Superstitions of the Sea


A few years ago I went to Melbourne Aquarium to see the giant squid they had frozen in ice. It was kind of small. I think I was expecting some enormous kraken- you know the type that rises from the sea and swallows ships whole? I've always loved seafaring lore; tales of ghosts ships, pirates and the type of sea monsters that don't exist at Melbourne Aquarium. One of the things I find most fascinating about seafaring is the crazy amount of superstitions and myths sailors believed in times gone by. I came across plenty of these while researching The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Here are a few of the most weird and (debatably) wonderful:

Eggshells and Witches:

Witchcraft was greatly feared in the days of sail and seamen believed eggshells were the key to keeping witches at bay. After eating eggs, they would break the shells into tiny pieces- this would prevent witches sailing to the ship aboard the shells!

Renaming a ship:

It's a well-known superstition that to rename a vessel is to curse her, and I couldn't resist throwing a case of this into The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In situations where it was necessary to rename the ship, sailors would go throw an elaborate de-naming ceremony before re-christening their vessel. Legend has it that the name of every ship in existence was recorded in the Ledger of the Deep; a record kept by Poseidon, the god of the sea. (How cool is that...) In order to safely rename a ship, it was necessary to purge all evidence of the vessel's former identity; destroying log books, name plates, life rings and anything bearing the name. A prayer to Poseidon would follow, asking that the ship be removed from his memory. Only then could the ship be safely re-christened.

Cats:

A black cat may be considered unlucky in many cultures, but to English and Irish sailors, they were anything but! Cats were considered lucky for many reasons- they'd catch the rats that would otherwise chew through the rigging and would create a homely feel for men who were at sea for months on end. All well and good, but the supposed power of cats didn't end there. Cats were believed to have ​control over the weather, with the power to deliver a man safely home, or to call up a storm with magic stored in its tail!

Cruentation:

In The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, the crew demands Gerrard touch the body of a dead man to prove he was guilty of murdering him. This superstition, widely held by sailors, was also, incredibly, used in court as a method of ascertaining guilt as recently as the nineteenth century. In a similar vein to hurling accused witches into water to test their innocence, cruentation relied on the belief that the body could continue to hear and act for a short period after death. The suspect would circle the body of the victim, calling his or her name. Next, the accused would stroke the wounds. If fresh blood appeared, or the victim foamed at the mouth, the suspect was considered guilty.

The Flying Dutchman:

I love the myth of the Flying Dutchman so much I wrote a short story about it. You know the legend, right? The ghost ship that can never reach port and is doomed to sail the seas forever? Like all good myths, its origins are debatable, but many believe it originated with the wreck of a Dutch vessel in 1641. The ship, they say, ran sailed into a fierce storm around the Cape of Good Hope and the master, Captain Van Der Decken refused to turn back, condemning his crew to a watery grave.


Sightings of the ghost ship were believed to signal impending doom. The Dutchman's crew, they say, when hailed by another vessel, would try and send messages to those long dead. Here is the beautifully eerie first stanza from Irish poet Thomas Moore's Written on Passing Dead Man's Island, inspired by the legend of the Dutchman:

See you, beyond yon cloud so dark,

Fast gliding along, a gloomy barque?

Her sails are full, though the wind is still

And there blows not a breath her sails to fill.

Oh! What doth that vessel of darkness bear?

The silent calm of the grave is there,

Save now and again a death-knell rung

And the flap of the sails with night-fog hung!

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