15 Weird Superstitions That Sailors From History Had
Seafaring and superstitions go together like the Gorton's Fisherman and a yellow raincoat. There's just something about the maritime life that seems to inspire trust in supernatural forces. Even crewmen on history's most legendary ships held onto practices they believed would ensure successful voyages. These sailors' superstitions vary from the practical and clever to the random and creepy.
Sailing is always a risky pastime, but it was downright perilous before the advent of weather forecasting and modern sea maps. It makes sense that crewmen turned to nautical superstitions in the hopes of safe travel. Some superstitions, like tales of ghostly figures and seductive mermaids, likely arose from the mental stresses of spending weeks on the water. But others seem ridiculous - why on earth would bananas bring bad luck? These sometimes strange, sometimes fascinating facts relate how some symbols and rituals were thought to bring good luck for sailors, and others foretold disaster upon the high seas.
Bananas Are Bad LuckPhoto: SMU Central University Libraries / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions
While they're a major import, it's considered bad luck to have bananas on a boat. Why? The fruits are thought they have a negative effect on catching fish. This myth originated in the Caribbean in the 1700s, when boats carrying bananas for trade had to sail quickly to get them to market before spoiling.
Sailing fast made fishing difficult, but rather than blaming the speed of the vessels, sailors focused their ire on the starchy fruits. The boats themselves were also prone to sink, as they were often made with inexpensive, weak materials.
Whistling Encourages Wind, But Beckons StormsPhoto: 4tilden / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Some superstitions are thought to bring both good and bad luck. Take whistling, for instance - it's thought to both encourage wind and bring on storms. The superstition might have originated with the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, which was signaled with a whistle.
Unbroken Eggshells Can Be Used By WitchesPhoto: Municipal Archives of Trondheim from Trondheim, Norway / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Not every superstition even has to do with being on a ship. Eggshells are thought to be bad luck off of boats. This superstition states that eggshells should be smashed into small pieces, because if they are left intact, witches will use the shells as boats and conjure storms to sink ships.
The superstition was so widely held that it was turned into a popular poem:
"Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up,
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me."
An Albatross Signals Good FortunePhoto: John Gerrard Keulemans / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The albatross is one of the most well-known signs of luck in the maritime world. Sailors believed that albatrosses carried the souls of dead crewmen; thus, their appearance meant that the spirits were protecting them.
However, harming an albatross can bring doom to a ship. One such imagined incident is recounted in the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem describes how a sailor kills an albatross that had led his ship out of an ice flow. His fatal act curses the ship, and his crewmates hang the albatross from his neck and tie him to the ship's mast as an act of penance. But there efforts are too late: the crew all eventually die and the ship sinks, leaving the albatross killer as the only survivor.
Women Are Bad Luck, Unless They're FigureheadsPhoto: Hervé Cozanet / Wikimedia / CC-BY-SA-3.0
One of the oldest seafaring superstitions is that women are bad luck on a ship. They are thought to bring storms and lead men to succumb to temptation. The superstition was so deeply held, in fact, that one story tells how sailors stuck in a storm off the coast of England threw more than 60 women overboard in an attempt to change the weather.
Despite the thinking that women themselves would bring disaster, carvings of women on the prows of ships were thought to calm angry seas and ensure a safe voyage.
Sailing On Friday Is A Bad IdeaPhoto: Ivan Aivazovsky / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Sailors are even cautious about days of the week, particularly Fridays; taking to the sea on those days brings bad luck. This superstition was so widely believed that a tall tale was hatched, saying that the Royal Navy commissioned a ship called the HMS Friday to calm sailors' fears.
However, In 2007, the navy officially issued a denial of the claim that the ship existed, and the myth was put to rest.