Superstitions of Sailors

Superstitions of Sailors

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by Angelo S. Rappoport

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Handed down from generation to generation, these intriguing maritime legends from around the globe describe a magical world beneath and above the waves. They range from the origins of the sea, as recounted in the Mahabharata and other ancient epics, to colorful instances in English literature that reflect the age-old superstitions observed by mariners and…  See more details below


Handed down from generation to generation, these intriguing maritime legends from around the globe describe a magical world beneath and above the waves. They range from the origins of the sea, as recounted in the Mahabharata and other ancient epics, to colorful instances in English literature that reflect the age-old superstitions observed by mariners and the seafaring community.
Some of these stories attempt to interpret and explain observable phenomena such as waterspouts, phosphorescence, and St. Elmo's light. Others draw upon mystical, supernatural associations with the sea, from sightings of phantom galleys and apparitions to the mischievous deeds of mermaids, kelpies, and watersprites. Still others originate among the tall tales spun by ocean travelers, a tradition at least as old as The Odyssey and its legends of ship-destroying monsters and islands inhabited by giants, sea nymphs, and witches. Nine evocative illustrations complement these enchanting tales.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Maritime
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Superstitions of Sailors

By Angelo S. Rappoport

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14737-6


The Origin of the Sea

The mystery of the sea—Appeals to the credulity of man—The wet origin of the Universe—The Laws of Manu—The story of Creation in the Mahabharata—The earliest cosmogonies—Homage paid to the sea—The origin of the Sea in the Mahabharata—The virgin Luonnatar—A Sumatra legend—The salty taste of seawater—A Moslem legend—The arrogance of the sea—A Jewish legend—The sea and the sand—The magic mill grinding salt—The mill song—Menia and Fenia, the two female slaves—The legend of the two brothers—The flitch of bacon and the wonderful quern—The skipper and the sea—Virtues attributed to the saltiness of sea-water—A drenching with sea-water—Superstitions in Scotland—Folk-medicine— Sea-water as a purgative—Bathing when the tide is rising—healing virtues of sea-water—The waves—The keys of St. Peter—The cry of drowned men—The number of the waves—The three waves—The cabin-boy and the two witches— The waves and the unfleshed sword—The ninth wave—The mother-wave—The tide— Superstitions of early mariners—The traditions of Japan—Scandinavian Sagas—The princess who had one hundred children—The monster of the deep—The tide and childbirth—The influence of the tide in Scotland—Customs in Sweden and Scotland—Neck, Neck, needle-thief—Stones thrown into the water.

The sea, that marvel of creation, immense and mysterious, silent or stormy, smooth or agitated, troubled and treacherous, has from time immemorial appealed to the imagination of primitive man. Ignorance, irrational fear, and a desire to propitiate the occult and unknown powers are generally the cause of man's superstitious beliefs. No wonder, therefore, that humanity in its early childhood should have been struck with fear and awe by that wide expanse hiding in its deep both dangers and treasures. The sea appealed to the credulity of man and exercised his imagination, and all those whose occupations compelled them to spend their lives upon the water wondered and thought about the origin of the sea and all the phenomena connected with it.

The capricious element, inspiring both horror and confidence, was peopled with imaginary beings, while the riddle of its very origin gave rise to numerous theories and superstitious beliefs. What is that wide expanse of water and whence has it come? asked not only the ancient cosmogonists but also the mariners who had to perform a sea-voyage.

The knowledge of meteorological principles and a better acquaintance with nautical science has, of course, done a great deal towards abolishing the many delusions prevailing with regard to the watery element, but the ignorance among sailors and fishermen is still very great, and seafaring men even to-day cling to numerous superstitions. Sailors generally believe that the sea existed from the beginning of time and that it had, in any case, been created before the earth. In this respect the belief of mariners coincides with the majority of theories expressed in ancient cosmogonies. The theory of the wet origin of the Universe is found in the cosmogonies of Egypt and India, of Assyria and Greece, and the Greek philosopher Thales taught that the sea was the origin of all things. The Avesta, or the sacred book of Zoroaster, and the Kalevala of the Finns, both relate that water was the first or one of the first elements.

In the elaborate story of Creation, found in the Laws of Manu, "the eponymous ancestor of mankind and the first lawgiver," it is related that in the beginning the Self-Existent Being desired to create living creatures. He first created the waters, which he called "Narah," and then a seed; he flung the seed into the waters, and it became a golden egg which had the splendour of the sun. From all egg came forth Brahma, Father of All. Because Brahma came forth from the waters, and they were his first home, he is called Narayana. In the Mahabharata the sage Markandeya is informed by the Lord of All that the waters called "Nara" were his home and therefore his name was Narayana. The Egyptian Sun God Ra similarly rose from the primordial waters as the sun-egg. According to the Aztecs the entire creation and even the gods themselves, the earth, the sun, and the stars, lay concealed in the fathomless abyss.

We thus see that the earliest cosmogonics attributed priority to water. To primitive man the watery element appeared both as a friend and as an enemy, a devouring monster at one time and a god fighting on his side at another. No wonder that the ancient mariners who spent their lives on the sea should have looked upon the ocean with feelings of both awe and horror. They firmly believed, and this belief is still extant to-day among the seafaring community, that the primeval ocean had been rolling its waves through a timeless night.

The sea, according to the beliefs of many, is the daughter of the Gods. Hesiod relates that earth gave birth first to Uranus, crowned by the stars, and then to Pontus, and subsequently uniting itself to Uranus produced the bottomless ocean. In Oceania it is believed that Tane married to Taaroa gave birth to the sea and the wind, while the Polynesians say that all things created issued from their respective mothers, and the sea, too, had one. According to other traditions the sea is not the daughter of the Gods, but a divinity itself or a part of it, a belief which explains the reason why certain nations paid homage to and worshipped the sea. Macrobius says that the heaven constituted the head of Serapis, while the sea was its belly. In Scandinavian tradition the origin of the sea is explained as follows : In the beginning there was neither sand nor sea, but only Guinunga-gap, the abyss of abysses. Thereupon the sons of Bur killed the giant Ymer, placed his body in the midst of Guinunga-gap and thus made earth. From his blood became the ocean and his bones constituted the mountains.

In the Mahabharata the origin of the sea is related as follows: The sea having been dried up by the Saint Agastya, its bed remained empty for several thousands of years. At a certain moment, however, fixed by Brahma, the pious Bhahgirata obtained the favour of Civa and of the celestial river Ganga. The latter consented to descend from heaven and falling upon the luxurious hair of Civa, poured into the empty bed which it filled.

The sea, according to many ancient traditions contained the germs of everything, and the earth, submerged in the sea, awaited the moment when the creative fiat made it emerge above the waters. In the Kalevala the virgin Luonnotar came down from heaven and plunged into the sea, which made her fruitful. She swum in the waves for seven centuries, but one day she lifted her knee above the waters and the eagle deposited there his eggs. On the third day, Luonnota having lowered her knee, the eggs fell into the sea. From their lower portion came the earth and from the upper portion the sublime heaven. The white of the eggs constituted the moon and the yolk the sun.

In Sumatra the following legend is related: In the days when nothing but water existed, one of the most famous Sumatran gods, Batara Gourou, had a daughter, Puta Orla Boulang, who desired to come down from heaven. She came down upon a white owl and her father, so as to enable his daughter to find a firmer footing, sent down from heaven the mountain Bakarra to which the entire earth adhered. Batara Gourou also sent down his son Layand Mandi commanding him to bind the hands and feet of Nagapagoha, the serpent who carried the earth upon its head and had hurled it once into the sea, so as to prevent the monster from making the earth disappear again in the waters.


British sailors pretend that at the bottom of the sea the water is not at all salty, and when the fish is not catching it is because the water on that spot is not salty. Drummond-Hay relates a story current among the Berber tribes of Morocco, which explains the cause of the salty taste of sea-water. In the beginning God had created the sea and in His goodness had made the water sweet. In their arrogance, however, the waters flooded the earth so that men and all other creatures, except the fish, perished. To punish the sea God sent an insect which swallowed up the sea so that its bed became dry. The sea thereupon repented, and God commanded the insect to spit out the water it had swallowed. The tiny creature obeyed, but the water of the sea henceforth remained salty, having acquired this taste in the stomach of the insect.

There is a similar legend of Moslem origin which accounts for the salty taste of the sea-water: In the first days of the world God created the sea, but remembering man, His masterwork of creation, He put a limit to the power of the watery element. "I command thee," said the Creator to the sea, "to respect that portion of the earth on which plants and flowers will grow to delight man. I have granted unto thee many privileges, for thy surface will reflect the azure of the skies and thy roaring waves will be the echo of my thundering voice." The sea promised to respect that portion of the earth which God had placed beyond its sway. Soon, however, the sea, proud and arrogant, forgot its promises and defied the Eternal. Discharging its roaring waves, it flooded the earth, and man was on the point of perishing. Then God interfered and decided to teach the arrogant waters a lesson in humility. He sent a swarm of insects who swallowed up the sea. From the inside of the tiny creatures the rebel loudly proclaimed the power of the Eternal and repented of its arrogance. The sea was forgiven, but its waters lost for ever their sweet taste.

The arrogance of the sea is also the motif of a Jewish legend, although no reference is made there to the salty taste of the sea-water. On the third day of creation, runs the legend, the earth was as flat as a plain, the waters covering the entire surface of the earth. At the word of the Creator the waters gathered and were rolled into the valleys, and the hills and mountains appeared. The waters then became proud and arrogant, rose tumultuously to a great height, covered the face of the earth, and threatened to overrun and drown the terrestrial globe. But the Creator rebuked the arrogant waters, subduing them and placing them beneath the hollow of His feet, making the sand the boundary and fence of the sea. And when the mighty waters saw the sand-grains, how small and insignificant they were, they laughed at them and mocked them.

"We are not afraid of you," they said, "for the smallest wave will destroy you and swallow you up."

The sand-grains, appointed to fight against the waves of the sea, were frightened, but the biggest of the sand-grains said:

"My brothers, do not be afraid. We are powerless and insignificant as long as we are separate, and the slightest breeze can blow us away. If, however, we stick together, we are a great power and able to oppose the inrush of the arrogant waters."

And ever since the waters recede and return to their place when they see the sand-grains united into one compact mass.

A legend current among the sailors of the coast of Ille et Vilaine explains the salty taste of the sea-water as follows: Once upon a time there lived a sorcerer who had invented a mill that could grind anything that the sorcerer commanded it to. The mill would only stop when the inventor pronounced a certain formula. One day a mariner heard of this wonderful mill and stole it. When he reached the open seas, the mariner commanded the mill to grind a quantity of salt which he required for the codfish he was out to catch. Soon the vessel was full of salt, but, alas, the mariner, ignorant of the magic formula, had no power to stop the mill in its work. On and on the mill continued to grind large quantities of salt so that the vessel and the mill sank to the bottom of the sea under the heavy weight. The mill is still continuing to grind the salt, and hence the salty taste of sea-water.

In Northern Mythology we read the following tale, which is called "The Mill Song."

King Frodi once paid a visit to King Fiölnir in Sweden, and there bought two female slaves, called Fenia and Menia, who were both large and strong. At that time there were found in Denmark two millstones so large that no one was able to drag them. These millstones had the property that they produced whatever the grinder wished for. The mill was called Grótti. Hengi-Kiaptr was the name of him who gave the mill to Frodi. King Frodi caused the slaves to be led to the millstones, and ordered them to grind gold, and peace, and prosperity to Frodi, giving them no longer rest or sleep than while the cuckoo was silent or a song might be sung. It is said that they then sung the song called Gróttasavngr, and before they left off that they ground an army against Frodi; so that in the same night there came a sea-king called Mysing, who slew Frodi and took great spoil. Mysing took with him the mill Grótti, together with Fenia and Menia, and ordered them to grind salt. At midnight they asked Mysing whether he had salt enough? He bade them go on grinding. They had ground but a little more when the ship sank. There was afterwards a whirlpool in the ocean, where the water falls into the eye of the millstone, and thence the sea became salt.

A Norse tale explaining the reason why the sea is salt runs as follows:

Once upon a time there were two brothers, one rich and the other poor. One Christmas eve the poor hadn't so much as a crumb of bread in the house and so he went to his brother to ask him for something to keep Christmas with. The brother was not very generous and rather reluctant to offer help.

"If you will do what I ask you," he said, "I will give you a flitch of bacon."

"I will do anything you will ask me to," replied the poor brother.

"All right," said the rich brother, "here is the flitch of bacon and now go straight to Hell!"

The poor brother looked surprised.

"Well," retorted the rich man, "have you not promised to do what I asked you. I am asking you to go straight to Hell and you must keep your word."

"What I have given my word to do," said the poor man, "I must stick to." So he took the flitch of bacon and set off. He walked the whole day until he met a very old man with a long white beard who was hewing wood for the Christmas fire.

"Good even," said the man with the flitch of bacon.

"The same to you," replied the old man; "whither are you going so late?"

"O! I am going to Hell, but don't know the right way."

"You have come to the right place," replied the old man, "for this is Hell. When you get inside they will all want to buy your flitch of bacon, for meat is rather scarce in Hell. Now don't you sell it unless you get the hand quern which stands behind the door. When you come out I will teach you how to handle the quern, for it is good to grind almost anything."

The man with the flitch thanked his informant and knocked at the devil's door. When he got in all the devils, great and small, swarmed up to him like ants round an anthill and all were anxious to buy the flitch of bacon, each trying to outbid the other.

"If I sell it at all," said the possessor of the flitch, "I will have it for the quern behind the door yonder." The devil did not like to part with the quern and haggled with the man for a long time, but as the latter stuck to what he had said he at last received the quern for his flitch of bacon. When he got out into the yard the friendly woodcutter showed him how to handle it. He thanked the old man and went off home as quickly as he could. The clock had struck twelve on Christmas eve before he reached his own door.

"Wherever have you been so late," asked his wife. "I have been waiting for you hour after hour, and I have not so much as two sticks to lay together under the Christmas fire."


Excerpted from Superstitions of Sailors by Angelo S. Rappoport. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Superstitions of Sailors 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Quietly observed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She pounced on a mouse, nipping its spine and killing it.