Superstitions have long been used to understand the world around us. For sailors, superstitions were observed in the hopes of protection from oncoming danger, good fortune, and luck against drowning. It’s no wonder that these ideas were respected by those sailing the often dangerous waters around the world. Weather and the ocean could change quickly and were further compounded with the dangers of disease and the risk that navigation device malfunctions. These issues brought with them all the uncertainty and danger of being so far from shore as well as myriad ways of controlling one’s fate.
Animals, in particular, were often seen as bringers of ill fortune. From taboo words to tattoos, a variety of animals are represented, including the hare (which were thought to be witches in disguise), the rooster and pig (which were most often represented as tattoos on the knees or feet to keep a sailor from drowning), and sharks (if following behind a boat, they could be signs of death). Some animals, however, could bring about good luck, such as the porpoise and various birds, including the wren and the seagull. Although their meaning often varied by place, many superstitions spread through trade and sailor interactions in port and on the water.
One of the most famous bringers of bad luck were cats. On a ship, a cat could embody several different superstitions. From a practical perspective, cats reduced or eliminated the rodent population onboard, which could help keep disease to a minimum. This is probably why some sailors viewed killing or harming a cat as bad luck. The punishment for such a crime onboard could result in a flogging, termination of service or an “accidental” death. On the other side of this were the dangers of cats onboard. Some fishermen believed that they were a witch’s familiar and were in league with the devil. Others thought that they might be able to control the weather. The static in their fur coat were rumored to culminate as lightning and brought terrible storms.
The common superstition of a black cat crossing the road was considered bad luck by fishermen as well. Like many others, Julius Mora, a Cortez fisherman, took heed of black cats. The sight of one could deter any fishing trip. His grandson, Richard Culbreath, remarked that if a black cat crossed Julius’s path on his way to go fishing, he would regard it as a sign of bad luck. To be cautious, he typically chose not to go fishing that day.
Although many of the superstitions and beliefs perpetuated by sailors of the past are not regarded today, some are still relevant.
Author: Krystin Miner