By Laine Welch
…For centuries, seafarers who face a life of danger and uncertainty have observed a strict set of rules steeped in myth and superstition. Many beliefs are based on the Bible, for example, the well known notion that Friday is the worst day to set out to sea.
Most sources credit that to the belief that Christ was crucified on a Friday. Therefore, this day must be observed and respected and will be unlucky for anyone who attempts to go about business as usual. Similarly, Sunday is the best day to begin a voyage, because Christ’s resurrection on that day is regarded as a good omen. Thus the old adage, ‘Sunday sail, never fail.’
A traditional view for centuries was that women had no place at sea. They weren’t considered strong enough, emotionally or physically, and the men would be distracted from their duties, angering the seas and dooming a ship.
Interestingly, lore has it that a naked woman onboard would calm the seas. That’s why many vessels have a bare breasted figurehead of a woman on the bow. Superstition amongst sailors said that the figurehead should have eyes to find a way through the seas when lost, while her bare breast would shame a stormy sea into calm. Pliny, the ancient Roman scientist and historian, first recorded this belief over 2000 years ago.
Since the 1700s, bananas have been regarded as bad luck by mariners. One explanation is that bananas carried aboard slave ships fermented and gave off poisonous methane gas. Another is that crewmen would die from lethal spiders hiding in the bunches of bananas.
Here’s a sampler of more maritime superstitions:
Pouring wine on the deck is a ‘libation to the gods’ that will bring good luck on a long voyage.
Dolphins swimming with a ship are a good omen, while sharks following is a sign of inevitable death. Black cats are considered lucky on board a boat. Not so for flowers, which could be used for a funeral wreath.
It’s unlucky to kill an albatross or a gull at sea, as they host the souls of dead sailors. Whistling on the bridge will whistle up a storm. Cutting your hair or nails at sea is a no no. Likewise, don’t ever step onto a boat with your left foot, or stir a pot or coil a line counter clockwise.
Finally, marine myth has it that sailors pierced their ears to improve their eyesight. A gold earring was both a charm against drowning and the price paid to Davy Jones to enter the next world if a sailor died at sea.
As for Friday the 13th – modern stories claim that legend began when King Philip of France has many Christian knights arrested on October 13, 1307. Other resources say that although the number 13 was considered historically unlucky, the association of Friday and 13 seems to be an invention from the early 1900s.
A Friday occurring on the 13th of any month is considered to be a day of bad luck in English, German and Portuguese speaking cultures around the world. The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskavedekatriaphobia, derived from the Greek words Friday, thirteen and phobia.
July is the only other month in 2007 in which a Friday falls on the 13th.