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Friday, July 13, 2012

Superstitions upon the Sea!!

The Age of Sail was not only a time of great exploration and adventure, it was also a time of deep superstition. So much about our world was yet unknown and most people were deeply religious. And I don't mean that in a good way, either. The Christianity Christ preached had long since been twisted and convoluted with Pagan practices, good luck charms, idols, amulets and other ungodly beliefs.  And since sailing was a large and prominent profession fraught with many dangers, it was inevitable that many superstitions rose regarding the sea. Here are just a few of the more interesting ones!

Rats! Every ship had rats and most sailors believed that these rodents who inhabited the dankest, darkest parts of the ship knew when misfortune was about to strike. If rats scurried off a ship at dock before it set sail, the voyage was sure to be doomed.

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If a Shark followed in the wake of a ship, someone on board would soon die

It was bad luck to kill a turtle and not eat it, but good luck to carry its bones around in your pocket 

Storm Petrels, also known as the Birds of our Lady, by the French were believed to be sent by the Virgin Mary to warn ships of coming storms.

Sailors believed Manta Rays could attach themselves to anchors and drag a ship down to Davy Jones' Locker.

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The Albatross could bring both good luck and bad. Good luck in its appearing, and bad luck if it was shot and killed because it was believed to be the restless soul of a dead sailor, as we see in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner


‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--
Why look’st thou so?’--With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.

In fact, if a storm arose after the bird was shot, the bird's carcass was strung around the neck of the sailor responsible and he was lashed to the mainmast where he had to stay until the tempest passed.  

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The figurehead at the bow prevented the ship from sinking in a storm, and since it was also believed that if a woman bared her breasts during a storm, it would abate, many figureheads are of bare-breasted women.

It was bad luck to set sail on a Friday because according to Norse myths, Friday was the day when witches gathered. It was also the day Jesus was crucified. Friday the 13th was particularly bad luck.  

Saint Erasmus, also known as St. Elmo died in a terrible storm at sea. Right before he died, he promised the crew he would come back and give them a sign if they were to survive. Not long after, the sailors saw a weird bright light in the sky. They believed it was St. Elmo's sign and every time that electrical charge was seen thereafter, if it remained high on the masts, the ship would survive. If it shown on the deck, the ship was doomed. It is known still today as St. Elmo's fire.

In order to prevent a departed sailor from following a ship, his body was rolled up in his hammock and 13 stitches were used to sew him up, the last stitch going through his nose to ensure he was dead and keep him from appearing on the ship as a ghost. Then two cannonballs were attached to his feet so he couldn't follow them. 

And my personal favorite, mermaids! Mermaids were greatly feared because they were known to lure a man to his death. In 1608 Henry Hudson wrote that two of his sailors had spotted one of the seductive creatures. 

This morning one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time she was come close to the ships side, looking earnestly on the men. A little after the sea came and overturned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a womans, as they say that saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going doune they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse, and speckld like a macrell.



Pretty Fascinating, huh? 

8 comments:

  1. Thanks MaryLu- a wonderful collection!

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  2. This is fascinating info, ML! Thanks so much for this post. I can't believe you got back from your wonderful trip and we CQ gals got you busy all over the place! Love the quote about the mermaid!

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  3. Thanks Ladies!! Yes.. it's been a VERY busy week! I just now remembered this was going to post today.. I'm going to go tweet it.. I found it all fascinating! Have a great day!

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  4. Cool. Thanks for sharing. You know, that figure head, I do believe, is from the HMS Bounty. It is called Bethia, after the name of the original sailing ship. Just FYI. :)

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  5. I love this kind of information - doesn't it reveal so much about our human nature and the desire we have for understanding and reason - even when the answers we come up with aren't exactly "reasonable?" It's why I enjoy fiction so much - we get to explore all the shoulda-woulda-couldas, the mightas, and the what-ifs in our hearts.

    Great post - thoroughly enjoyed these tidbits.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Hi Ladies, thank you for the post on Superstitions, very interesting, i knew of a couple of them but not all.
    You all have a great weekend.
    Many Blessings
    Ingrid

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  7. Another good post, MaryLu. Here's another superstition --Ringing bells were associated with funerals, so sounds mimicking bells were thought to forecast death. This included the ringing of wine glasses, so when proposing toasts, clinking of glasses wasn’t done. If done, the sound had to be stopped right away. Ship’s bells were exempted from this superstition, because they signaled time and the changing of watch duties. If they rang on their own, as in a storm, somebody was going to die.

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  8. I just finished reading In The Heart of the Sea, about the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, out of Nantucket. That was the ship attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific, in 1820, and the basis for Melville's Moby Dick. Oh my goodness, what those poor men endured (and most died from). One of the superstitions that has always troubled me ever since watching Master & Commander, and now having read the Essex story, is the concept of a Jonah, what they called a man deemed to be "unlucky." Haunting how that played out in Master & Commander, and it reared its head in the life of the Essex captain as well. But strangely enough, not for the tragedy that followed the attack on their ship by that huge whale alone. the book is a real page turner if you can handle the grim details. I read it after hearing a movie may be made of it and starring one of my current favorite actors, Chris Hemsworth. It turned out to be more engrossing (and grossing!) than I bargained for.

    I like your list of superstitions better, MaryLu!

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