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SUPERSTITION holds mankind in chains that time can never break, even though it be an inheritance of ignorance, a stamp of primitive conditions, and a badge of servitude to harsh advantages. It is the slavery of mind to the unconsciousness of surroundings, and as we have not yet a clear intelligibility of all things in nature, so are all persons attainted with a fear which lack of comprehension embodies with the supernatural. But for this relic of the original ignorance of man, civilization would be a thousand, perhaps ten thousand, years in advance of what it is. At every knock at the door of knowledge, early man heard the growl of superstition, and though the bold heart of investigation dispelled the monster, yet courage is not always infectious, and thus has every step in advance been disputed and retarded by evil creations of our timid minds.

If exploration of unknown lands has been prevented by tales of goblins damned, of which early writers never grew weary of, depicting to affright emerging intelligence, how much greater must have been the effect of stories about nameless monsters which were said to have their haunts in caverns of the sea. And how much more was the fear thus excited intensified by monkish confirmation of such reports, until a belief in their existence became almost a cardinal principle of pious faith. If therefore we feel surprise that an exploration of every habitable portion of the globe was so long deferred, let us reflect upon the true cause, that it was the ghostly and frightful hand of Satan uprising with fell purpose, or guarding a realm that had its boundary where the landsman saw the horizon dip down to the sea. As these limits were extended, a fright of grim-visaged creatures peopling the ocean beyond took the place of Satan's hand, so that every league covered was like a deeper plunge into demoniacal horrors, a challenge to wrathful fiends that might not only kill, but torment the soul also.

The wide, nay universal prevalence of wild beliefs particularly common in the Middle Ages, and their influence upon early voyagers, whether commanders or common sailors, render a chapter on sea superstitions not only appropriate, but a necessary introduction to a history of maritime discovery, to the end that my readers may be, acquainted with the important effects of the terrifying beliefs which operated to the great disadvantage of explorers on the high seas, and to show how fearless and reckless must have been the men who sailed in the face of these supposed supernatural dangers in quest of unknown shores.


No man is more superstitious than the sailor; no man has better reason to entertain superstition. The sailor is always in the presence of the sublimest spectacle the eye of man can behold; he is surrounded by mystery and awe. The boundless extent, the unfathomable depth of the ocean, fill the mind with amazement; the changing hues of sea and sky in times of calm, present a scene
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of most exquisite beauty, while the roar of the tempest is the most terrible sound that can fall on the human ear. The shifting clouds of the tornado, writhing and twisting like demons contending in the sky, the mountain waves crashing on the deck in watery avalanches, the movements of the tides, astounding from their immensity, marvellous from their regularity; the wonders of the winds, now as changeable as a maiden's fancy, now steadily blowing from one point for months at a time; the whirlpool, drawing down ships as though they were straws; the water spout, the fury of whose fall the stoutest vessel often in vain resists; the mysterious currents of the ocean, great rivers which drive ships to and fro in spite of helm, sail or steam -- all these tend to lift the fancy to the highest point and prepare the mind for ready belief in the supernatural.


The imagination of the sailor, feverish from the contemplation of such astounding wonders, is further excited by the real dangers to which at all times he is exposed. There is but a plank between him and eternity, and a frequent realization of that fact tends to heighten the feeling of sublimity with which the sailor contemplates the sea. The vessel on which he floats is but a speck in the immensity of watery space, and however dull and unintelligent he may be, he cannot but feel the insignificance of man and man's contrivances in the presence of Nature's greatest wonder. However calm the sea may be, he cannot but feel that it is the repose of measureless strength and that the placid waters about him cover the remains of thousands who braved Old Ocean in his might. For the sea is one vast charnel house. The few that dare the passage of the main are but a handful to the myriads who slumber in its bosom. The earliest sea tales are of shipwreck; the earliest mariners made the ocean their winding sheet. Every storm claims its victims; every wind levies toll on human life and treasure. The power of man cannot curb the tempest; human skill is fortunate if, by its most adept exercise, it contrives to evade the fury of the blast. Old Ocean to-day rises in his might and drives man howling to his gods as in the days when Thor was supplicated in vain by the Norsemen who, in open boat, braved the anger of the billows.


The sea is the sailor's cradle; he looks to the time when it shall be his grave, so it is not strange that when he gazes from the bow of his ship into the blue waves beneath, the eye of superstition should people the deep with unnatural forms; it is not wonderful that in the circling clouds he should behold the arms of demons stretched out to seize his vessel; that in the moaning of the tempest he
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should hear the voices of sirens luring him to destruction. Surrounded by mysteries, he readily imagines more than have an existence, and supplements the wonders of the sea with the creatures of his own heated fancy. Imagination is ever active, and the less certain the knowledge the more room for a flight of fancy. The early sailor had no scientific knowledge of the ocean's population, saw a little and imagined more. He noted the crawling things drawn up by the net, cast on the shore by the storm, stranded by the tide, so hideous, so diabolically repulsive in their ugliness, and imagined far more than he saw. The sea has no bounds; why should it not contain monsters which, in size and hideousness, are to these what these are to the insects which float in the stagnant pond. Thus he peopled the vasty depths with frightful creatures. He saw himself and his vessel, after the utmost carefulness and skill, playthings of the elements, and concluded that he was the sport of chance, the plaything of destiny.


But, in sailor theology, God is good, and fate, though pitiless, never strikes without giving notice of the impending blow. Thus the old time sailor believed in signs -- signs of the coming storm, of the approaching shipwreck. To him everything had a meaning. He availed himself of that curious weather wisdom characteristic of many animals and birds; the gull gave him notice of a change in weather; the stormy petrel followed his bark during the wildest hurricane; the albatross brought him calm. He carried the idea further: rats, so troublesome in dock and on shipboard during a voyage, were endued by him/with greater foresight than he himself possessed; they deserted his ship before its last voyage began. Following the example set by the most ancient navigators, he divined by means of moon and stars; carrying with him to sea the superstitions of the land, he deemed Friday unlucky because it was the day on which the Crucifixion took place; Sunday fortunate, for it was the day of the Resurrection.

The sailor of the olden time was a curiosity. All remember him as depicted in the novels and romances of Dana and Marryatt and others; his bronzed visage, his eyes habitually half closed to elude the mingled glare of sun and sea; his chin whiskers grizzled with age and salt spray, his wide breeches, which he hitched up with one hand before starting on some unusually important undertaking; his quid of tobacco rolled into his cheek, his sea slang, his garrulity, his never ending stock of narrative, his love of the marvellous, his contempt for the land-lubber; we all know him, and love him too, in spite of his oddities. He is not quite extinct; occasional samples of him may be seen on the sailing vessels drawn into our ports by the puffing, bustling, hurrying tugs, the hackmen of the ocean which prowl up and down before our harbors waiting for a fare. When found, he is a treasure to the antiquarian and the story teller. In the busy brain beneath that bronzed and wrinkled front he has stowed away ten thousand odds and ends of superstitious fancy; bits of old time beliefs and/practices which have come down through the ages; the flotsam and jetsam of a time when astrology was the only learned profession. He believes it unlucky to meet a woman on his way to the ship, for as Eve brought all evil into the world, so one of her descendants will, in some unaccountable fashion, cause mischief during the coming voyage. Nor does he speak of a land animal while fishing, for this would be unlucky; land animals go about on foot, while fish have no feet, and although this may not be a sufficient reason, his superstition needs no other.


As a rule sailors are afraid to go to sea in a ship in which any one has been killed, for the killing, whether by accident or design, leaves a blood stain on the ship which can never be washed but, and one death is a premonition of many. Nor will he ship on a vessel of which the name has been changed; according to his creed, a change of name is unlucky for everything in nature except a woman; nor row in a boat which has once been overturned, for a recurrence of the accident is absolutely certain. He dreams of shipwreck and deserts, lest his dream come true; he is afraid of a ship the name of which begins with a letter S or 0, for he can recall a long list of vessels whose names began with these unlucky letters, and every one came to some sad fate. He is curiously
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inconsistent, for while a ship named for a saint is lucky, the festival of the saint is an unlucky day, and if he can help himself he will neither begin a voyage nor do any but absolutely necessary work on a holy day. He goes back into the history of the ships in which he is interested; if a man was hurt or killed at the launching of the vessel, he is certain ill-luck will follow it and all on board. He reviews its building; if the first stroke of the hammer drew fire from the nail, the vessel whose construction was thus unluckily begun is certain to be burned. He considers his own actions and those of others in the highest degree significant. A sneeze is always fortunate; before the time of Noah, no man sneezed but once, for the shock always killed him; but after the days of that patriarch, the children of men, as a special favor, were permitted to sneeze as often as they pleased, provided that in memory of the former evil consequences they should accompany the act with a benediction; hence, the old sailor sneezes with great gusto, and the other old sailor by his side Says: "God bless you," after each sneeze. To cough is unlucky; to spit, even more so, save on his hook, and the worst luck of all is to have a quarrel with his wife before starting. He will not throw overboard a burning coal, though why he cannot for the life of him tell; nor will he mend his clothing when the winds are contrary. He will whistle during a calm to raise a breeze, and when the breeze is blowing will curse the whistlers, lest by their musical efforts a storm should, be provoked. He will not tell the number of fish he has caught, nor will he thank you for asking him, nor admit a white stone as ballast into his fishing boat. When he goes for herring he will toss a penny over the bow, and before leaving the shore will see that his boy is handy to throw an old shoe after the departing boat. When on his way to his craft he will turn pale at seeing a footprint in the sand, and when in the offing will turn his boat from left to right so as to go with the sun. He will not turn a loaf of bread upside down, nor begin a voyage without some salt in his pocket. He has a horror of rice, which he terms "strike-me-blind," and will not under any circumstances eat the heart of a fish. He has unlucky days besides Fridays, and the saints' days. The first Monday in April is bad, it was Cain's birthday; the second Monday in August is worse, for on that day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed; the thirty-first of December is the worst of all, for on that day Judas hanged himself. To work on St. Peter's Day is extremely unfortunate; St. Peter is the patron of fishermen and sailors, and desires that they keep his festival as a holiday. He has a horror of the thirteenth; of each month; it is the Devil's Day. On the principle "the better the day, the better the deed," he considers Sunday the most lucky for any enterprise.


To the sailor an eclipse is a dire portent of evil; a meteor is a lucky omen; the Aurora Borealis is a certain forerunner, of disaster. A moaning sound from the sea forebodes a storm with loss of life; when it is heard, the spirits of the sea are calling for the souls of men. He derives omens from animals; he watches the porpoise, the cat, the bird; the gambols of shoals; of porpoises indicate coming change; if in bad weather, to good; if in fair weather, to foul. The cat washes her face before the storm; the albatross which
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accompanies his ship brings him bad luck, but nothing is gained by shooting the bird, an act which is certain to be followed by the wreck of the ship, though the albatross may be caught with a bit of pork on a hook, and brought on deck to die without serious result. He regards himself fortunate when land birds alight on his yards, but will not allow them to be caught, for this would be cold welcome to the stranger. The cat is uniformly bad, and more especially so when the color is black, and he cites cases where such an animal has caused the loss of a vessel and all her crew. Nor is it any more fortunate for a crow or a raven to perch on the ship's tackle. When such an accident occurs at the beginning of a voyage he will desert if possible, and if he cannot, will bemoan the fate that lies before him. He considers many places ill-omened; Eddystone Rock, the Straits of Messina, where in ancient days Scylla and Charybdis lurked for the unwary voyager; the Strait of Babelmandeb; at the entrance to the Red Sea, which is haunted by the souls of the Arab slave traders and their victims; the Cape of Good Hope, notwithstanding its name; Cape Hatteras, Cape Race off Newfoundland; the Labrador coast, the South coast of Ireland. He carries charms against spirits of the storm; likes to see a lucky figurehead on his ship, or an inscription on some part of the vessel; he has animal charms; a bit of the sea calf's skin protects him from the lightning, though a fox tail, a gull's wing or an eagle's beak is almost equally good; he likes to have a bag of sea shells handy, or a shark's tooth as a protection against shipwreck; though a branch of coral is good for this, as well as to stop bleeding and to keep off the evil eye. In default of a shark's tooth, a bit of coral or a piece of amber, he will be satisfied with a horse shoe nailed against the mast, or a bunch of garlic hung in the cabin. He objects to certain kinds of passengers; priests, clergymen of any denomination, he regards as extremely bad company on a voyage; Paul was shipwrecked thrice, and the experience of Jonah was anything but reassuring. His very soul revolts at the idea of having a corpse on board; he will not embark with one, and is ready to mutiny if a dead body is not at once committed to the deep and midnight burials are recommended because the spirit is then least likely to reappear to the living.


Nor does the sailor's superstitious creed end here. He believes in storm- breeders. He knows that in the olden times witches had power to raise storms; he knows there were witches then, for numbers of them were hung and burned; why should they not now have the same power they had two or three hundred years ago. He has a suspicion that the ringing of bells is potent to call up storms, and is equally certain that the death of a great man will have the same effect. He has known a storm to be brought on by card playing on board his vessel; he has known the storm to pass away by the power of prayer. To obtain a fair breeze, he deems it necessary to flog a boy at the mast; to obtain a favorable wind he will burn an old broom, while to secure a return of the sun, a little dust from the chapel of some saint, or other holy place, sprinkled on the waves, will secure the desired result. For a captain not to pay his debts before sailing is the worst possible misfortune; the voyage will certainly be disastrous. Equally bad luck is it for the thoughtless passenger to cut his nails or hair during a calm, for a storm is certain to succeed. All these and a thousand fancies like them he steadfastly believes, but for the faith that is in him, he will not assign any reason; indeed, he cannot; his notions have come down to him through generation after generation of sailors; he believes them because his fathers did, and is astonished that any one should ask for a better reason. The steam engine and electricity have pushed the old sailor into the background; the world has no longer time to listen to his stories; the steam engine does his work, heaves his anchor, furls his sail; his cheerful "Yo Heave, oh!" is becoming every year more rare, but he has made his imprint on the world's thought, and his superstitions are as much a part of literature as the tales of knightly daring.


From him the world learned of the existence of the mermaid and the siren. These beautifully poetic creatures of the old sailor's imagination have long since been explained away. Even the old sailor himself is compelled to confess that the curious, resemblance borne by the heads of several varieties of the seal family to the human countenance misled him, and that he was honestly mistaken there can be no doubt, and many a man who has seen in the waves near his boat, the strange human-like face and soft pleading eyes of a large seal, is ready to excuse the old sailor's error. Nor was the siren story so much in fault as might be supposed, for the seal has a voice, and on occasion gives utterance to a plaintive moan which, by no great stretch of imagination, can be understood as a song luring men to destruction. Wonderfully beautiful and strikingly poetic are some of the mermaid and siren legends, and the
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sailors of every land, in unconscious emulation, have gone on elaborating them until many are finished products of imaginative fancy. On one coast the mermaid is a benevolent being, warning poor Jack of approaching peril; on another, she lays aside her fishy scales and dances on the beach, while the wily peasant, unheedful of his peril, watches her gambols from the seclusion of a neighboring boulder. In one country, she forms an attachment to an earthly lover, leaves her coral caverns in the deep, enters his home and makes him a loving wife for years. Forgetting her weird origin, he reproves her as though she were an earthly maiden, whereupon indignant at the insult she leaves the house; her children follow her, the sheep and oxen come at her call, the tables and chairs fall into line, the pots and pans and trunks put out feet from their sides and make a part of the procession; she commands, and the calf that was slaughtered the day before comes down from the peg on which it hung; the pigs, which were to form the winter's store of food, join their severed limbs and come forth from the barrels and down from the hooks; and the seal-wife and all that she brought her husband, walk in solemn, silence to the sea, pass into its waves and disappear forever.


Yet stranger grow the stories of the wonders of the sea: It has its horses, fiery chargers, which leave the limpid waters and feed along the grassy shore. They are taken by men; are tamed, subdued; but will answer only to the touch of a warrior's heel. The peasant harnesses them to his plow; they rebel, and with mighty power draw him and his unworthy contrivance headlong into the watery gulf. It has its oxen, patient as those of laud, and fortunate is the farmer who succeeds in mastering one of these humble, toiling brutes, for day and night will it labor for him, never stopping, never resting, never sleeping, and for food requiring only a mouthful of sea water, a breath of air laden with the smell of salty spray. It brings him wealth, good fortune and honor, and if well treated may learn in time to speak and divulge the secret treasures of the ocean's caves.


And still the marvels come, for there is the sea-serpent, and the old sailor rejoices when he remembers this monster, for so often, has the serpent, or something like it, been seen, that its existence seems undisputed. The ocean contains the largest known animal, and who shall say there may not be others in its depths so vast that even the whale may lose its superiority. The sailors of many ships
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have testified to having seen an animal of great size and shaped like a serpent; more than one scientific observer has had a glimpse of such a creature, and when we know that even the animals of the land are not yet numbered, may it not be possible that the deep, in extent three times that of the land, may contain such a creature as the once mythical sea-serpent. The existence of the Kraken may be doubted, thinks the old sailor; the Kraken was too greatly enlarged by its discoverers. It stands to reason, even to ancient mariner reason, that there could be no creature so large as to cause a tidal wave all along the coast of Europe when it rose to breathe. He doubts the old story of the shipwrecked mariners landing on the Kraken under the belief that it was a deserted island, and only discovering their mistake when, after building a fire on its back the aggrieved animal sank to cool the smart, leaving his insulters to their fate. Vast as the Kraken was, the story was bigger, and, like the giant in the fable, it died of its own size, though not until, as many assert, it had dragged hundreds of ships and their crews to destruction.