Superstitions at Sea

SCRATCH A STAY AND NO WHISTLING!
      From Pirates Truth and Tales by... well, by me!

www.helenhollick.net
Sailors were a superstitious lot. Were pirates as wary of causing bad luck as their merchant and Royal Navy counterparts? Maybe because they led a life where they were in control of their freedom the rituals and taboos were not so important. On the other side of the deck, perhaps superstition was  even more necessary in order to stay alive and catch that next Prize.

For sailors, certain days of the week were regarded as bad luck to do things, particularly in the Western. Christian, world. Friday was a bad-omen day to set sail from harbour. This came from Good Friday, the day when Christ was crucified. The first Monday in April was the day Cain killed Abel, the second Monday in August was when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God and the last day of December was the day Judas committed suicide. All bad luck days.

Also from the Bible was the fear of a Jonah, someone aboard, either crew or passenger, who was the conduit for bad luck or bad things to happen. There is such a character in the Patrick O’Brian novels which were made into that excellent movie, Master and Commander.

Candlemas Day, celebrated forty days after Christmas Day, was also thought to be a bad day to set sail. In pre-Christian custom this day was associated with the approaching end of winter and coming of spring, a day to bring as much light as possible into the world to chase away the darkness. There was, additionally, a belief that the weather on this day would predict what the year was to bring:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter shall not come again.

Which, if you were a sailor makes good sense to take note of. Roaring waves and rolling clouds also indicated an omen not to set sail –  common sense more than superstition.

The belief that a woman aboard would bring bad luck stemmed from the Roman and Greek mythology of the female deities such as Sirens who lured sailors to their death. Given that it is possible several women served as crew disguised as men this superstition seems somewhat amusing. In some cultures mermaids and mermen were considered to be lucky as they granted wishes.

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Sea birds were lucky omens, the albatross being the prime one, but it was bad luck to kill an albatross. This large seabird can have a wingspan of up to twelve feet and range over the Southern Ocean and the Pacific, although some do stray into the North Atlantic. The are superb in the air, riding the thermal currents and covering huge distances with very little effort. They feed on fish and squid, and are colony nesting birds making use of remote islands to breed. Which may explain their importance to sailors: the birds could indicate a way to fresh water, a haul of fresh fish and even wind direction. It was also believed that birds carried the soul to heaven after death.

For some obscure reason, bringing bananas aboard was a taboo. Maybe because they often had tarantulas or poisonous spiders hiding within the huge bunches? Whistling on deck was a no-no because it can call up a wrong wind, but maybe the origin is associated with being confused with the whistles sounded in connection with giving orders. It could also be connected with the legend that mutineer Christian Fletcher used a whistle-call as the signal to rise up against Captain Bligh aboard HMS Bounty. One exception was the cook. If he was whistling then he wasn’t sampling too much food!

Renaming a boat supposedly was bad luck, although given that pirates did this all the time maybe it did not affect them? Or could this be why so many pirate ships had the same name? Still, there was a tradition to avert the bad luck: you de-name the vessel in a special ceremony, then officially re-name it. Sounds like a good excuse to have a party and sample the rum to me.

Not all superstition was regarded as ill-luck, there were some good omens as well, although many were assumed to ward of bad luck …

Cats. Ashore in many areas a black cat was associated with witches and regarded as unlucky, but for sailors a cat aboard was assured to bring good fortune. This one is a practical belief: cats catch rats and mice.

Caul. Babies born with the uterus membrane in place around their head were believed to be protected from drowning. It is a very rare occurrence. Sailors would often purchase a caul from midwives and mothers to keep as a good luck charm. Needless to say, I us this particular superstition in my Sea Witch series (Voyage Four: Ripples In The Sand)

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Losing a hat over the side indicated that the voyage could be a long one, and eggshells had to be crushed into small pieces before tossing them overboard in case they attracted witches.

me hanging on to my hat on a very windswept Exmoor!
Pierced ears – the gold hoop earring typical of a pirate – were worn to assist the soul to the afterlife by paying for its passage. If death was by drowning, and therefore no formal burial could take place with a coin placed in the mouth or over the eyes, the gold would be there to pay the ferryman the required fee. (So now you know why my Jesamiah Acorne wears a gold acorn earring!) 

Tattoos were often designed to bring good fortune and ward off bad luck, a red-haired man was to be avoided, and certain words were not to be uttered aboard: drowned, goodbye and good luck being three of them. To scratch a stay brought good luck, as did turning three times east to west, the way the sun travelled – woe betide anyone who got it wrong and turned widdershins, west to east though!


The Patron Saints of sailors, (they had two) were Saint Nicholas because he calmed a storm with prayer, and Saint Erasmus also called Saint Elmo. He is said to have continued preaching even though a thunderstorm raged and lightning struck the ground beside his feet. An electrical discharge which occasionally occurs at the masthead was believed to be a sign of his presence and was called Saint Elmo’s Fire. 

And a way to counteract the seven years of bad luck when a mirror is broken, is to toss the shards into running water - presumably the froth of a ship's wake would serve the right purpose?

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Do you know any odd superstitions? Do share them by leaving a comment below!

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