Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Sailors and Their Superstitions

by Julian Stockwin

Over two decades of researching my Thomas Kydd series I’ve learned much about the rich sea lore of the seaman. In my latest book THE IBERIAN FLAME the appearance of a mermaid evokes age-old fears of sirens luring sailors to their doom. Those who followed the sea then were far more superstitious than landlubbers. Some notions, such as those about the weather often did have an element of truth in them. And the fabled Fiddler’s Green no doubt provided comfort to sailors that they would not end up in Davy Jones’ Locker as food for fishes but go to a better place.

• The caul

One superstition that borders on the macabre is the reverence in which a birth-related piece of human tissue was held.

The caul, the thin membrane covering the heads of some new born children was believed by mariners to bring good luck, in particular to guard against drowning – the sailor’s great fear.

Those born with the caul were considered immune from drowning. In one story, a baby born with the caul was so powerful ‘that when his mother tried to bathe him he sat on the surface of the water, and if forced down, came up again like a cork.’

In fact the caul was highly prized not just by mariners but by landlubbers as well, and there are references in literature from the bible onwards, even in the works of Charles Dickens. David Copperfield describes feeling uncomfortable and confused at the auction of his own caul. (The winning bid was from an old lady who went on to live to ninety-two, and died in her own bed.)

As long as the individual born with a caul kept it on his person the magical powers remained with him but if the caul was sold its properties passed to the buyer, as in Copperfield’s experience. An advertisement in The Times in February 1813 offered a caul for 12 guineas. Another paper announced the sale of a caul – ‘having been afloat with its late owner forty years, through the periods of a seaman’s life and he died at last in his bed at his place of birth.’

A Punch cartoon of
Davy Jones sitting on his locker
Sailors would often sew their cauls into their canvas trousers. One old sailor with a caul secreted on his person this way was admonished that his amulet was a ‘vulgar error’. He was said to reply: ‘A vulgar error saving me from Davy Jones is as good as any other.’
Cauls were advertised in British newspapers all the way until World War I. One ad, posted in the Bristol Times and Mirror in 1874, appealed specifically to sailors. “TO SEA CAPTAINS: For sale, a Child’s Caul in perfect condition. £5.”

• Mermaids and Mermen

lurer of sailors to their doom
Legends of creatures with the head and trunk of a man or woman and the lower torso of a fish abound. Mermen, often thought to be the spirits of sailors lost at sea, were depicted as ugly old men with straggly black beards and hair. Mermaids, by contrast were young, attractive creatures with long gold hair. It was believed that mermaids longed for an immortal soul but could only attain this by physical union with a human.

Mermaids would sing to sailors, distracting them from their work and causing shipwrecks, sometimes inadvertly squeezing the life out of drowing men while trying to rescue them.

We have a number of recorded historical ‘sightings’ of mermaids, including Columbus who wrote in his log about seeing three mermaids on his first voyage to the Americas. ‘[they] rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented.’

• Mother Nature

Far more seamen died at sea in storms than in engagement with the enemy. It is not surprising, then, that mariners had many superstitions about the weather.

Sometimes a horse-shoe was nailed upside down to the mast of a ship to avert storms. Nelson was said to have had one on the mainmast of HMS Victory.

Seamen were particularly anxious about squalls. It would certainly bring bad luck not to follow the advice of the old ditty:
‘When the rain’s before the wind, Strike your tops’ls, reef your main ... When the wind’s before the rain, Shake 'em out and go again.’

Under certain atmospheric conditions there is an electrical discharge around the mastheads and yardarms of ships, St. Elmo’s Fire.

Superstition holds that the fourteenth century St Elmo was rescued from drowning by a sailor. As a token of his gratitude St. Elmo promised to send a light to warn those at sea of approaching storms. The appearance of St. Elmo's Fire was thus regarded as a good omen. Its appearance preceding a storm portended that the guiding hand of St. Elmo would be present. However many older mariners believed that if the eerie shimmering light fell upon a man’s face he would die within twenty-four hours.

Among American sailors felines were thought creatures of ill omen: should cats frolic aboard this was a sure sign of a storm; if they washed behind their ears this would bring rain, and if one was seen climbing the rigging the ship was doomed.

A ‘cat’s paw’ is a ruffle on the water during a calm that moves as silently as a cat. On seeing cats’ paws old salts would rub the ship’s backstay, part of the standing rigging, as though stroking a cat, and whistle for a wind to come to the ship.

But whistling at sea when the wind was blowing was banned; it would mock the devil who would retaliate by sending gale-force winds. An exception to this injunction was given to the cook preparing the duff, steamed pudding. He was supposed to whistle while he worked so that he couldn’t surreptitiously pop raisins intended for the sweet treat into his mouth!

• When a Sailor Tops His Boom

Sailors had a number of colourful expressions for death at sea, mostly involving nautical terms. Some sails need a long spar, or boom, to spread their foot. When the boom is topped, the vessel is ready to start the voyage. Sailors adopted the expression ‘to top your boom’ to refer to the journey to the afterlife.

A mariner might talk about meeting Davy Jones, the spirit of the deep, thought to be in all storms and sometimes seen as a being of great height with three rows of sharp teeth in an enormous mouth and blue flames coming from his mouth. The name may be a corruption of ‘Duffy Jonah’, a West Indian sailors’ name for the devil.

Davy Jones’ Locker was the bottom of the sea, a repository for everything that went overboard, from masts to men.

Then there was Fiddler’s Green. This was an Elysium, a paradise populated by countless willing ladies, rum casks that never emptied – and always a fair wind and flying fish weather. To go to Fiddler’s Green the departed sailor first became a seagull and then flew to the South Pole where the entrance awaited him in the form of an open hatch. Sailors had a horror of molesting sea birds, especially the albatross, as they were thought to be the spirits of dead sailors who had not yet found their way to Fiddler's Green.

The albatross, the spirit of a dead sailor

Unless the ship was very close to land, burial was at sea for most sailors. The body was sewn up in the man’s hammock and weighted down with a cannon ball. At the last minute a stitch through the nose confirmed that he was really dead!

Jack Tar was uneasy about having a corpse on board ship, believing it would attract bad luck. If a corpse was carried on board there were some things that could be done to minimise the impact: it must always lie athwart the vessel, never end on, and when the home port was reached it must leave the ship before any member of the crew.

• Women on Board

Female mariners were not common in the age of sail but life at sea was not completely a male preserve. Some wives of standing officers went to sea; they assisted with the care of the sick and wounded and even acted as powder monkeys during battle. However to have a woman on board was generally thought to bring bad luck to the ship in the form of a terrible storm that would destroy the ship and all in her. Curiously, a half-naked woman was believed to be able to charm a storm at sea, hence the practice of figureheads with a bare-breasted female torso.

• Friday Sail, Friday Fail

For a sailor the day of his ship’s departure was important. Wednesday was the best day to begin and end a voyage – possibly because the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon god Woden, a protector of mariners. Friday, however, was to be avoided at all costs. The Temptation and Banishment from the Garden of Eden, the Flood and the Crucifixion were all believed to have occurred on a Friday.

One admiral once remarked: ‘Why, I was once fool enough to believe that it was all nonsense and did once sail on a Friday, much to the annoyance of the men. The consequence was that I run my ship aground and nearly lost her... nothing will induce me to sail on a Friday again!’

And while we are perhaps more sceptical today some of these beliefs linger on in those who venture upon Neptune’s kingdom.

The injunction never to sail on a Friday is known to sailors in today's fleet. I remember during my time at sea that mysterious faults in the engine room were known to develop on Friday that were not rectified until the next day!


The Iberian Flame,
the latest title in
the Thomas Kydd series
Julian Stockwin  has written twenty books to date in his Thomas Kydd historical action adventure fiction series, set in the Age of Fighting Sail. Although they form a series each title can be read as a stand-alone novel. These are in order: KYDD, ARTEMIS, SEAFLOWER, MUTINY, QUARTERDECK, TENACIOUS, COMMAND, THE ADMIRAL’S DAUGHTER, TREACHERY (published in the US as THE PRIVATEER’S REVENGE), INVASION, VICTORY, CONQUEST, BETRAYAL, CARIBBEE, PASHA, TYGER, INFERNO, PERSEPHONE, THE BALTIC PRIZE and THE IBERIAN FLAME. In parallel to the Kydd novels, he is writing a series of standalone novels, based on pivotal points in history. Two titles have been published: THE SILK TREE and THE POWDER OF DEATH. Julian has also written a non-fiction book, STOCKWIN’S MARITIME MISCELLANY. More information can be found on his website Julian also posts to his own blog, BigJules, and is on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

For a chance to win a signed copy of THE IBERIAN FLAME email with 'IBERIAN FLAME' in the subject line. Please include your full postal address. Contest closes June 20, and the winner will be notified by email. Open worldwide. 

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