Ancient Sailor's and Their Bizarre Rituals and Superstitions
The navy today live in a bright new world of technology and science. But back in history sailors lived by the sword. There were hangings, floggings and many more horrible ways to perish at sea.
So its totally understandable that all the sailors, including the captain turned their minds to religion and strange beliefs to get them home, or at least save their souls.
Some of the strange beliefs do make sense, others are a case of word upon word, or Chinese whispers. But the whole point of believing in these strange religions or odd superstitions is that it kept them alive. Without these beliefs, many would have died through physical pain, or mental distress.
Back in the 18th Century it was not uncommon for a sailor to be punished with 24 lashes or more for being drunk on duty. Old hands at the game of cheating authority had a great word of advice for all new sailors.
Get a crucifix tattooed on your back. The reason for this was that the bosun's mate who usually got roped in to deal the punishment would actually flinch away from the contact.
Let's face it, nobody wanted to defaim the Cross of Jesus, especially at sea where just the slightest swell of the water would cause the Mates's to pray to God.
Laying the cat o' nine tails across the shipmates back would put the fear of God into all of them. The trouble was, if they couldn't take the lash, then they would be given other punishments instead, such as keel hauling.
This is when the sailor is tied to the ship, and pulled underneath until he comes up the other side. Most drown before they emerge from the water.
Vicars and Vipers.
In other legends of the sea, Christian symbols and vicars too are feared because they bring bad luck. Perhaps they feel that they catch the eye of God too much, and if they make any mistake they will be punished?
Faced with the perils and mysteries of the sea, sailors have adopted many beliefs from all around the world. Whether it be animals, birds, names even an action as apparently harmless as whistling can bring bad luck. Maybe the old saying a 'Whistling woman and a crowing hen ain't no good to God or men' has something to do with it!
The beliefs of the past have not completely died out though. Even today the Admiralty take seriously the names of new ships in the fleet, and steer away from the ones that are supposed to bring bad luck.
Evidently reptile names are nearly all banned these days. The reason? Back in the past, the navy has lost four vipers, four serpents, a cobra, an adder, a crocodile, and an alligator. All these were the name of ships that were lost at sea.
These days many beliefs of the sea are still practiced. Even on board a modern ship the salute to quarterdeck which the sailor makes on coming on board has its origin in the time when a crucifix was hung there.
Some fishermen even today will not sail if they meet a priest or a nun on their way to the boat or ship.
Reading aloud from the Bible or quoting phrases from the Bible at sea carries a terrible risk of bringing doom and disaster to the ship. Unless of course its on a Sunday or during a burial at sea.
A famous curse.
A very famous case of superstition or maybe curse happened back in 1707 when a condemned man was marched up to stand underneath the yard arm gallows on board ship. He turned to his fellow sailors and said:
'As its said in the 19th Psalm,
'Let his days be few and let another take his office, let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him'.
The ship was called the Association. It was the Flagship of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell.
Later that year the ship and two others went don off the Scilly Islands near Cornwall England. There were over 2000 men lost. Seems the sailors word had some clout.
And of course with a story like this we couldn't leave it there. It seems that according to legend, Admiral Cloudesly, who had passed sentence on the poor sailor, was washed up on the beach, unconcsious but still alive. But not for long. He was buried alive!
It seems that a woman who found him washed up on the beach, murdered him for his ruby and emerald rings. She even hacked off his fingers to get at them! The lady from St. Mary's Island later told the story on her deathbed.
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Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.
The Soul In The Seagull.
In those long lost days of sail, there were many beliefs about birds. The main one being that dead mariners were said to be the reincarnated souls that were now born again in seagulls.
The belief still carries on today, especially in the British isles, mainly around Cornwall.
If one of the birds appeared over the ship mid ocean then it was said to be a sign of storms coming their way.
The most famous of birds was the mysterious albatross, to see one meant that a storm was brewing too. This bird was regarded with awe, and still has the same effect on superstitious sailors today.
And never ever kill an albatross, as Coleridge recounted in his famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Rabbits and Pigs.
Strangely enough mentioning rabbits and pigs is another no no. This taboo is so strong its said that even in the past 50 years sailors were punished for using those names.
Instead they were changed to Grecians and Jacks which were pigs, but the name of the rabbits is not recorded.
Whistling is another taboo which has its roots in dark magic and witchcraft.
Whistling was said to bring on a storm as it drew the high winds towards the ship. This is an ancient taboo, and nobody really knows where it came from.
But the idea was put forward that it was the myth of having a witch or just wise woman aboard.
To get rid of the storm the sailors threw a coin overboard. Maybe this was the beginning of the coin in the Wishing Well stories.
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Superstition and the Sea.
The days of the old sailing vessels is now in the past. But many sailors, and indeed other dangerous professions still carry there own forms of superstition.
Whether it be praying to God or changing the names of everyday animals and items it seems that even in these days of high technology, our main aim is to try to still the waters, and make our peace with nature any way we can.
By making bargains with the Gods of the sea these sailors found a way to travel the world and come home safely.
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