An essay by Benjamin Taylor
The Sea And Its Legends
Title: The Sea And Its Legends
Author: Benjamin Taylor [More Titles by Taylor]
One of the oldest superstitions connected with the sea is undoubtedly that which associated peril with the malefic influence of some individual on shipboard. We find it in the case of the seamen of Joppa, who, when overtaken by a 'mighty tempest' on the voyage to Tarshish, said to each other, 'Come and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is cast upon us.' The lot, as we know, fell upon Jonah, and after some vain wrestling with the inevitable, the men at last 'took up Jonah and cast him forth into the sea, and the sea ceased from her raging.'
Without offering here any comment on, or explanation of, the Scriptural narrative, let us compare it with the following remarkable story, which that indefatigable delver after old-world wonders, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, reproduced.
Somewhere about midsummer of the year 1480, a ship, sailing out of the Forth for a port in Holland, was assailed by a furious tempest, which increased to such a remarkable degree for the mild season of the year, that the sailors were overcome with fear, and gave themselves up for lost. At length an old woman, who was a passenger by the vessel, came on deck and entreated them to throw her overboard as the only means of preserving their own lives, saying that she had long been haunted by an 'incubus' in the shape of a man, from whose grasp she could not free herself. Fortunately for all parties there was another passenger on board--a priest--who was called to the rescue. After a long admonition, and many sighs and prayers, 'there issued forth of the pumpe of the ship,' says Hollinshed, 'a foul and evil-favoured blacke cloud, with a mightie terrible noise, flame, smoke, and stinke, which presentlie fell into the sea, and suddenlie, thereupon, the tempest ceassed, and the ship passing in great quiet the residue of her journie, arrived in safetie at the place whither she was bound.'
There is doubtless some association between this class of superstition and the old Talmudic legend, according to which the devils were specially angered when, at the creation, man received dominion over the things of the sea. This was a realm of unrest and tempest, which the devils claimed as belonging to themselves. But, says the legend, although denied control of the life that is in the sea, the devils were permitted a large degree of power over its waters, while over the winds their rule was supreme.
There is scarcely a current legend or superstition which cannot be traced to very remote sources. Thus, in the Chaldaeo-Babylonian cosmogony there was a Triad which ruled the three zones of the universe: the heaven, by Anu; the surface of the earth and the atmosphere, by Bel; and the under-world, by Nonah. Now, Nonah is held to be both the same as the Assyrian Hea, or Saviour, and as the Noah of the Bible. So when Tiamat, the dragon, or leviathan, opens 'the fountains of the great deep,' and Anu, 'the windows of heaven,' it is Hea, or Noah, who saves the life of man.
This legend is supposed by M. Francois Lenormant to explain an allusion in one of the most ancient Accadian manuscripts in the British Museum to 'the serpent of seven heads, that beats the sea.' This Hydra was the type of the destructive water-demon who figures in the legends of all countries.
In the same way, to the Syrian fish deities, Dagon and Artergatis, must we look for the origin of our Undines and fish-maidens, and mermaidens.
The 'Nixy' of Germany has by some been supposed traceable to 'Old Nick'; but this is not probable, since St. Nicholas has been the patron-saint of sailors for many centuries. It was during the time of the Crusades that a vessel on the way to the Holy Land was in great peril, and St. Nicholas assuaged a tempest by his prayers. Since then he has been supposed to be the protector of mariners, even as Neptune was in ancient times; and in most Roman Catholic countries you will find in seaport towns churches dedicated to St. Nicholas, to which sailors resort to return thanks for preservation at sea, and to make votive offerings.
The German Nixy was, no doubt, a later form of the old Norse water-god Nikke. You meet with him again, in another form, in Neckan, the soulless, of whom Matthew Arnold sings:
There was a river-goddess in Germany, whose temple stood at Magdeburg, of whom a legend exists that she also once visited earth and went to market in a Christian costume, where she was detected by a continual dripping of water from the corner of her apron. Generally speaking, however, the Nixies may be described as the descendants of the Naiads of ancient times, and as somewhat resembling the Russian Rusalkas, of which the peasantry live in much dread.
A Russian peasant, it is said, is so afraid of the water-spirits that he will not bathe without a cross round his neck, nor ford a stream on horseback without signing a cross on the water with a scythe or knife. In some parts these water-spirits are supposed to be the transformed souls of Pharaoh and his host, when they were drowned, and the number is always being increased by the souls of those who drown themselves.
It is said that 'in Bohemia' fishermen have been known to refuse aid to drowning persons lest 'Vodyany' would be offended and prevent the fish from entering the nets.
This 'Vodyany,' however, seems rather a variant of the old Hydra, who reappears in the diabolical names so frequently given to boiling springs and dangerous torrents. The 'Devil's Tea-kettles' and 'Devil's Punch-bowls' of England and America have the same association as the weird legends connected with the Strudel and Wirbel whirlpools of the Danube, and with the rapids of the Rhine, and other rivers. Curiously enough, we find the same idea in The Arabian Nights, when 'The sea became troubled before them, and there arose from it a black pillar ascending towards the sky, and approaching the meadow, and behold it was a Jinn of gigantic stature.'
This demon was a waterspout, and waterspouts in China are attributed to the battles of dragons. 'The Chinese,' says Mr. Moncure Conway, 'have canonised of recent times a special protectress against the storm-demons of the coast, in obedience to the wishes of the sailors.'
The swan-maidens, who figure in so many legends, are mere varieties of the mer-maiden, and, according to the Icelandic superstition, they and all fairies were children of Eve, whom she hid away on one occasion when the Lord came to visit her, because they were not washed and presentable! They were, therefore, condemned to be invisible for ever.
A Scotch story, quoted by Mr. Moncure Conway, rather bears against this theory. One day, it seems, as a fisherman sat reading his Bible, a beautiful nymph, lightly clad in green, came to him out of the sea, and asked if the book contained any promise of mercy for her. He replied that it contained an offer of salvation to 'all the children of Adam,' whereupon she fled away with a loud shriek, and disappeared in the sea. But the beautiful stories of water-nymphs, of Undines and Loreleis, and mer-women, are too numerous to be even mentioned, and too beautiful, in many cases, to make one care to analyze.
There is a tradition in Holland that when, in 1440, the dikes were broken down by a violent tempest, the sea overflowed the meadows. Some women of the town of Edam, going one day in a boat to milk their cows, discovered a mermaid in shallow water floundering about with her tail in the mud. They took her into the boat, brought her to Edam, dressed her in women's clothes, and taught her to spin, and to eat as they did. They even taught her something of religion, or, at any rate, to bow reverently when she passed a crucifix; but they could not teach her to speak. What was the ultimate fate of this remarkable creature is not disclosed.
Everybody, of course, is familiar with the old sea-legend of the Flying Dutchman, whether in stories of phantom ships, or in the opera of Wagner. The spirit of Vanderdecken, which is still supposed to roam the waters, is merely the modern version of our old friend, Nikke, the Norwegian water-demon. This is a deathless legend, and used to be as devoutedly believed in as the existence of Mother Carey, sitting away up in the north, despatching her 'chickens' in all directions to work destruction for poor Jack. But Mother Carey really turns out on inquiry to be a most estimable being, as we shall presently see.
'Sailors,' says Brand, in his Popular Antiquities, 'usually the boldest Men alive, are yet frequently the very abject slaves of superstitious Fear. They have various puerile Apprehensions concerning Whistling on Shipboard, carrying a Corpse, etc., all which are Vestiges of the old Woman in human Nature, and can only be erased by the united Efforts of Philosophy and Religion.'
It is to be regretted, however, that the good Brand did not devote as much attention to the superstitions of sailors as he did to those of some other folks.
As is the case with almost all folk-lore, little variety is to be found in the sea superstitions of different nations. The ideas of the supernatural on shipboard are pretty much the same, whether the flag flown be the Union Jack, the German Eagle, the French Tricolor, the American Stars and Stripes, or even the Chinese Dragon. These superstitions are numerous, and are tenaciously preserved, but yet it would not be fair to say that seamen are, as a class, more superstitious than landsmen of their own rank. The great mystery of the sea; the uncertainty of life upon its bosom; the isolation and frequent loneliness; the wonder of the storms, and calms, and lights--everything connected with a sailor's occupation is calculated to impress him with the significance of signs and omens.
That mariners do not like to have a corpse on board is not remarkable, for many people ashore get rather 'creepy' if they have to sleep in a house where lies a dead body. Moreover, the old idea of bad luck which led to the throwing overboard of Jonah, is in this case transferred from the living to the dead. The objection to whistling is also explainable by the time-honoured practice of 'whistling for a wind,' for an injudicious whistler might easily bring down a blow from the wrong quarter.
There are some animals and birds which have a peculiar significance at sea. The cat, for instance, is generally disliked, and many sailors will not have one on board at any price. If there is one which becomes unusually frisky, they will say the cat has got a gale of wind in her tail. On one part of the Yorkshire coast, it is said, sailors' wives were in the habit of keeping black cats to insure the safety of their husbands at sea, until black cats became so scarce and dear that few could afford to buy one. Although Jack does not like a cat in the ship, he will not throw one overboard, for that would bring on a storm.
Miss L. A. Smith, in her book about the Music of the Waters, states that a dead hare on a ship is considered a sign of an approaching hurricane; and Cornish fishermen declare that a white hare seen about the quays at night indicates that there will be rough weather.
The pig is an object of aversion to Japanese seamen, and also to Filey fishermen, who will not go to sea if they meet one in the early morning. But, indeed, the pig seems to be generally disliked by all seafarers--except in the form of salt pork and bacon.
Rats, however, are not objected to; indeed, it would be useless to object, for they overrun all ships. And rats are supposed to leave a vessel only when it is going to sink. A Welsh skipper, however, once cleared his ship of them without the risk of a watery grave, by drawing her up to a cheese-laden ship in harbour. He quietly moored alongside, and, having left the hatches open all night, cast off with a chuckle in the morning, leaving a liberal legacy to his neighbour.
The stormy petrel is supposed to herald bad weather, and the great auk to tell that land is very near. This is true enough as regards the auk, which never ventures beyond soundings; but one doubts the truth of the popular belief that when the sea-gulls hover near the shore, a storm is at hand. The Scotch rhyme runs:
One has heard that in Cornwall sailors will not walk at night along portions of the shore where there have been many wrecks, because they believe that the souls of the drowned haunt such localities, and that the 'calling of the dead' is frequently audible. Some even say that they have heard the voices of dead sailors hailing them by name. One can readily excuse a timorousness in Jack in such circumstances. Many persons besides sailors shrink from localities which have been the scenes of murder or sudden death.
Friday is the sailor's pet aversion, as an unlucky day on which to sail or begin work. But this is not surprising, when we remember that Friday has everywhere more superstition and folk-lore attached to it than any other day in the week, originating, perhaps, as Mr. Thiselton-Dyer suggests, from the fact that it was the day on which Christ was crucified. Lord Byron had the superstitious aversion to Friday; and even among the Brahmins no business must be commenced on this day. In Lancashire a man will not 'go a-courting on Friday'; and Brand says: 'A respectable merchant of the city of London informed me that no person will begin any business, that is, open his shop for the first time, on a Friday.' The 'respectable merchant' might be hard to find nowadays, but still one does not need to go to sailors to find a prejudice against Friday.
Other things which are accounted unlucky by superstitious seamen are: to sneeze on the left side at the moment of embarking; to count the men on board; to ask fishermen, before they start, where they are bound for; to point with the finger to a ship when at sea; to lose a mop or water-bucket; to cut the hair or nails at sea, except during a storm.
These are a few of the sea superstitions as preserved in rhyme:
(Meaning that it will rain.)
'When the wind shifts against the sun,
(That is, soon change again.)
'When the sun sets in the clear,
'The evening red and morning gray
(A distich not peculiar to followers of the sea.)
'But the evening gray and morning red
'First rise, after low,
'Long foretold, long last;
'When the wind's before the rain
'When the glass falls low,
'A rainbow in the morning,
The sound of the death-bell is often supposed to be heard at sea before a wreck, and this idea may be either associated with the bell-buoy which marks many sunken, dangerous rocks, or with the religious ceremonies of the old days.
At Malta it is, or was, usual to ring the church bells for an hour during a storm 'that the wind may cease and the sea be calmed,' and the same custom prevails both in Sicily and Sardinia.
A Cornish legend of the bells of a church, which were sent by ship that was lost in sight of the town, owing to the blasphemy of the captain, says that the bells are supposed to be in the bay, and they announce by strange sounds the approach of a storm.
There is a suggestion of Sir Ralph the Rover in this legend; but, indeed, the superstitions of those connected with the sea are so interwoven, that it is not easy to disentangle them, and they are numerous enough to need a book to themselves. No doubt our mariners derived many of them from the old Spanish navigators who once swayed the main, for the Spaniards are one of the most superstitious peoples in the world.
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