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The brethren of the sea - pirates, fisherman, traders, whalers, and sailors on fighting ships - were a very superstitious lot. Here are some of the things they believed and a lexicon of symbols in a pirate's life.

 

A-D
anchor The anchor of a ship symbolizes hope, patience, and steadfastness.
bell

It is believed that the soul of the ship is embodied in the ship's bell. For this reason, the bells of shipwrecked vessels are preserved whenever possible. Bells of sunken ships are supposed to ring from beneath the seas where the wrecked craft lies.

Like the bell of a church, the ship’s bell had the task of keeping away all hostile influences such as storms and devils.

It is said that a ship’s bell that rings without human aid is an omen of death. 

boarding a boat When first boarding a ship, it is said to be unlucky to step forward with the left foot first. However, it is much worse if you also sneeze to the left while doing so. 
building a boat

There are many superstitions about boat building, including:

  • In Pomerania, in Germany it was believed to be lucky to use stolen timbers for the construction of a boat. 
  • In the North of England, during the caulking of a wooden boat a shipwright could claim a ‘caulking kiss’ from any passing girl.  If she refused him, she had to pay a shilling. 

For more superstitions about boat building, see keel and mast.

burial at sea

Many seamen believe that it is unlucky to have a dead body aboard ship.  A corpse should be buried at sea as soon after death as possible, but never parallel to the line joining the bow and stern of the ship.

If it is necessary to bring a dead body ashore, it must always be taken off the ship before anyone else disembarks. 

cats Cats brought luck. If a ship's cat came to a sailor, it meant good luck. If the cat approached the sailor and then went away, it was bad luck. If a cat was thrown overboard, a storm and very bad luck would follow.
Christian symbolism

According to Joseph Campbell in Man, Myth, and Magic [page 2566], the ship is the Christian symbol for both Church and State.

Medieval Christians wore badges in the form of a ship to show their faith in salvation. The badges were also thought to provide protection against the temptations encountered by a traveler on life’s voyage.

cradle-to-grave Norsemen used the same word, skop, for boat, cradle, and coffin.
   
   
E-H
evil eye

Boats from Mediterranean ports had an eye painted on their bows to guide the craft to its destination and protect it against the evil eye.

figurehead

Usually, the figurehead on a sailing ship was in the form of a naked woman, who was in reality an idol or divine figure. She protected the ship from sinking.

This divine figure required an offering. The breaking of a bottle of champagne across the bow of a craft at its launching ceremony is a modern version of the pagan libation sometimes in the form of human blood. 

Sailors have always regarded the naked body of a woman as a luck-bringer, whether in reality or in the form of an effigy. 

fisherman

In addition to the superstitions and symbols shared by all sailors, fisherman have some of their own, including:

  • Portuguese cod fishermen who sail in Newfoundland waters believe that it is unlucky to sail too close to the mother ship. They also regard Greenland as an area of bad luck.
  • In Ireland a fisherman may refuse to give a light from his pipe on a Monday, in case he should inadvertently surrender his luck for the whole of the ensuing week. 
  • Irish fisherman do not want to be the third boat to leave harbor, either, because it is said to bring a poor catch.
  • Some Irish fisherman will try to borrow someone else's luck by rubbing the bow of their own boats against those of more fortunate crafts.
frigate

Frigate comes from the Norse goddess, Frigga (Freya). She ruled the ship-shaped burial mounds.

full sail A ship in full sail symbolizes safe conduct.
gender of a ship The vessel of death and rebirth was always feminine, which may be why a ship is still referred to using the feminine pronoun, she.
gold and silver coins It was customary for shipwrights to put a gold coin somewhere in the keel and a silver coin was put somewhere below the mast. The gold coin was for good luck and the silver coin protected the ship and the crew from storms.
   
I-L
jinx A ship that is cursed with bad luck is said to be jinxed. In the British Isles, a small craft with a bad reputation may be burned to "kill the death in her."
Jonah, Jonas A person who brings misfortune to his crew mates, as Jonah did to the biblical mariners when he took the ship to Tarshish.
keel

The ship's keel is the foundation of the boat. The ritual of laying a foundation stone for a building is analogous to "laying" of the ship's keel. As Joseph Campbell reports in Man, Myth, and Magic, the brethren of the sea shared many beliefs about the keel:

  • At Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, the design of the fishing boat could not be changed after the keel had been laid. To do so was to invite bad luck to the sailors in the boat.
  • In Scotland it was the custom for the builder of the boat to hide a gold coin in somewhere in the keel. The purpose of the gold coin was to bring good fortune. The hiding-place was known only to the builder; never to the ship’s owner. 
  • The first nail pounded into the keel was sometimes tied with a red ribbon to protect the craft against storms and other misadventures. 
  • Shipbuilders, also called shipwrights, never cursed the keel. They could curse anything else on board ship, but the keel was sacrosanct. 
  • It was forbidden to lay down the keel on a Friday. An old legend tells of a shipwright who didn't believe the superstition. He laid the keel on a Friday, named the ship Friday, gave its command to a Captain Friday, and dispatched it on its maiden voyage on a Friday. The ship was never seen again. 
   
M-P
mast It is customary for shipbuilders to lay a silver coin beneath a ship’s mast.  The coin symbolizes the moon. It is supposed to preserve the ship and crew from storms. 
naming a ship

Seaman object to any name ending in the letter a. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 reinforced this superstition. 

Once christened, a ship’s name must never be changed or disaster will fall upon craft and crew. Joseph Campbell in Man, Myth, and Magic, mentions the story of a skipper who decided to rename his boat after his new wife. Shortly thereafter, the boat sank. 

nave, navis, navel, and naval Norman temples were laid out in the form of a ship, navis, on which the nave or "belly" of a Christian church was modeled. The words navel and naval once referred to the burial shrine, which was compared to a ship and to the mother’s womb.
   
   
Q-T
rudder The rudder of a ship symbolizes truth, guidance, and wisdom.
Saint Elmo's fire

Saint Elmo's fire is the discharge of static electricity from points on a ship, such as masts and spars.  But, it is the subject of superstitions, too. According to some sea stories, if one flame appears, it means bad weather is coming. If two flames appear, it means the weather will be clear. 

Saint Elmo’s Fire was sacred to the moon goddess Helen and to Hermes, god of magic. It was also known as Corposant, which comes from the Italian phrase, corpo santo, Christ’s body. Other names for it are St. Anne’s Light and even Saint Electricity. 

Some Scholars claimed Saint Elmo was the same as St. Erasmus of Syria.  

ships and fate

The word ship is descended from the Teutonic word, schiff. Schiff is in turn descended from the Old Norse word skop, which means fate.

sneezing Sneezing to the left side while boarding a ship incorrectly - with the left foot first - was bad luck.
spooky sounds

There are many superstitions about sounds:

  • If a wine glass made a sound of its own accord, it was a sign that a ship and its crew will soon die. 
  • Whistling on a ship was thought to bring bad winds, which could harm the crew and the ship.
   
U-X
whistling on a ship Whistling aboard ship was supposed to invoke an adverse wind, which could harm the ship and crew.  
windlass St. Erasmus of Syria was alleged to have been martyred by having his intestines wound out of his body onto a windlass. As a result, his symbol in sacred art was a windlass and he became a patron saint of sailors
witches and wind-sellers

Witches would sell the wind to sailors in the British Isles and Europe. These wind-sellers sold magic hawsers tied with three knots, said to bring the wind.  By the end of the sixteenth century wind selling had grown into an international trade.

According to the book, Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger by Ulrike Klausmann, Marion Meinzerin and Gabriel Kuhn [Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1997], the last European wind-seller was Bessy Miller, a resident of the Orkney Islands.  Sea travelers were still paying her tribute in the nineteenth century. 

The witches of Finland and Lapland had a reputation for being able to call up winds from the most remote areas. They did a brisk business selling their conjuring skills. 

To protect against psychic attack, boatmen in the past attached stones with holes in them to the bows of their boats. The stones were called holy flints. They were made of the same kind of stone as that used to protect houses against witchcraft. 

   
Y-Z
   

 

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© 2004 by John Gallagher, Stepping Into Books Productions (BMI)