Sunday, February 12, 2017

Maritime Superstitions by H.R. Woestyn 1906

Maritime Superstitions by HR Woestyn 1906

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THE belief in sea-serpents is not the only superstition with which sailors are leavened, and the cause of such credulity amongst men who fear nothing when danger in the shape of storms, gales, and shipwrecks is close by, must be traced to the continuous contemplation of the ocean, which gives even to the utmost imaginative mind an ample time to devote to open-eyed dreams. If one studies carefully the sailor, even on land, one will find a dreamy, lost look, impressed with a kind of vision of the future, of the great unknown, a look decidedly caused by that everyday’s monotonous contemplation of the sea.

And this is certainly the chief reason for legends and superstitions, transmitted from mouth to mouth, gaining ground in the already simple and generally uneducated minds of seamen.

Amongst all superstitions, there is one which is founded upon reason, and that is the fact of rats deserting a sinking ship. These rodents will stop in any place so long as there is food, but they seem to bear a great abhorrence for any locality which they cannot pace about dry-footed, and this must be the chief cause of their leaving a leaky ship where they have to wander on an underdeck too wet for them.

Less comprehensible, however, is the evil attributed to cats, when they disappear from a ship; and many a yarn is spun on deck about cats brought to a ship and suddenly vanishing away, never to be found again, or deliberately jumping into mid-ocean, giving a terrible shriek. In most of such cases, the sailor will terminate his yarn in assuring you that whoever brought the cat, or took care of the animal while on board, is sure to be at death's door. That the thing might have sometimes happened may be true, but only by mere coincidence.

The cat is certainly a strange being, and has always been considered in the minds of people as an accessory to witchcraft, especially in ancient times, and to this fact can perhaps be traced its ill-omened reputation.

We are told, however, that in some instances a black cat may also be, when on land, a token for safety, and the Scarborough sailors’ wives used to keep a black cat in their cottage to be sure of their husbands’ welfare at sea. Nevertheless, the sailor has, in many cases, a strong antipathy to certain forms of animals, and the names of hares, pigs, and asps, for instance, are far from being favourites with him.

The sea-faring fraternity is most conservative, and will stick to anything its elders have transmitted, taking it as gospel truth. The mermaids are an example of such credulity; the beautiful mermaids, the existence of whom is so strongly affirmed by older navigators, and of whom the fabled Sirens are the earliest examples chronicled in romance. These sea-nymphs, as the ancient poets were wont to call them, had, according to some, the form of a woman above the waist and that of a fish beneath; while others assure us that the lower part of the body was like a bird, confounding them with other monsters, the harpies. Female monsters of the sea we will deal with further on.

The sirens, numbering three, were Parthenope, the virgin face; Ligeia, the sweet voice; and Leucothea, the white skin—three names sure to attract the attention of men. They were, according to mythology, daughters of the god of the Achelous(a river in Greece) and the muse Calliope, and their abode was in some islands close to Sicily. The ancients used to say that they so greatly charmed sailors with their melodious voices that they forgot their employments and listened, till at last they were seized and devoured by them.

Parthenope, Ligeia, and Leucothea were informed by the Oracle that, as soon as any persons passed by them without being attracted by their songs they (the sirens) should perish.

Ulysses, according to the poet, informed of the power of their voice, stopped the ears of his companions with wax, and ordered himself to be tied to the mast of his ship, and no attention to be paid to his commands, should he wish to stay to listen to the song. This was a salutary precaution, for when he and his men came within hearing of the singing, Ulysses made signs for his companions to stop, but they were disregared, and the fatal coast was passed with safety. The sirens were so disappointed that they threw themselves into the sea and perished.

An ancient worthy, Sabinus by name, thinks that by these sirens were meant the Queens of the Islands, near the Bay of Salernum, who erected there a College of Eloquence, which gave occasion to the fiction of the sirens, who were called the daughters of Achelous and Calliope, because the professors of that college came from Greece where Calliope dwelt, and Achelous was one of the chief rivers there. But the sirens were turned into the sea when the professors and students gave themselves to debauchery.

More recent expounders of mythology adduce the fable of the three sirens from the dangerous rocks in the vicinity of the spot where they are said to have lived.

For more of the same go to The Number 13 & Other Superstitions - 100 Books on DVDROM and Mysteries of the Sea - 200 Books on DVDrom

Now that we have dealt with mermaids and sirens, it is only fair we should give some space to the other enemies of the old navigators, namely, the harpies. They are described as having the bodies of vultures, but the head and breasts of women, very fierce and loathsome, living in an atmosphere of filth, and contaminating everything with which they came in contact. Homer mentions but one harpy, Hesiod gives two, and later writers three. Their names indicate that they were personifications of whirlwinds and storms: Ocypete (rapid), Celecno (blackness), and Aello (storm); and their parentage is ascribed to Neptune as father, and Terra as mother.

According to Virgil they plundered AEneas during his voyage towards Italy, and predicted many of the calamities which attended him.

However, if sirens and harpies worry our sailor lads to-day, they are of a more human shape, and to be found on land; mermaids whirling round Wapping, and alluring them to dangerous haunts in the vicinity of the docks.

Jack Tar is a superstitious person, and between sea voyages will sometimes advertise in the newspapers for a newborn child’s caul, offering as much as if 5 pounds for it. He believes that a person born with a caul, or a sailor carefully carrying one with him, will never be drowned.

Ghost stories form a splendid theme for many a long-spun yarn on board on a dreary winter’s night. The first place must be given to the famous Flying Dutchman,a good old stock ghost whose story is recorded with slight variations amidst seamen of every nation. The best known version of his misfortunes is related by Yal:—

“An unbelieving Dutch captain had vainly tried to round Cape Horn against a head gale. He swore he would do it, and when the gale increased laughed at the fears of his crew, smoked his pipe, and drank his beer. He threw overboard some of the crew who tried to make him seek a port. The Holy Ghost descended upon the vessel, but, firing a pistol at the apparition, he pierced his own hand and paralysed his arm. He cursed God, and was then condemned to navigate always without putting into port; only having gall to drink, and red-hot iron to eat, and a watch to keep that should last for ever. He was to be the evilgenius of the sea, to torment Spanish sailors; the sight of his storm-tossed bark to carry presage of ill fortune to luckless beholders. He sends white squalls, disasters, tempests. Should he visit a ship, winesours and all food becomes beans; should he bring or send letters they must not be touched on pain of death and damnation. His crew are all old sinners of the sea—sailor thieves, cowards, and murderers, who suffer and toil eternally, and have little to eat and less to drink."

Weird, indeed, are the tales of these haunting spectres, fit to send one’s nerves a-shivering after a hearty supper, well suited for Christmas-time ghost stories.

 There is the case of Skipper Blake, of the Laurie, of Falmouth, who put the smack to sea in a bad condition, and against the admonitions of the crew. Caught in a gale, the Laurie landed on Sarn Badrig, a wall of submerged rocks on the Welsh coast. All hands were lost, and ever since his shipwreck the skipper prowls about Sarn Badrig, “skimming the wave-tops like a Mother Carey's chicken," to quote an old sailor's own words, and trying to allure the mates of any approaching smacks by a bright light which encircles him, and is often taken for that of a light-ship.

Then, again, we have the four goblins of Dunter's Ness, not ghosts, but evil water-spirits, who appear twice a year, only in midwinter, but bring bad luck in a very short time to the ship from which they are sighted.

We must mention Adamaster, the dreaded ghost of the Cape, that used to be seen in a halo of cloud and mist over Good Hope, and also the Silent Man of Wexford Harbour, the wandering soul of the Dutch skipper who lost his smack on his way to Dublin some three centuries ago, never got over it, and chooses to do the night-walk trick in his old Dutch garb, to play on the minds of smacksmen of to-day. The young men of Wexford will tell you that their favourite ghost, "Mynheer Van Dunk, Never got drunk."

But this must be a mistake if one considers the shaky gambols of this tricentenarian Dutchman. Hollands and Schiedam were favourite drinks in those days, and Mynheer Van Dunk most likely did not belong to the Blue Ribbon Brigade.

Ghostly apparitions are not, however, the only ones to be feared at sea. In the case of St. Elmo’s Fire these apparitions take the shape of spectral lights suddenly gleaming from yard-arms or mast-heads. This curious phenomenon is also known by the name of St. Nicholas Fire, and the ancient navigators designated it as Castor and Pollux, the best omen if seen double, but a signal of danger if seen single, and always a doubtless proof of Providence’s care of the good sailor. Dampier has described the St. Elmo fire as “a small, glittering light, like a star when it shines at the masthead, like a glow-worm when it appears on deck." Science has proved it to be an electrical manifestation taking place in rarefied atmospherical conditions, and adhering to the iron of the spars.

Let us now give a rest to the seaghosts and return to Jack Tar's other superstitions. Perhaps two of the most ancient, and still in existence, are the presence of figureheads and the blessing of ships. The origin of the two goes very far back. Figureheads were, at first, images of gods, and later on of saints and sea heroes, and even nowadays adorn many a ship. The ceremony of the blessing of a newly-launched ship by a priest is performed amongst all Latin seafaring races, and a great faith is reposed in such blessings. But the launching of a ship has always been attended with traditional festivities, many of which are still in use. Where, of old, ships were decked with flowers and crowns of leaves, flags now flutter; the libation poured on the deck, the purification by the priest, the anointing with egg and sulphur, find their exemplars in the well-aimed and wasted magnums which are shattered on the receding cutwater, as the craft, released from the ways, slips, well greased, into the sea. The jar of wine put to his lips by the captain, and then emptied on deck; the cakes and ale set before the crew; the stoup of wine offered to passers-by on the quay, and the refusal of which was an evil omen—all are realised in these sadder lustrums by the builder's feast in the mould-loft.

All these different ceremonies appertaining to seafaring life are of very long descent, and many are kept to this day; but it would be incomplete to close the chapter dealing with such observances of old without mention of the “crossing of the line." This tribute to Neptune is generally exacted of anyone on board sailing on such waters for the first time. The performance has been related by Captain Marryat in “Frank Mildmay," with full details, and is well worth notice.

“Neptune appears," writes Marryat, “preceded by a young man, dandily dressed in tights and riding in a car made of a gun-carriage drawn by six nearly naked blacks, spotted with yellow :paint. He has a long beard of oakum, an iron crown on his head, and carries a, trident with a small dolphin between its prongs. His attendants consist of a secretary with quills of the seafowl; a surgeon with lances and pillbox; a barber with a huge wooden razor, its blade made of an iron hoop, and a barber's mate, with a tub for a shaving-box. Amphitrite, wearing a woman’s nightcap with sea-weed ribbons on her head, and bearing an albicore on a harpoon, carries a ship’s boy on her lap as a baby, with a marlinspike to cut her teeth on. She is attended by three men dressed as nymphs, with currycombs, mirrors, and pots of paint. The sheep-pen, lined with canvas and filled with water, has already been prepared. The victim, seated on a platform laid over it, is blindfolded, then shaved by the barber, and finally plunged backward into the water. Officers escape by paying a fine in money or rum."

It will be remembered that no less a personage than the Prince of Wales paid this tribute to old Neptune while on his journey to Australia.

Of sailors of all nations, those belonging to Latin races are perhaps the most superstitious, their simple minds having been more influenced from childhood by the priests, so that their faith and devotion towards the images—and more especially that of the Virgin Mary—are of exceptional strength.

Vows made at sea in time of danger, and reverentially fulfilled afterwards on land, as well as presents to ensure mariners against evil, can be seen in most Continental seaport churches; these religious offerings are in the shape of quaint miniature ships, diminutive gold, silver, and bronze hearts and anchors; they hang from the ceiling by wires, or are fixed by nails on the walls, in front, or by the side, of the enshrined holy figures.

These practices, which also include the burning of wax candles, are survivals of the custom of making sacrifices and presents of old, when the gods were to be thanked, appeased, or prayed to, but in this day their observance, if not so universal, is undoubtedly, where it exists, dictated by a sincere religious spirit, though many must regard them as amongst the relics of our inherited superstitions.

After all is said and done, the superstitious being we scoff at is not only to be found at sea; for many people on land would not dare to walk under a ladder, have crossed knives before them, sit thirteen at table, upset a salt-cellar. Superstition in all its forms, on land or sea, is a human instinct, which mental idiosyncracies, the curious phenomena of the universe, and, above all, the mystery of the Great, Unknown are ceaselessly encouraging.

For more of the same go to The Number 13 & Other Superstitions - 100 Books on DVDROM and Mysteries of the Sea - 200 Books on DVDrom

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