Celtic Sea Gods
Sea deities do not play a significant part in early Celtic mythology but, as they became settled in coastal areas, beliefs, customs and entities connected with the ocean started to appear in Celtic folklore. The annals of Saint Brendan display a wealth of fantastic and often imaginative stories regarding his early voyages and there is little doubt that other monk/explorers detailed similar experiences. For a people who did not travel far by sea, such tales must have seemed like fantastic adventures, almost akin to tales of space travel in the 1950s. To many minds, the ocean was a doorway to the Otherworld.
Water, in the ancient world, was considered a regenerative force - healing and cleansing went hand in hand in the ancient mind - and the gods of the sea were credited with immense supernatural powers extending far beyond the mere confines of the ocean into the sky itself. The sight of storms along the horizon would have been reason to link one deity with sea and sky... worshippers threw offerings into lakes and rivers to placate the spirits of the waters. The same would have happened at the seacoast where the offerings were probably washed away by the outgoing tides so that no traces of them remain.
Ancient Celts were puzzled by the bodies of sea-creatures such as great squids, porpoises, even whales, which were, from time to time, washed up along their beaches. They must have seemed like creatures from another realm, possibly the realm of the gods. Along northern coasts, was the conundrum of large seal populations. One answer was that seals were the inhabitants of a submerged kingdom who took animal form while on land. In Celtic eyes, the sea continued to remain a realm of mystery and wonder which formed a peripheral but nonetheless significant part of their mythology and folklore.
The vast numbers of seals gathered along the bays and inlets of the Scottish and Irish shorelines left the locals in a bit of a quandary. Some sort of explanation had to be given for the almost human-like behaviour and antics of the basking visitors. The most common folk-tale was that they were fairies or mer-folk in an animal disguise, with an intelligence that matched that of humans. They were given many attributes, including that of changing into almost mortal guise to lure humans to their land beneath the sea.
Often, the seal-people were considered extremely hostile towards land dwellers. In some stories, seals actively seek to drown sailors they encountered on the ocean or those venturing too close to their basking sites. This notion of a malignant seal-race was used by the Scottish and Irish seal-hunters to justify their slaughter of seals and seal-pups along the shores. This widespread and bloody killing was carried out to protect the coastal fish stocks from scavenging seals.
One of the attributes given to seals was the power of speech. It was widely believed in fishing communities that seals could talk but, because they were really fairies who had existed since the foundation of the world, they used only the old Gaelic language. Because the form of Gaelic they used was no longer in use, it was difficult to understand their speech.
A tale of one such speaking seal comes from Rathlin Island and was recorded in the 1950s by the great Irish folklorist, Michael J. Murphy. He recorded it from the account of an old man named Paddy Anderson, who lived on the island, and whose grandfather, Donal, had been a famous seal-hunter: `The old men of the Island didn't like you to meddle with the seal for fear of what might befall you. The seals are fairies, don't you see? I heard my grandfather tell a story about them certainly. He said that, like now, the seals were becoming plentiful and were going after all the fish. The Island men put out in their boats with guns to hunt them down and to put an end to them. My grandfather was out in a boat one day and he had his gun with him. While he was out, he came on an old seal, lying on a great rock just to the south of Raughery - Rathlin. Lifting the gun, he took aim to shoot it but the seal lifted its flippers, just like a man trying to wave him away. It called out to him in a human voice and said "Donal! Donal! Don't shoot me with that gun!" It spoke in a very old form of Irish but my grandfather was a native speaker and was able to follow what it said. It called him by his own name too, as if it knew who he was.
`Well, he was so astonished at this that he lowered the gun and the seal slid from the rock and was gone into the sea. He never saw it again after that. That's a true story sure enough for my grandfather told it often'.