Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Saint

Oh, there’s never a saint around when you need one and rarely can a saint be found aboard us. That said, and today being Saint Patrick’s Day, let us look at a few uses for the word saint at sea.

In the north of England, the eider duck of the Farne Islands is known as St. Cuthbert’s duck. Butler’s Lives of the Patron Saints does not list St. Cuthbert, but one has to imagine he had a seafaring bent. Or kept ducks, perhaps.

A popular saint reference is a weather dial at sea and at the sea shore. St. Swithin’s Day is July 15, and it was said that if it should rain on that day “not one of forty days following will be without a shower.” St. Swithin is also unfortunately absent from Butler’s, but Admiral Smyth tells us that he was a bishop.

Many navies, particularly those of Catholic countries, have patron saints. Many call upon the Virgin Mary whose aspect of Stella Maris, star of the sea, makes her an over-arching protector of all who sail the tides. Other, one has to say lesser, saints are popular as well. St. Barbara is the patron saint of the Italian navy, for instance, while St. Nicholas is the patron of the Greek. St. Francis Paola looks after fishermen and St. Brendan, an Irishman himself, is the patron saint of the U.S. Navy. A separate saint – the warrior angel Michael – looks after the Navy Seals.

The most talked about saint aboard our ancestor’s ships, however, was certainly St. Elmo. A bishop from Italy who was martyred in the 4th century, even Butler’s cannot determine why, exactly, Elmo (whose given name was Erasmus) is the patron saint of sailors. The famous electrical discharge which hovers over mastheads is known as St. Elmo’s Fire (or infrequently St. Elmo’s Stars) as it was thought to bring luck to the sailors the bishop shepherded.

Known in later times, and particularly aboard Protestant ships, as compasant (itself a corruption of corpo santo; saint’s body), the odd balls of bluish or white light appear for the most part during electrical storms. Most sailors looked upon them as a sign that their ship would make it through the dirty weather in tact. As Herman Melville described it in Moby Dick:

All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tripointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.

A Mariner’s Miscellany gives other names for the compasant, including: St. Helena, Castor and Pollux, Corpusant, Capra Saltante, Corbie’s Aunt, Jack Harry, Sailor Devil, St. Nicholas and St. Hermes. It was said at sea that the more lights that were seen, such as in Melville’s triple flames, the better the luck.

Finally, of course, there is the ship’s dog who was sometimes referred to as a saint. In later years and particularly aboard north sea ships, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards were particularly prized as they would not hesitate to jump into the cold water and save a man overboard. Napoleon himself was saved from drowning by an unnamed Newfoundland on his return from Elba to France. A saintly act, indeed, if only by the dog.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, Brethren; may the sea always follow and may your messmates be tolerable good fellows.  Slante!

Header: Kay, My Friend by Elizabeth Strong via American Gallery

5 comments: said...

St. Barbara is also the patron saint of Artillery.

Part of the Spanish Gun Drill in St. Augustine includes a prayer to Santa Barbara, I have also seen this posted at the Morro Castle in San Juan.

Pauline said...

Dale: thankee indeed for the added information on St. Barbara and the Spanish military not to mention the link. I appreciate you adding so much to this post.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Happy St. Patrick's Day! The painting reminds me of our Saint, Thor, the god of blunder...

Pauline said...

Yeah; Kay was clearly a pretty girl. And saints preserve us.

Timmy! said...

Sadly, it looks as though Mr. Thor won't be with us much longer though, Pauline.

Saints preserve us indeed...