Born on Friday 13th – superstition and the sea

Born on Friday 13th – superstition and the sea According to the ancient legend, the sirens lured unwary seafarers onto the rocks. Image: Wikipedia/Jastrow

Sitting down to write this, I can’t help noticing that the date is Friday 13th, so a look at superstition seems appropriate. What a crazy idea! Me and superstitions? I consider myself a most rational human being and a total non-believer, especially with respect to superstition. So why should I spread fake news that 20th and 21st centuries fishermen could be superstitious? Myself I spent some forty years on board fishing vessels, mainly trawling, without any superstitions.

For example, here in Israel, being Jewish, we'd never set sail on Friday afternoon… Just to keep up with an ancient custom or, for those who're religious – just in case - you know…

Of course, it has nothing to do with that most enduring old belief that Friday is an unlucky day, and that it is unlucky to begin a voyage or new venture on a Friday.

But superstitions? No way. No one knows it better than I, born on Friday the 13th.

Luck is another thing. Some of us believe that women on board may be bringing bad luck. Well, maybe some do.

As it's well known fishermen and related-fishing workers pursue the second (after loggers) most dangerous occupation. No wonder that over time some superstitions particular to sailors or mariners found their way aboard our fishing boats.

It – God forbid – doesn't make us superstitious, maybe just a bit more careful. Myself, for example, a declared non-believer, prefer not having bananas on board. Again, just in case, especially that the origin of this superstition maybe that too many seamen have slipped on a banana skin. Also, without considering it a superstition, I've always warned my crew not to whistle on board. It is said that to whistle is to challenge the wind itself, and that doing so will bring about a storm. Well, we're having plenty of storms here in the Eastern Mediterranean anyhow. Simply, don't whistle on board.

Sailors are told to take warning if the sunrise is red. The day ahead will be dangerous. I don't quite agree with this. I think that this is a true superstition. Instead, I prefer to believe in sirens, both those with fish tails or, rather, those without.

Sirens were mythological, beautiful and often dangerous creatures, who lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. I wonder what was going on that island… and what was the sirens-to-seamen ratio?

Sailors are often reluctant to set sail on Candlemas Day, believing that any voyage begun then will end in disaster. This may be related to the superstition to remove all Christmas decorations by Candlemas, a practice done well into Victorian times.

In the 18th century New England, rolling clouds and roaring waves were thought as bad omens, so sailing on days under such conditions was considered inadvisable. Absolutely, I'd say. It was not a problem of bad omens, but of bad weather.

Superstitions particular to seagoing people, traditionally have been common around the world. Some of such beliefs are popular superstitions, while others are actually better described as traditions, stories, folklore, tropes, myths, or legend. Other superstitions vary form place to place. Four-legged animals are considered unlucky, although the species vary from place to place. Even saying the names out loud can bring down bad luck – supposedly – so I’ll not say which beasts shouldn’t be mentioned.

The origins of many of seagoing superstitions are based in the inherent risks of sailing, and luck either good or bad, as well as various omens that would be given associative meaning in relation to the life of a mariner, sailor, fisherman or a crew in general.

Some superstitions have a basis in common sense. You don’t leave a broom lying on the deck (which could sweep away the luck) because someone will trip on it. You don’t leave a hatch cover upside down (because the boat will be confused and want to turn over) because it’s easier and safer to lift it back that way. But what’s the origin of the superstition about wearing green that some fishing communities have?


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