Wednesday, April 15, 2009

10 Superstitions at Sea

In Celebration of the start of Deadliest Catch season 5 (WOW! What a season Opener!!) I'm sharing an article by Jessika Toothman... Learn More at
Those who sail the world's oceans have traditionally been awash with superstition,so hitting the high seas involves learning a laundry list of potential pitfalls to make sure no omens go unheeded or taboos are committed. And although many superstitions that plagued sailors' thoughts in past eras have fallen away in modern times, some remain alive and well today.

For a look at some of the superstitions of the sea from then and now, check out the following.

10. APPEASING THE GODS: Many cultures throughout history have attributed the powers of the sea to a plethora of authoritative deities and devils. And in an attempt to tame them and ensure a safe voyage, sailors often proffered gifts to these aquatic higher powers.

Animal and human sacrifices alike were one primitive way of appeasing the spirits of the seas. They could take place before launching, upon reaching safe harbor and at other times during a voyage. Cattle were a popular choice, but dogs, foxes, fowl, sheep, horses and a whole ark of other animals have also been among the many animals sacrificed over the millennia to calm the seas.

Libations and offerings of honey, flour, money, cloth, cheese, bread, brandy, fruit, meat, oil, wine and other gifts have all sunk slowly to the depths, having been cast overboard by superstitious sailors hoping for successful and safe travels.

9. A LUCKY LAUNCH: Breaking a bottle of wine against the hull of a new ship might seem like a waste, but this and similar practices have been traditional since time immemorial to issue a ship into its element for the first time.

Flowers and wreaths of leaves were also commonly part of the ceremony, and priests were often called upon to anoint and purify new vessels, blessing and consecrating them in the name of one patron saint or another. Some ships were even baptized.

If anything went wrong during the launching ceremony -- perhaps someone was injured while supports were being removed or maybe the ship wouldn't budge when it was ready to sail -- it was usually perceived as a bad sign. In some cases, if anyone attending the ceremony refused to drink a toast to the launch, even that was considered a bad omen.

8. WALK WITH THE ANIMALS: The presence, or lack thereof, of animals on and around a vessel was another common maritime superstition. A whole host of traditions focused on the actions of hapless animals. Rabbits crossing a fisherman's path could be a sign that no fish would be caught, but if the bunny was simply sitting beside the trail or happened to head towards the shore, that was no big deal.

Cats (with the possible exception of black cats) could be considered unlucky to have aboard a ship, but departing rats were often an even worse sign. Dogs weren't popular on some boats, especially near the nets or tackle, but spiders could herald a safe voyage -- but only if a little rhyme was spoken to them. Albatrosses were a good omen, and many other bird species were either favored or shunned by paranoid sailors. Sometimes even saying the name of an animal was considered bad luck. Four-legged animals were one example, although the list of forbidden words on some ships didn't stop there.

7. DO'S and DON'TS: If you think censoring a few words would be a chore, sailors throughout the ages have placed taboos on lots more commonplace -- and less easy to avoid -- actions. Sneezing probably topped the list, but should someone suffer any inopportune nasal activity, saluting could help avert the negative juju.

Some sailors thought arguing was an unlucky act, while others favored it before a voyage -- and did everything they could to encourage a good quarrel. Boarding or disembarking from a ship with the left foot in the lead was sometimes considered inauspicious, and we won't even try to untangle all the rules concerning a fisherman's catch and the sale thereof.

In certain cases sailors avoided carrying salt in their pockets, but in others they made use of the mineral to bring good luck. Some sailors even considered an overturned salt cellar one of the seemingly endless accidents that foretold a shipwreck.

6. SCHEDULING TO SET SAIL: A number of dates throughout the year have been deemed unlucky times to undertake a voyage, but all Fridays are on the list. Some religious holidays and the days surrounding them were thought of as good days to set sail and work, but others were viewed as awful choices and seamen would simply refuse to sail.

Sunday is usually considered a good day to set off, but the deep-rooted superstition that surrounds a Friday launch is renowned. Even if inconvenient, sailors throughout history and around the world have regularly put off a cruise to set sail on a less ill-fated day. Legend has it that Fridays herald disaster -- it's a day when boats are uncommonly prone to shipwrecks and other calamities if they had an unlucky launch.

5. CHARMED, I'M SURE: Sailors might have feared the wrath of the gods when they set sail, but that didn't mean they intended to brave stormy seas without a couple of charms for good luck. Crosses, rosaries and other holy paraphernalia were common, and charms were often blessed by priests.

Animal charms were also frequently seen. Fox tails, eagle beaks, wren feathers, seal skin and shark teeth were among the many zoological odds and ends that sailors used to boost their luck. Other charms included engraved amulets, coral and seashells.

Perhaps one of the oddest ways to ensure good luck was to carry a caul -- the part of the amniotic sac of a newborn (that in rare instances covers the face after birth like a veil). This tradition was popular for centuries. Cauls could be preserved and were supposed to provide protection from drowning and shipwrecks, making them trendy among sailors.

4. LEAVE THE LADIES ON LAND: Women just can't win. Their presence on a ship -- unless they're made of wood, bare-chested and attached to the prow -- was typically thought to be a dire situation indeed.

But even from land, some women (deemed "witches") were thought to have the power to raise the winds into a tempest using a number of interesting techniques. Tossing a stone over the left shoulder, chucking some sand into the air, swirling water in a hole, getting a piece of cloth wet and whacking it against a stone: these were all allegedly tried-and-true storm-raising methods of which superstitious sailors frequently ran afoul.

Satan helped fuel the seamen's mistrust of the fairer sex, of course, and his affinity toward women was another reason they weren't wanted on ships even in fair weather

3. DEALING WITH THE DEAD: The job of a sailor is filled with dangers even now, but back in the day, things were much more uncertain. No GPS navigation, no storm-tracking radar systems, no life jackets; about the only guarantee was that things wouldn't be dull. Due to this state of affairs, there were often dead bodies that had to be dealt with -- especially since drowning men were rarely aided -- and this was a part of the job that was universally abhorred.

Dead bodies meant all sorts of unlucky things. A storm could be brewing or there could be a haunting in the works. Touching the deceased's possessions might cause them to seek out the survivor for vengeance or mean they would be destined to perish in the same way. Drowned sailors were often rumored to cause trouble for their former shipmates, and woe to anyone who heard from or saw them again.

2. YES, WE HAVE NO BANANAS: Bananas are reviled by sailors, although the exact origin of this particular superstition isn't quite clear. There are several possibilities: methane gas from rotting bananas can be toxic, poisonous spiders and other bugs can be hitching a ride, or the peels can cause careless crew members to slip and fall. Whatever the exact reason, many ships still prohibit bringing bananas onboard today.

Whether bananas themselves are responsible for tragedy on the high seas is not really the question -- they are still considered very bad luck, especially around Hawaii. Banana bread and other foods are often off-limits too -- and you might even have your sunscreen taken away from you, depending on the skipper.

Some boats go so far as to ban the use of Banana Boat brand suntan lotion or other banana-named items on their vessels.

1. STORMY SKIES: The churning waters, lashing winds and blinding rain of a bad gale can be a sailor's worst nightmare, so many superstitions center around stormy skies. Witches and corpses aside, whistling is also not allowed on many boats -- it might have the power to call up a storm. Sailors have also blamed storms on angry gods, meddlesome spirits and a whole host of other supernatural troublemakers.

To help ward off the various dangers of the seas, sailors have developed a number of superstitious systems. Hitting swords together in the shape of a cross can do the trick against waterspouts, as can a black-handled knife and the Gospel of St. John, or clanging drums and gongs.

A ring around the moon is often thought to portend approaching rains, while a rising moon during a storm means the skies will soon clear. If a partial moon is tipped downward, rain is also on the way, with the reverse suggesting fair weather ahead. But whichever way you flip it, the superstitious nature of sailors is unparalleled.

Good Luck to the Men Crabbing the Bering Sea!

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Blogger Shelley Munro said...

Good grief, it's like a minefield for the unwary. How did the sailors keep it all straight?

4/16/2009 12:22 AM  
Blogger Marissa Alwin said...

LOL I think many of them contradict each other. So if they break one they keep another so it balances out.

Or just stick to the ones that ring true to you. Kind of like Absence makes the heart grow fonder and out of sight out f mind.... which one do you subscribe to?

4/16/2009 9:06 AM  

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