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Kópakonan – the seal woman

Throughout centuries, people in the Faroe Islands have told stories. Some about kings and battles, other about elfish people, creatures and treasures. Many of these stories were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth only. It was not until relatively recently, during the early nineteenth century, that some of these stories were recorded through writing.

No musical instrument of significance was available in the Faroe Islands until the mid-1800s. Instead, people used their voices to sing “kvæði”, or traditional ballads. These are metric poems that tell of ancient myths and sagas about things that have happened and people that have lived.

The stories have two main features. The first is that a myth will always be true, and not merely a made-up story. Of course, because the stories are passed orally from one generation to another, the possibility that some facts might be incorrect, that something has been added to or subtracted from the story, or that something has been forgotten is not entirely unlikely. The second feature is that the myth is always tied to the place, time or person in the story.

One of the most well-known myths and tales in the Faroe Islands is that of “Kópakonan”, or the seal woman. Seals were believed to be former human beings who voluntarily sought death in the ocean. Once a year, on the Thirteenth night, they were allowed to come on land, strip off their skins and amuse themselves as human beings, dancing and enjoying themselves.

One evening, a young farmer from the village of Mikladalur went to wait on the beach to see if he could catch a glimpse of the happening. The young lad caught sight of a pretty seal girl divested of her skin. He sneaked up and stole her skin, leaving the young girl with no other choice but to accompany the man back to his farm.

The couple married and had children, but the farmer had to make sure that his wife did not have access to her skin. He locked the skin in a chest and kept the key on a chain attached to his belt.

One day, when the farmer was fishing at sea with his companions, he realised he had left the key at home. The men hurried back to the village to find the children alone, their mother disappeared.

A bull seal, who had loved the girl all those years before when she was a seal, was waiting for her when she returned to the ocean. When her children, the ones she had with the farmer from Mikladalur, came down to the beach in the many years that followed, a seal would emerge and look towards the land; people naturally believed that the seal was the children’s mother, looking out for her children. For a full written version of the story, please read here.

A statue of Kópakonan was raised in August 2014 in the village of Mikladalur on the island of Kalsoy. Thousands of people have visited the statue, which is designed withstand 13-metre waves. In early 2015, an 11.5-metre wave swept over the statue. It stood firm and no damage was caused. Watch this short clip from that particularly stormy day in 2015.

The story of Kópakonan can be listened to here (in English, Danish or German).

This article was originally published on Faroeislands.fo
Words: Levi Hanssen
Pic: Nicole Franken


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