Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Sailors and their Superstitions

Did you know that it’s terribly unlucky to have a ginger person on board a ship? Women are also a BAD THING which gets me coming and going really. Whistling, singing, big pieces of egg shell, bananas, setting sail on a Friday...the list of things that can ruin a voyage is apparently endless. This was the upshot of a conversation at morning smoko a few days ago and it got me thinking about superstitions and why sailors in particular are supposed to be so superstitious.

There are a few schools of thought as to where superstitions come from. Arguably one man’s faith is another man’s superstition, but we’re not discussing that. We’re thinking about those little kernels of belief that take up house room in a corner of your psyche. The reason why black cats so rarely get adopted at animal rescue centres and the reason why you won’t say Bloody Mary three times to a mirror in the dark.

One school of thought suggests that it is an evolutionary advantage for humans to be able to perceive connections between seemingly separate events. It is advantageous to see flowers on an apple tree and to be confident that if you return there in a couple of months there will be food. It is advantageous to connect the dead gazelle and the waving tail deep in the long grass. Forming connections keeps you alive. And it keeps you alive to the extent that it’s worthwhile to form a few erroneous connections just to have the advantage of the correct ones. So we decide that red skies at night have a hidden meaning and that saying “Macbeth” is very unlucky.

The other suggestion is that humans attempt to manipulate and placate their environment through the use of ritualistic behaviour. So we make sacrifices or the promise of good behaviour in an attempt to gain a temporary reprieve from the dangers of our world. You throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder to keep ghosts and witches away; you spit on the ground to offer a part of yourself to ghosts so they’ll leave you in peace...and one very naughty Roman general failed to take bad omens seriously on his way to Carthage and that was the reason why he lost so epically. It wasn’t that he had made military errors; his failure was to appease the gods. And that is certainly what a very grumpy senate pointed out to him many, many times on his somewhat inglorious return (Seriously, look up Clodius Pulcher. It’s sort of funny in a horrible way).

So that brings us, through a somewhat circuitous route, to why sailors are supposed to be so superstitious. However you think these little accretions of belief form, sailors have more reason than most to have them. Even today, fishing and fishing related jobs are amongst the most dangerous professions in the world. Their mortality rate is second only to logging. And so they developed little ways of warding off misfortune. Don’t let women on board; they’ll distract you from the sea and she is a jealous mistress. Grind up egg shells or witches will sail to sea in bits of the shell. Don’t whistle or you’ll whistle up a storm/wind. Definitely don’t say “drowned”, “goodbye” or “good luck”. I can relate to that last one. Never, ever, in A&E, even on an incredibly calm night, look around you and say “Well, it sure looks qu**t in here.” You DON’T drop the q-bomb.

Sailors’ tattoos are a wonderful extension of this rich tapestry of belief. I was under the impression that most tattoos originated from sailors walking into a tattoo parlour, pointing at a picture on the wall and saying “I want that one.” Apparently, traditional sailor’s tattoos have a lot more meaning than that. In some ways, they might be read as a resumé of the bearer’s achievements. In other ways they’re an example of helpless humans trying to propitiate an uncaring world.

Probably the most familiar sailor’s tattoo is that of an anchor. To the sailor, the anchor represents stability in a shifting world, a fixed point. It’s the reason why a name might be emblazoned across the anchor; that person represents stability to that sailor. But the anchor also has other meanings. It means that you’ve crossed the Atlantic. And merchant marine sailors in World War II would get it as a badge of honour. Their ships were disproportionately attacked by German U-boats on their way across the Atlantic because the Germans were aware that they were bringing vital supplies to Britain. Many more American merchant seamen lost their lives in World War II than did American naval men.
A seafarer spells out his wife's name in flags (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Pig and cockerel symbols are often tattooed on sailors’ feet. These images are supposed to ward off drowning and shipwreck. The legend goes that these animals would usually be transported in wooden crates on the ship’s deck. In the event of ship wreck, the wooden crates would be one of the few things to float and a seaman could cling to one of these crates and save himself from drowning. Similarly a cross on the sole of the foot would ward off being eaten by a shark. Although that does lead me to wonder if the rest of the sailor gets eaten, leaving the foot to slowly tumble down to the seabed...
Hold fast to the rigging- so that you don't fall to your death (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Compass roses and nautical stars help prevent seafarers from losing their way. A pair of crossed anchors on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger indicates that the bearer has worked as a boatswain. A knotted rope tied about the wrist indicates time working as a deck hand. A turtle informs you that this person has crossed the equator and is a trusty shellback and a member of King Neptune’s Court. A ship with a full rig means that the sea farer has rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America whereas a gold earring means that they’ve rounded the Cape of Good Hope and the gold ring may be used to pay for their funeral.
So that you never lose your way (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Hula girls signify a voyage to Hawaii whereas a dragon means a stop in China. A golden dragon means crossing the international date line. A swallow is earned for every 5000 miles of sea that the sailor has crossed. But more than that, it is a symbol of the intent to come home. A swallow with a dagger through it is far from a sign of machissimo; it shows that a friend has been lost at sea. Because the swallows will take you home but that home might be a farther shore...

For more images of sailors and their tattoos, take a look at Richard Turner’s gallery at www.richardturnerphotographs.co.uk
One of our seafarers- all inked up! (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)


  1. Red sky at night (no clouds in west in evening) means dry night for shepherd makes scientific common sense to me and it is going to be busier if you have noticed it is so quiet you have no patients in A&E.

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    2. Thank you for your comment. I'm not quite sure what you're getting at in the last part. Maybe I didn't make myself very intelligible in the blog- oops. So the legend in all A&Es goes that if you say the word "quiet" even in a wonderfully calm A&E, chaos will descend and you will be overwhelmed with patients. I very much doubt that uttering the word "quiet" really has that effect- I think it's just a superstition amongst A&E staff! As to the red sky at night thing I appreciate that it does have a foundation in observable physical phenomena but I probably wouldn't want to forget my sleeping bag on the strength of it though! Hope you enjoyed the post otherwise though.

  2. Totally get where you're coming from with the A&E point. Notice it but don't say it!

    I found your last para particularly beautiful and crikey, what a tattoo in the last photo. Presumably tattoos also developed amongst sailors because they're the most impressive looking but easy to carry thing that you can get. I imagine sailors in times of yore had precious little personal storage space on board.

    1. Hah- yes, I don't think they had much room for personal effects. Certainly the gold earring to pay for their burial thing was because gold in the pockets can be easily lost or stolen whereas it's harder to lose an earring. (Clearly they did not behave like me with earrings) I'm glad you enjoyed it though!