Whether it’s ghost ships, sea lore, or whispered tales of phantom winds and water sprites, I’ve always been intrigued by the murky depths of the sea. From ancient times to present, the underwater world has harbored creatures both serene and foul. And, oh, so interesting!
The Old Testament references the leviathan, a mighty seabeast, while legends passed through generations speak of floating islands, vanished cities, and merpeople who live beneath the waves.
But what of the brave men and women who attempted to tame the sea or, at the very least, exist within its dominion? Even today, sailors are a superstitious lot, many of their beliefs retained from an earlier age when water haunts and sea serpents were commonly recognized and feared.
While writing TWELFTH SUN, a novel which centers around a maritime artifact, I had the occasion to sort through a host of nautical superstitions. I referenced a few in the book, but much of the research was strictly for fun. I grew up reciting “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.” Remember that? I still often mentally conjure that sing-song verse when I notice a red sky.
But that tidbit of seafaring superstition wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the myth-monger in me, so I went diving for more. Here are some of my favorite nautical superstitions:
Untying knots in a rope bring favorable winds.
Knitting hair into the toe of a sailor’s sock will bring him back to you.
If a sailor dreams of a horse, it is an omen of high seas.
Disaster will follow if you step onboard a vessel with your left foot first.
A ship’s bell will always ring when it is wrecked.
If St. Elmo’s Fire appears around a sailor’s head, he will die within a day.
A woman onboard a ship will make the sea angry. Unless, she’s naked which will calm the sea. (Gee, wasn’t that a convenient superstition for sailors and pirates?)
Never rename a ship, for it is bad luck.
A ship’s name ending in “a” is unlucky.
Nail a shark’s tail to the bow of a ship and it will ward off other sharks. (Of course, you’ve still got the problem of convincing a shark to give up its tail. I don’t imagine there were a lot of volunteers for that job).
The feather of a wren will protect a sailor from death by shipwreck.
Death comes with an ebb tide and birth with a rising tide.
Black traveling bags are bad luck for a seaman.
A silver coin placed under the masthead ensures a successful voyage. Pouring wine on the deck also brings good luck.
Gulls harbor the souls of sailors lost at sea.
There are a host of other superstitions, but these are a few of my favorites. Next Monday, I have one particular belief I want to share, including how it gave birth to an entire urban legend. Intrigued? I hope you’ll be back next week for the details.
In the meantime, are there any superstitions you adhere to, nautical or otherwise? I tend to knock on wood a lot and I’m freaky about the number thirteen. What makes you superstitious?