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Ancient Sailor's and Their Bizarre Rituals and Superstitions

Sailors on board Nelsons flag ship

Sailors on board Nelsons flag ship

The navy today live in a bright new world of technology and science. But back in history sailors lived by the sword. There were hangings, floggings and many more horrible ways to perish at sea.

So its totally understandable that all the sailors, including the captain turned their minds to religion and strange beliefs to get them home, or at least save their souls.

Some of the strange beliefs do make sense, others are a case of word upon word, or Chinese whispers. But the whole point of believing in these strange religions or odd superstitions is that it kept them alive. Without these beliefs, many would have died through physical pain, or mental distress.

Back in the 18th Century it was not uncommon for a sailor to be punished with 24 lashes or more for being drunk on duty. Old hands at the game of cheating authority had a great word of advice for all new sailors.

Get a crucifix tattooed on your back. The reason for this was that the bosun's mate who usually got roped in to deal the punishment would actually flinch away from the contact.

Let's face it, nobody wanted to defaim the Cross of Jesus, especially at sea where just the slightest swell of the water would cause the Mates's to pray to God.

Laying the cat o' nine tails across the shipmates back would put the fear of God into all of them. The trouble was, if they couldn't take the lash, then they would be given other punishments instead, such as keel hauling.

This is when the sailor is tied to the ship, and pulled underneath until he comes up the other side. Most drown before they emerge from the water.

19th Century Sailor boy.

19th Century Sailor boy.

Vicars and Vipers.

In other legends of the sea, Christian symbols and vicars too are feared because they bring bad luck. Perhaps they feel that they catch the eye of God too much, and if they make any mistake they will be punished?

Faced with the perils and mysteries of the sea, sailors have adopted many beliefs from all around the world. Whether it be animals, birds, names even an action as apparently harmless as whistling can bring bad luck. Maybe the old saying a 'Whistling woman and a crowing hen ain't no good to God or men' has something to do with it!

The beliefs of the past have not completely died out though. Even today the Admiralty take seriously the names of new ships in the fleet, and steer away from the ones that are supposed to bring bad luck.

Evidently reptile names are nearly all banned these days. The reason? Back in the past, the navy has lost four vipers, four serpents, a cobra, an adder, a crocodile, and an alligator. All these were the name of ships that were lost at sea.

US Navy Salute to Quarterdeck.

US Navy Salute to Quarterdeck.

These days many beliefs of the sea are still practiced. Even on board a modern ship the salute to quarterdeck which the sailor makes on coming on board has its origin in the time when a crucifix was hung there.
Some fishermen even today will not sail if they meet a priest or a nun on their way to the boat or ship.

Reading aloud from the Bible or quoting phrases from the Bible at sea carries a terrible risk of bringing doom and disaster to the ship. Unless of course its on a Sunday or during a burial at sea.

A famous curse.

A very famous case of superstition or maybe curse happened back in 1707 when a condemned man was marched up to stand underneath the yard arm gallows on board ship. He turned to his fellow sailors and said:
'As its said in the 19th Psalm,

'Let his days be few and let another take his office, let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him'.

The ship was called the Association. It was the Flagship of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell.
Later that year the ship and two others went don off the Scilly Islands near Cornwall England. There were over 2000 men lost. Seems the sailors word had some clout.

And of course with a story like this we couldn't leave it there. It seems that according to legend, Admiral Cloudesly, who had passed sentence on the poor sailor, was washed up on the beach, unconcsious but still alive. But not for long. He was buried alive!

It seems that a woman who found him washed up on the beach, murdered him for his ruby and emerald rings. She even hacked off his fingers to get at them! The lady from St. Mary's Island later told the story on her deathbed.

Oh We Were A Funny Bunch!

The Albatross

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Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.

The Soul In The Seagull.

In those long lost days of sail, there were many beliefs about birds. The main one being that dead mariners were said to be the reincarnated souls that were now born again in seagulls.

The belief still carries on today, especially in the British isles, mainly around Cornwall.

If one of the birds appeared over the ship mid ocean then it was said to be a sign of storms coming their way.

The most famous of birds was the mysterious albatross, to see one meant that a storm was brewing too. This bird was regarded with awe, and still has the same effect on superstitious sailors today.

And never ever kill an albatross, as Coleridge recounted in his famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


Rabbits and Pigs.

Strangely enough mentioning rabbits and pigs is another no no. This taboo is so strong its said that even in the past 50 years sailors were punished for using those names.

Instead they were changed to Grecians and Jacks which were pigs, but the name of the rabbits is not recorded.

Whistling is another taboo which has its roots in dark magic and witchcraft.

Whistling was said to bring on a storm as it drew the high winds towards the ship. This is an ancient taboo, and nobody really knows where it came from.

But the idea was put forward that it was the myth of having a witch or just wise woman aboard.

To get rid of the storm the sailors threw a coin overboard. Maybe this was the beginning of the coin in the Wishing Well stories.

Superstition and the Sea.

The days of the old sailing vessels is now in the past. But many sailors, and indeed other dangerous professions still carry there own forms of superstition.

Whether it be praying to God or changing the names of everyday animals and items it seems that even in these days of high technology, our main aim is to try to still the waters, and make our peace with nature any way we can.

By making bargains with the Gods of the sea these sailors found a way to travel the world and come home safely.

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Nell Rose (author) from England on September 15, 2019:

Thanks, Tim, yes its amazing just how many rituals they have isn't it? Thanks for reading.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on September 14, 2019:

Great, Nell. I remember hearing cats are bad luck on a ship. I know the names of the space shuttles, Columbia and Challenger are forever retired for any vessel of air or ocean because of their disasters. I truly liked your article. Thanks.

Nell Rose (author) from England on June 12, 2016:

Thanks Dianna, yes thats so true, and thanks so much for reading, nell

Dianna Mendez on June 12, 2016:

I guess the naming of a ship is similar to that of a hurricane. You don't want to repeat a bad experience. Interesting read, Nell.

Nell Rose (author) from England on March 23, 2015:

Thanks again Lee, glad you liked it!

Lee Cloak on March 23, 2015:

Great stuff Nell, very very interesting hub, love it! voted up.

Nell Rose (author) from England on November 25, 2013:

lol! I can imagine! yes us brits can be a bit snobby eh what! lol! not me though, just those in the 'higher echelons' of society me dear! haha! thanks so much for reading, and great to see you, nell

Tom Ware from Sydney, Australia on November 25, 2013:

Can't recall any particular supersitions re ships and the navy during my six year duration in the Royal Australian Navy, Nell. However, the word 'pigs' was commonly used by us 'lower deck' sailors when referring to officers. Pusser's pigs meant naval officers. In those days (1950s) many officers were ex RN (British) They regarded themselves, I feel, as a 'cut above' ordinary sailors. Of course, in Australia, which is very eglatarian, this did not go down well.

Nell Rose (author) from England on November 09, 2013:

Hi mythbuster, yes some of those superstitions are just so bizarre! lol! but if it felt as though it kept them safe then I totally understand it, thanks again, and have a great weekend!

mythbuster from Utopia, Oz, You Decide on November 08, 2013:

Nice hub, NRose. I found the idea of the tattoo on the back interesting. I was surprised about the "no whistling" superstition/rule - I thought the "no whistling" was a theatre no-no but it must also extend to other situations from the looks of things.

Nell Rose (author) from England on September 16, 2013:

Thanks Thelma, yes I believe it was purely to keep themselves safe, and if it helped then that was good, we tend to do it ourselves these days in other ways, thanks so much for reading, nell

Thelma Alberts from Germany on September 16, 2013:

This is an interesting and informative hub, Nel. I did not know that sailors and mariners have their own superstitious belief. Thanks for sharing the information. Have a great day!

Nell Rose (author) from England on September 09, 2013:

Hi TurtleDog, yes I can quite believe it. I know in Cornwall and Devon they still believe in the seagulls being the lost souls of their relatives! thanks for reading, nell

TurtleDog on September 09, 2013:

Great Hub! The shore near me has a small fishing community and even talking with some of those guys today they still carry some superstitions and traditions related to those superstitions. Some are doing it half-kiddingly but others seem pretty sincere.

Nell Rose (author) from England on September 09, 2013:

Glad you liked it Wiccan, yes the ancient mariner is amazing isn't it?

Mackenzie Sage Wright on September 09, 2013:

This was great, and thanks for that link to the rhyme of the ancient mariner, I love that poem.

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 11, 2013:

Hi sg, thanks so much for reading, yes they must have held on to so many superstitions purely because of fear, glad you liked it, nell

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on August 10, 2013:

This is very interesting! I never knew of many of these superstitions. I don't consider myself to be a superstitious person but I love these stories. Sailing was so dangerous back in those days, I'm sure they wanted to do anything and everything they could do stay safe. Voting this up, interesting and sharing on FB. :)

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 09, 2013:

Thanks rajan, I am sure they did back then. It must have been terrifying sometimes out there on the seas, so they needed something to hang onto, glad you liked it, and thanks!

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on August 07, 2013:

Sailing is a pretty interesting occupation but one is at the mercy of nature and I guess these strange beliefs help one hang in there.

Very interesting.

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 05, 2013:

Hi lyric, thanks so much, yes those superstitions do have some real validity, and it makes the sailors feel safer, which is more important, nell

Richard Ricky Hale from West Virginia on August 04, 2013:

Nell, awesome page dear. I am one that believes in such superstitions. I believe all of them have some percentage of truth. Interesting subject as well. Voting this up, useful, awesome, interesting, and shared.

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 04, 2013:

Hi Koffee, lol! yeah I know, pretty strange eh? thanks as always, nell

Hi grandmapearl, lol! yes those ladders! I don't like going up them! thanks as always, nell

Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on August 04, 2013:

Hi Nell, I knew about the whistling, but all the rest was new to me! Very interesting stuff--the topic of superstitions. And you are right, every profession has them. My grandfather was a carpenter, and I still avoid walking under ladders! I think that has its roots in safety, though. I've been know to accidentally drop things while up on a ladder. . . LOL ;) Pearl

Voted Up +

Susan Hazelton from Northern New York on August 04, 2013:

I had heard that sailors were superstitious but I never knew that pigs, rabbits, and whistling could stick fear in their hearts. Very interesting.

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 02, 2013:

Hi Ruby, lol! yes me too! women were as bad as guys back then! thanks as always, nell

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on August 02, 2013:

Wow, This was interesting. The woman who cut off the captain's fingers scares the heck out of me, think i will put my rings in my jewelry box, then hide it. Hee.. Really it is amazing how superstitions got started and funny how they stick, i still won't walk under a ladder. lol..Great hub nell.

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 02, 2013:

Thanks so much drbj, glad you liked it, nell

drbj and sherry from south Florida on August 01, 2013:

What an interesting topic, Nell, and you really made it come alive and hold my attention (not an easy task) with your fascinating anecdotes about marine superstitions. Thanks for the education, m'dear.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 31, 2013:

Hi Mawker, thanks so much for reading, yes blame the women as usual! lol! good old sailors!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 30, 2013:

Lol! yes that Bermuda Triangle! thanks Deb, glad you liked it, nell

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on July 30, 2013:

The life of the sea is rewarding as well as very strange. She will take you, just as soon as she looks at you. Heaven help those that dared invade the Bermuda Triangle...avast, mateys!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 29, 2013:

Hi chitrangadaSharan, yes many superstitions still live on today, glad you liked it and thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 29, 2013:

Hi MsDora, thanks so much and I am glad you liked it, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 29, 2013:

Hi mary, lol! make sure its in the most strategic place! the tattoo, not the sailor.....! lol! thanks as always, nell

Mary Craig from New York on July 29, 2013:

The sea may be a cruel mistress but the sailors can be 'crueler'. Where do you come up with such great ideas for your hubs? It is always interesting to find out where things come from and the ideas of the past, especially when you do the writing.

Another stellar hub Nell!

Now, it's a little late but I wonder where I should get my next tattoo ;)

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 29, 2013:

Nell, this is all very interesting! The salute to quarterdeck is so far out. There's so much we never heard. Thank you for sharing these facts.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 29, 2013:

Very interesting information!

You are so good at telling this kind of mysterious content. I enjoyed going through your hub.

I think Superstitions or strange beliefs exist even today. While I am not superstitious, I do pray regularly and have immense faith in God.

Thanks for sharing this interesting hub!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 28, 2013:

Hi Elias, that's so true, in fact many people still tend to do it today, but maybe not as prevalent as back then, thanks.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 28, 2013:

Hi Alicia, thanks so much for reading, and glad you liked it, nell

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on July 28, 2013:

An interesting hub that i enjoyed reading, Nell. In a time of almost no scientific knowledge people needed a way to explain the natural phenomena that caused them so many hardships.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 27, 2013:

This is a very enjoyable and informative hub, Nell. The old superstitions of sailors are interesting. Life was certainly hard for the poor mariners of the past!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi suzette, thanks so much, and I hope you have a great weekend, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi Vicki, I loved the Rime too, its just amazing, and yes those poor sailors back then even getting pressed ganged to go on board, some woke up with a huge headache and 20 miles out to sea! thanks again for reading, nell

suzettenaples on July 27, 2013:

Great write and read, Nell. These superstitions the sailors believed in reminds me of the Loreli in Germany on the Rhine River. I love the photos of the old time ships - just beautiful. Shared

Vickiw on July 27, 2013:

Hi Nell, wonderful Hub. Life was incredibly cruel for mariners, often made so by their own kind. Dreadful punishments for even small transgressions - just the thought of all those who suffered so much makes me so horrified and sad at man's inhumanity to man. the Rime of the Ancient Mariner was one of my favourite poems. Such feeling in it, and I learned all verses by heart when I had to stay late after school for a transgression! Only took me about 30 minutes, because I loved it!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi ziyena, thanks so much for reading, back in the day those superstitions definitely helped them, otherwise they probably would never have got on board ship! lol! and that curse....! thanks, nell

ziyena from the Somewhere Out There on July 27, 2013:

Nell ~ I really dig this kind of stuff! I'm always researching for another plot for my writing. The story about the Lady from St. Mary's ... wow, unbelievable. Great read - voting interesting UP

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi bravewarrior, lol! seems so! thanks for reading, and great to see you!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 27, 2013:

Interesting hub, Nell. I was unaware of these superstitions. The one that really surprised me was whistling! I seem to remember Fred Astaire dressed as a sailor and whistling. I guess the producers didn't do their homework!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi Liz, yes that curse sounds pretty ominous! lol! thanks so much for reading, nell

Liz Davis from Hudson, FL on July 27, 2013:

The stories behind superstitions are so fascinating! The account of the famous curse sure paints a gruesome picture. Thanks for sharing.


Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi Jackie, lol! now how did I know you would come up with something like that? yep me too! and yes we would make great Pirates! have a great weekend Jackie, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

That's great wildove! hope he likes it, and thanks!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi SilentReed, good point, they should have put good luck symbols everywhere, and yes, why call a sheep viper? very strange! thanks so much for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

HI MG, thanks for reading, nell

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Hi Faith, thanks so much for reading, yes I love all the old paintings too!

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 27, 2013:

Thanks DDE, yes our mindset was different back then, but still they do still have a few superstions, lol! thanks for reading, nell

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on July 27, 2013:

Amazing what sailors had in their minds centuries ago something to lead them away through their journey. Most interesting and informative

Faith Reaper from southern USA on July 26, 2013:

Hi Nell,

Very interesting as to all the superstitions of sailors. Never knew of such.

Love all of the art and imagery here.

Up ++

MG Singh from UAE on July 26, 2013:

A nice post and very interesting too.

SilentReed from Philippines on July 26, 2013:

Hi Nell, this was an interesting read. Sailors are probably more superstitious because they are expose to the uncertainties of the elements. The thought arises as to why they give more emphasis on warding off "bad" luck instead of trying to foster "good" luck. As to the name of ships you mention which where lost at sea, those animals aren't really equip for seafaring :)

wildove5 from Cumberland, R.I. on July 26, 2013:

That was pretty cool! I will have to share this with my father, he was a navy man! Thanks!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on July 26, 2013:

Wish I had known about that cross idea when I was a kid. Wonder if it worked to draw it on the butt in case of a spanking? Nah, maybe not, but it does get the wheels turning lol. Interesting read. Doing a couple pirate hubs I came across all kinds of crazy thing. They were a tough bunch and some women pirates just as bad! Bet we would make a couple bad pirates, don't you think Nell? lol


Nell Rose (author) from England on July 26, 2013:

Hi mary, thanks for reading, yes I love the bounty film too, is that the one with Mel gibson? I also love Horne Blower too, thanks as always, and have a great weekend, nell

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 26, 2013:

You always write the most interesting articles, Nell, and this one is no exception! I love the old movies about the sea and the ships like Mutiny On the Bounty, etc. I just saw one the other night called Bounty that I enjoyed.

Voted UP and shared.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 26, 2013:

Thanks so much Flourish, yes they were so scared of going down they would do anything to make sure they stayed up! lol!

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 26, 2013:

I never knew sailors were such a superstitious lot. Interesting indeed!

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