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Darwin (2019 Congress)

Gregory R. Darwin
(Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University)

” ‘Le glór binn a cinn / thug sían rón mara ón tuinn’ :
The Seal in Gaelic and Norse Tradition”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2019)

Session on
“Animals in Celtic Magical Texts”

Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
and the Societas Magica
Organized by Phillip A. Bernhardt–House
2019 Congress Program

[Published on 15 March 2019]

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The harbor seal (phoca vitulina) and the grey seal (halichoerus gryphus) are common sights throughout the waters of northwestern Europe.  Because of their role as large predators competing with humans for fishing stocks, as well as the economic value of seal skins and oil, they have played a significant role in the culture of many island and coastal communities.  In particular, the liminal nature of the seal as an amphibious creature, and its similarities to humans in terms of voice, behaviour, and skeletal structure, has inspired supernatural narrative traditions and belief concerning these animals.

Folklore collections from Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Scandinavia, predominantly gathered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, abound in stories of seals who speak or plead for their lives with human voices, beings such as selkies or Finn-folk who can assume the forms of both seals and humans, marriages between such beings and humans and their descendants, and the talismanic properties of the skin and other body parts of seals.  While many of these narrative types popular in later tradition are not directly attested in Old Irish and Old Norse literary sources, such sources nonetheless depict seals as supernatural beings, connected with prophecy and transformation, and uncannily similar to humanity.

In this presentation, I will give an overview of some of the medieval and early modern literary sources which depict seals as supernatural beings, such as the Book of Lismore Acallam na Senórach, the Laxdaela Saga, and the Eyrbyggja Saga.  I will explore the possible role that the material presented in these older sources might have played in the development of modern traditions in the Gaelic and Norse cultural worlds, as well as what insights modern narrative and belief traditions can bring to our understandings of the supernatural beliefs which informed these literary productions.

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