Mythical Monday: Nautical Superstitions, by Mae Clair

Treasure chest at the bottom of the seaWhether 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.

möwe_abendrotA 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? 🙂

28 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Nautical Superstitions, by Mae Clair

  1. I had no idea there were so many superstitions concerning the sea and yes, the naked woman is quite convenient… (uh-huh) Very interesting post and of course I will be back next week for more!

    Looking forward to Twelfth Sun!

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    • Debbie, I’ve heard it said that sailors are some of the most superstitious people you’ll ever come across (at least in the “old days”) and, after doing a bit of research, I definitely believe it! I’m excited about next week’s post – – glad you’ll be back 😀 — oh, and it includes an excerpt from TWELFTH SUN. It was a perfect mesh with my topic for next week.

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  2. Fun post, Mae. Hey, with superstitions, they usually don’t hurt, so why not, right? Knocking on wood, stepping on board a boat with your right foot first. Whatever. If it works for you, awesome. I love dream analysis. The omen of the horse dream meaning high seas is cool.

    I’m not supersitious myself, but I’m a praying kind of gal. I talk to the Lord when I get into a nerve racking situation. It brings me a peace that probably some folks get from a certain superstitious ritual.

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    • Hi, Jessi. I talk to the Lord a lot too. He gets an earful when I’m nervous, LOL. I still can’t break the knocking on wood habit though, and I don’t know why the number 13 freaks me out the way it does. Really weird thing – – my house number is 13 and that doesn’t bother me at all! Go figure 🙂

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  3. First off, those pictures are stunning.
    Nearly spat my tea out when I saw “Leviathan” mentioned. I’m watching Supernatural season 7 at the moment and it’s all bout Leviathans but they’re horrible creatures and definitely don’t stick to the sea. 🙂
    That “red sky” rhyme brings me right back to my childhood. I’m going to remember the left foot one!
    Do you ever struggle to come up with something for Mythical Monday? I love these posts.

    I don’t like stepping under ladders and if I see one magpie I wave to it. My mothers hates them.

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    • Supernatural is on season 7? I only followed that one for a few seasons but enjoyed it. How cool the ep you were watching was about leviathans. There’s something about that word I just love.

      Thanks for mentioning the photos, Emma. One of my favorite parts of blogging (especially with Mythical Monday) is choosing stock photography to match with my posts. It’s always creative fun!

      And glad to hear you enjoy my Mythical Monday posts.:) I rarely lack for topics, just time. I’m one of those people who know a little about a lot, and lot about a little, so I was always have to research. Fortunately, aside from online resources, I have a great book my brother bought me years ago called “The Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were,” plus I have the TimeLife library series on fantastical creatures and realms. All of those books definitely come in handy!

      BTW, loved the magpie reference! 🙂

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      • The Encyclopedia book sounds great. Do you read Debra Kristi’s blog? She does similar posts to you on a Monday called Immortal Monday. They’re a lot of fun.

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  4. I love these! And since the lizard part of my brain is superstitious, I’m sure it’ll stash these away until I need to fret about something. LOL I’m sure these came about from something happening at the right moment — like a stormy sea whisking away a woman’s clothes and voila! The seas were instantly calm. LOL That’s what makes these so fun. 🙂

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    • LOL! You crack me up, Donna! And, of course, you’re probably right about how such ridiculous superstitions came about – – from equally ridiculous situations.For men who were stuck at sea for weeks or months at a time, I guess they had little else to do but dream up things like this. I mean, these were the same guys who mistook manatees for mermaids. It makes you wonder what the sun exposure did to them 😀

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  5. I’m not particularly superstitious. I have the tendency, but I try to resist it, knowing that if I give in too often, I’ll become even more superstitious and paranoid.. 🙂

    Sea superstitions and legends can be pretty spooky. I once visited the USS Lexington, which is dry docked in Corpus Christi, Texas. Our guides had all sorts of creepy stories to tell us about that ship, and since, it’s forever impacted what I imagine when I think of sailors’ stories and ghosts at sea. The ship is so spooky, in fact, that the night watchman stays on the dock after dark. He won’t step foot on the ship at all. At least, so said our tour guides.

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    • Okay, I just had goosebumps from hearing about the night watchman! *shiver* I have a book called “Ghost Ships” with stories about different vessels that have vanished or are supposedly haunted. I’m going to have to check and see if the Lexington is in there. Great story, Laura!

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  6. I don’t like Friday the 13th … no particular reason, although I was once rear-eneded on that day. Several cars ago… I tend to only pick up (dropped bu someone else) money if it is heads. Supposedly that good luck and tails is bad luck.

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    • Being rear-ended. Is a good reason not to be fond of Friday the 13th, Diane. I would have blamed the day on that one!

      I didn’t know about the heads/tails on coins. I’ll have to remember that!

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  7. So fascinating this post was. I gotta tell ya, most of your mythical Monday’s seem to enlighten me on all things mythical. Can you imagine these seamen and their routines before they even step foot on a boat… not to mention all the extra trinkets they must have for safe passage, calm seas and a good breeze.
    Knocking on wood and throwing salt over my shoulder for good luck are my usual superstition. And I always get my self worked up on Friday the 13th… I always try to tell myself that it means the opposite, that I’ll have a GREAT DAY! Never quite works out like I plan though. LOL

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    • Hi, Loni! I think you’re right about the seamen and all they would have to carry around to ward off bad luck and ensure a safe voyage. Of course, as long as they didn’t carry it in a black bag, maybe it would work, LOL!.

      And it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who knocks on wood. I just can’t break myself of that habit, although I haven’t resorted to salt throwing yet. 🙂 Friday the 13th tends to go either way for me. I’ve had some really bad ones but then there have been some good ones in there too. It’s nice that one can be versatile somethings, LOL! Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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  8. Great post Mae. Where did you learn all those facts? I especially loved the one about (naked) women on board. The one about gulls harboring the souls of lost sailors was the most beautiful. Have a wonderful day!

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    • Hi, Cadence! Lovely to have you drop by. 🙂 I found most of my facts online but others I had tucked away for a long time from various stories and novels I was working on. The one about gulls harboring the souls of lost sailors is my favorite too. I actually use that one in TWELFTH SUN in passing!

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  9. Pingback: Sailor's Superstitions: Bad Luck at Sea | Nantucket Brand Blog

  10. Pingback: Superstitions of the Sea: Good Luck at Sea | Nantucket Brand Blog

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