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Ships, the Sea and Superstitions
Fate Has the Last Laugh
By Lynn Whitney
If you are like most of us, you are probably a little superstitious sometimes. Even though the word conjures up thoughts of magic and miracles, and some seem downright silly, in fact, there are good reasons behind many of them. Early mariners in particular were very superstitious, and their rituals have carried over to today’s sailors.
Imagine yourself on an ancient boat. Your quarters are dark and musty, your food close to rancid. You may have been at sea for months or even years with no means of predicting weather conditions and no contact with land. You are at the mercy of the captain, the wind and the waves. Your superstitions become a form of magical thinking to help quell your uncertainty, give you a sense of security, and minimize your feelings of lack of control. The can serve as warnings to save you from the perils of the sea and certain death, and in some strange way, give you comfort.
One of the most popular superstitions of the sea involves women on board a ship. Any old salt will tell you, it’s bad luck! It makes the seas angry and brings bad luck to everyone on board. The traditional belief was that women were not as physically or emotionally as capable as men, and therefor had no place at sea. The reality was more likely that they were a distraction to the men, causing them to neglect their duties. Conversely, a naked woman could shame stormy seas into calm, which is the reason for many a bare-breasted woman figurehead on the bow of a ship.
Another superstition with a loosely based truth to it, was the bad luck of the banana. Many superstitions evolve from the misinterpretation of correlations as causes. During the height of Caribbean trading in the 1700’s, almost every ship that disappeared at sea was carrying a load of bananas. This gave rise to the belief that the bananas were the cause of the disasters. Thus, bananas became bad luck. An alternate theory was that bananas carried aboard slave ships fermented, creating methane gas, which would poison anyone in the hold, including the imprisoned slaves and anyone going below to help them. Possibly the most reasonable explanation is that lethal spiders would be hidden in the bunches of bananas. Were the bananas really the source of the bad luck? Just to be safe, leave them off your shopping list.
Probably the best known weather predictor; “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning,” also has some basis in fact. Weather conditions come from the ocean to the west. With clear air, the sunset will be red. In the morning, red light will be reflected by clouds to the west, which means moisture in the air and the possibility of storms. The old adage, “A ring around the moon means rain,” also has some scientific fact. Ice crystals in the atmosphere create the ring. That means moisture, which could become rain.
Now on to some more whimsical superstitions. With the perilous nature of sailing itself, sailors’ thoughts often turned to death, or more likely, how to avoid it.
Harbingers of Death
Signs of Bad Luck
Scoff if you must! These legends have survived for centuries, buoyed by belief or fear or a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable. Or, just maybe, there is some truth in them.
“Most of us aren’t superstitious-but many of us are a littletitious.”