woman’s revenge.
Since the written version of the story has spread out in the country, it became one of the famous kvæðir,- a traditional ballad - sung during the faroese chain dance.
“In winter time, we used to gather all together in a small room to sing faroese chain dance.” Bodil pours her coffee and when the cup is filled she just remains still, looking for the right words. She has been living her entire life in Mikladalur.
“Back in the past days, dancing in such a small place was the perfect way to heat up yourself and spend good time in company with the other villagers. The Seal Woman ballad was one of our favorite and it still is of course.”
Nowadays, indeed, chain dance is performed during special events and occasions and it’s interesting to learn that when it comes to Kópakvæði - the Seal Woman ballad - the revenge part is not sung anymore, in respect to the men who still live in the village or just to avoid bad luck.
“It isn’t nice at all to sing about such a scary thing as the curse of the Seal Woman. And it’s just not fair towards the men of our island. I’m not a believer, but it’s good to not challenge the destiny.”
It’s curious to see how the legend still influences somehow the modern society. Superstition is a complex phenomenon and it is a way to interpret life.
Even if most of the people don’t believe in the legend anymore, they don’t want to confront it directly, simply choosing to skip the spooky part, so everyone can be safe.
This anecdote reflects perfectly the importance of nature in the Faroese community and how the traces of the clash between humans and wild nature reverberate in the contemporary culture.
The Seal Woman legend becomes a way to learn how to respect nature and how to deal with wildlife in the Faroe.
A proof of this is the fact that seal-hunting is not practiced anymore since very long time. There’s a kind of respect for seals, and it comes from the Seal Woman story.
“There was a seal which was used to lay down on a flat rock in front of our village,” says Palli, an elder villager from Skalavík.
He’s turning soon 89 but his looks still appear fresh like a boy’s one. He plays around with his flat cap while he speaks and even though he was very young back then, he has clear memories. “And one day this guy - he actually was one of my friend - decided to shoot it, simply because he was bored. I remember, that when he did, there was big frustration in the community because of it. It was a just a seal of course but our village is one of the Seal Woman legend. And even though that is just an old story, we should respect it.”
Some people, indeed, are considered related to the legend because of their physical peculiarities and distinctive skills.
If you born with your toes webbed together, then you’ll be immediately identified as a descendant of the Seal Woman’s family. The same goes if you have very short hands or if you are a good swimmer; or again, very clever artisans and boat builders were considered linked to it.
It can be taken either as a joke or as a serious matter, of course, but still, this is a strong connection between the legend and the real world, and it’s something which keeps the story alive still today.
“Since I was a child, my grandmother told me faroese sagnir (old legends and tales)” says Maria, a seventeen years old girl who lives in Torshavn.
“Especially the seal woman one. She said we come from her family because of our toes.”
“For me that legend is a sad story.”
She drinks a sip of her coffee and goes on.
“And even if my friends made fun of me at school because of my feet, I didn’t care. I kind of like to think that I have something special.”
A study conducted by Mortan Nolsøe and then deepened by Anna Brimnes - both Faroese folklorists - shows us how the oral tradition had a very significant role in the development of the Seal Woman legend.
They collected interviews from old villagers in which these old men speak about the story, modifying it according to the real world.
In one of the interview recorded, Óli Groth Jóhannesen, from the village of Dalur, comments about the revenge’s episode: the seal woman appears in the dreams warning the farmer about to not kill the two seal pups but he doesn’t mention the seal husband. This because, according to him, the seal woman was pregnant when she plunged into the sea again, so the two pups are actually the sons she had from the farmer and not from the seal husband.
Therefore, it’s clear how, in the past days, the oral sources modified the story to make it fit better in our days, and it’s a perfect example about the essential difference between the oral and the written tradition.
Both oral and written tradition are at the same time different and complementary. The written ones lay the foundation of the story, while the oral ones give the story the chance to modify during the years, and settle itself in the collective imagination.
As other legends, the Seal Woman’s one include in itself many different layers. It is a story about desire, love and fear; about being allowed to create a new identity away from the native land and about longing to return home both literally and figuratively. It tells us about feelings which are both universal and contemporary. Emotions are a decisive factor in people’s lives and supernatural makes it possible to give them form and expression in the legends.
It’s almost dinner time and from the kitchen you can hear Vilhemina’s son in law struggling with a big slice of dried sheep meat which doesn’t want to be cut in the right way.
Vilhemina places back the old fairytales book in the big wooden shelf and then suddenly she stops half way.
“Oh, one more thing before you leave. I remember my father kept telling me and my sisters: ’You can believe to the legend, you don’t have to be afraid of it but, please, don’t seek for it’.”
Driving back home, the tiny village slowly disappears behind the turns up the mountains. The rocky beach will sound all night long and I wonder if some seal will soon dance there to the rhythm of the small stones.
Text by Emanuele Camerini
All the pictures in the article are from the National Faroese Archive