Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tools of the Trade: All God's Creatures

Superstition is allowed a very wide berth on any blue water ship. Some say it is one of the many necessary ingredients that bind a crew together in their common goals. Because animals were often all around ships as well as aboard them, superstitions about them have come down to us in droves. Some persist to this day. Here are just a few of the seagoing “dos and don’ts” from our shared nautical history:

Many types of sea birds bode good or ill just by their appearance. A swan seen floating on the sea is thought to signal good weather ahead. A kingfisher near a ship was a portend of calm. Seeing gulls on land meant incoming wind and rain. Petrels or gulls flying near a ship also indicated stormy weather and worse still if they landed and refused to be shooed off the vessel. Sighting a cormorant while underway was thought to be very bad luck; sighting a swallow, however, was very good luck.

Killing dolphins or porpoises was not much thought of before the 20th century; they were considered much like tuna and went straight to the galley. After World War I, however, killing either of these mammals was considered an ill omen. Since Roman times, a shark following a ship was said to be a sign that someone aboard would die.

Domestic animals also foretell weather and luck. Drowning the ship’s cat – whether accidently or on purpose – would surely provoke a hurricane or typhoon. The ship’s cat sneezing meant rain. If a cat ran ahead of a sailor on his way to his ship, his luck would be good. In the same circumstance, however, a cat crossing the sailor’s path signaled bad luck. The ship’s dog howling would catch the mariner’s eye. A storm was on its way and the wind would blow up from the direction toward which the dog’s muzzle was pointing as he howled.

The worst kind of bad luck was sure to follow the killing of a seagull or particularly an albatross. The Brethren may remember the completely non-O’Brian but – as seafaring superstitions go – eerily accurate scene in Master and Commander when Marine Sergeant Howard shoots Dr. Maturin instead of the albatross he was aiming at. Of course true seamen know that shooting at birds just above a crowded deck is patently forbidden but that is another type of ill luck indeed. As Coleridge wrote in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “And I had done a hellish thing, And it would work them woe; For all averred I had killed the bird, That made the breeze to blow. Ah wretch! said they; the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!”

Header: Some very unlucky seamen with an impressive albatross via


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I can't help but be reminded of John Cleese in the Monty Python sketch where he is the albatross vendor:

"Albatross! Get your albatross here!"

Pauline said...

That certainly came to mind for me, too, but more so that horrid scene in M & C. Given the action that went on in "HMS Surprise" leading up to Stephen operating on himself, that whole thing just falls flat.

Munin said...

LOL @ Timmy. You may have pinned down why I love the word "albatross" so much. :)

Great post, and wonderful photo. This post made me realise how much I romanticize (sp?) the fact as much as the fiction when it comes to the sea. Both avenues are equally fascinating. It also made me wonder about different peoples religious beliefs may have been morphed when it came to groups of pirates. Do you touch upon this subject in any posts?

Pauline said...

Who among us - of a certain age - hasn't been inspired by the Pythons?

You know Munin, I have done some studying on saints and spirits of the sea, but I have not explored the correlation between religious belief and superstition at sea. Great idea; I feel some research coming on.