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Old Wives Tales of the Sea

By Edited Jun 12, 2014 6 5

Naval Superstitions

There are many old wives tales or superstitions that deal with the sea. Some are more beliefs than superstitions. For example a sailor who dies at sea is said to go to Davy Jones' Locker and a sailor with fifty or more years at sea is believed to go to Fiddler's Green upon death. Of the superstitions, some are to ward off bad luck, others to bring good luck, and still others are merely a warning of impending doom.

Bad Luck

Never start a cruise on Friday. It was the day that Christ was crucified and the day that Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. An especially evil day to begin a sailing journey is if the Friday happens to be on the 13th of the month.

On your way to the ship before a sail, be sure to avoid people with red hair or flat feet. These are sure to bring bad luck to the sailor on his journey. However, if these people are unavoidable, you can avert the dang

Albatross, Carrier of lost sailors' souls
er by speaking to them before they speak to you.

It is very unlucky to have a priest or preacher on board ship. Sailors and fishermen may be very religious on land, but at sea they tend to revert to a bit of paganism. It is feared that having a shepherd of God on board might make the sea gods angry.

Along the same lines of upsetting the sea gods, a sailor should never cut their hair or nails at sea, as these are seen as offerings to Prosperine, a Roman Goddess, and likely to make Neptune jealous.

Never kill a swallow, albatross, or gull while at sea. These seabirds are believed to carry the souls of lost sailors.

Whistling should never be done onboard a ship at sea. It is believed that whistling can affect the weather in a very negative way. Hence the saying: Whistling up a storm.

One of the boldest superstitions that could be seen as a bit self-serving to sailors in that of women on board ship. To have a woman aboard a sea-going vessel was believed to be ill luck, and yet a naked woman could calm the seas!

Good Luck

A naked figurehead of a woman with her eyes open is believed to bring good luck to a ship by calming the sea and guiding the ship to safety.

Pouring a small amount of wine onto the deck of a ship or tossing a coin into the water as the ship begins her jo

Tiddles the Naval Cat
urney is seen as a tribute to Neptune and apt to bring good fortune and a safe trip.

Tattoos are believed to bring a sailor good fortune and a safe return home. In the days of old a cross tattooed on a sailor's back was very popular, as this was seen as a way to insure a Christian burial if their body washed up on an unknown shore. Another popular tattoo was a guiding star on the back of the hand to guide one home safely again.

Unlike women, whose presence on board can be iffy depending on her dress (or lack thereof), a cat on board is always seen as good luck. In fact, sailors can use the cat as a way of telling if the weather is going to change. If the cat sneezes, rain is on the way, and if the cat is playful, the wind will soon begin to blow.

Omens, Good and Bad

A dolphin swimming with the ship is a sign of good tidings, but to see a shark following the ship is a sure sign of misfortune.

A church bell heard at sea means that someone onboard will die. This is also true if the ship's bell rings without a human's touch.

The word Drown or Drowning must never be spoken at sea, for fear of summoning the actual event.

A Closing Note

While it may seem odd to us now, these superstitions gave the sailors and fisherman of old hope.  The sea was their life and work, and following these old customs gave them a way to feel like they could, in some small part, insure that they made it home again.  As such, the old wives tales of the sea and naval superstitions served their purpose well. 



Feb 18, 2012 3:40pm
The seabirds being the souls of lost sailors is very interesting and the bad luck associated with red haired, flat footed preachers was frightening, especially if you met one on a Friday! Super article!
Feb 18, 2012 9:26pm
Thank you, Tom! Just remember if you're going on a boat trip and happen to meet a red-haired, flat-footed preacher on the way to the dock, be sure to speak to him/her first! On, and another one I don't thinks I mentioned: Always step onto a boat with your right foot...never your left!
Mar 15, 2012 6:37am
Jan 28, 2013 2:14am
This is a very interesting article. I love superstitions and you do not hear a lot of them if you don't live near a sea town.
Jan 28, 2013 11:10am
Hi--Absolutely intriguing artical--as a history buff, I have a lot of interest in superstitions and mythologies so thanks for your research and writing. 2 thumbs up from me and a special rating.
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