Saturday, October 29, 2011

Horror on the High Seas: Devil

The English word “devil” originated with the Greek word diabolos. This word in Greek did not mean some imp or demon but a slanderer (dia – across combined with ballein – to throw). The act of slander in Ancient Greek culture, and later in Rome as well, was so heinous that the word quite literally became demonized. By the medieval period it had morphed into the Middle English devil, a limb of Satan and later still Devil, Satan himself.

Sailors, much like any group of people who live and work in hostile and potentially deadly conditions, tend to both laugh at and fear evil. Use of the word “devil” and calling upon the Devil are not uncommon at sea, or at least they weren’t. When times are really tough, the essence of evil may be more helpful than the essence of sanctity. And, aside perhaps from Saint Brendan, there has rarely in any history been a saintly sailor.

Devil bolts are those with false clenches. As The Sailor’s Word Book notes, they were often used in contract built ships. They were ill thought of among blue water seamen and usually replaced fairly quickly once the ship was afloat.

A devil’s claw is a very strong split hook used for grasping chain cable. Devil is priming made by wetting and bruising black powder. Caulkers called the water line on a ship the devil, probably because it was the hardest part of the vessel to make air tight.

Devil is also used in weather signals and signs. Devil’s smiles are patches of sunshine streaming down through dark clouds, a sure sign that better weather is on the way. Sometimes the officer in charge – and particularly the captain – was said to have “the Devil’s smile”, considered a good sign that a prize might be in the offing. The Devil’s tablecloth is a particular portend of a south-easter off the Cape of Good Hope, where condensation from the impending storm forms a patch of fleecy cloud at the top of Table Mountain.

Devilry is the act of wanton trouble that is only inches from crossing over into crime. Sailors ashore, particularly after a long time at sea, were notorious for drunken devilry.

Men said that there was the Devil to pay and no pitch hot when there was necessary work to be done and no one stepping up to do it. This was also a phrase that indicated impatience with no outlet; rather an old sea-going form of “all dressed up with no place to go”.

Of course, it probably goes without saying that a sailor can all too easily be caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. That term’s origin has been a source of debate for years but everyone understands its meaning well enough as we’ve all been there in one way or another.

Finally, in the very worst of circumstances and particularly in a vicious storm, an offering might be made to the Devil. In a gale that had torn his fore and main topmasts away, Charles Ellms tells us that the pirate Captain Lewis “… tore off a handful of hair and throwing it into the air used this expression, good devil, take this till I come.” Lewis must have had the Devil’s ear; despite the loss of his topmasts, he overtook the prize he was chasing.

Header: Sea Devil from a medieval manuscript


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! I think “the Devil’s smile" was my favorite of these.

Pauline said...

That is a good one, I have to say.