NOAA History Banner
gold bar divider
home - takes you to index page
about the site
noaa - takes you to the noaa home page
search this site
white divider

arrow Stories and Tales of the Fisheries Service

banner - fishermen of the us - superstitions

The Causes of Superstition. - It is customary among writers to give fishermenhorseshoe credit for an extraordinary amount of credulity and superstition. There are among the fishermen superstitious men, just as there among their kindred on shore; while, on the other hand, the more intelligent and practical men among them, especially those born in the United States, are, perhaps, among the least superstitious of men, certainly as little credulous as any class of sea-faring men. It is not unusual to find the master of a fishing vessel, while humoring the prejudices of his crew, himself thoroughly incredulous as to the power of any supernatural influences over the movements of the vessel or the success of the voyage.

Mr. J. P. Gordy thus writes concerning some of the superstitious notions among the Gloucester fishermen:

"I will not undertake to say to how many causes superstition may be due, but one cause, at least, every one will admit - a weakness of imagination and reason. Whenever you find a mind too weak to form such a conception as law, you find a mind which, if left to itself, will be superstitious. The development of the religious notion may modify the form of the superstition, but with that I propose not to deal, since it is at present among fishermen in too varying proportions to make valid any conclusions that may be drawn therefrom. Now, in most circles of society the weaker minds are not left to themselves. They borrow the opinions as they do the manners of the highest culture and the best intellects in the circles in which they move. Those pronounce superstitions ridiculous and they echo their laugh. Even then the thoughts in their minds answering to abstract terms have a grotesqueness that would deserve to be called superstitious had not that name come to indicate a peculiar class of grotesque ideas. Now fishermen are very emphatically left to themselves. They have as little culture, as little contact with culture, as any class in the land. The most intelligent among them are prevented by their limited opportunities for intercourse from wielding the influence which naturally belongs to power, and superstition, as a rule, is the natural result. This is especially so when you take into consideration another cause which works with peculiar force among fishermen. I think that among people whose mental structure inclines them that way superstitious are more or less prevalent according to the frequency with which they come in contact with variable and incalculable events. Superstitions are due, in part at least, to the cause-seeking instinct; and when a new phenomenon appears, or an old one at times and under circumstances which cannot be predicted, this instinct demands satisfaction. Now, of all classes in the world, fishermen deal with phenomena with the cause of which they are most thoroughly unacquainted. When and from what quarter the wind will blow; when and why fish will be abundant; why the schools are large at some times and small at others- are questions they cannot answer. These are the facts which determine their success and upon which their observation is constantly directed, and unless the fisherman has the balance of mind which enables a man of strength to hold his judgment in suspense, he is likely to assign a cause which, if realized in his imagination, is almost certain to be a superstition. From these three causes, therefore-their lack of intelligence and culture, their lack of contact with these, and their constant observation of irregular facts- fishermen as a class are extremely likely to be superstitious."

Without further discussion as to the causes of superstition, we will consider some of the most common and widespread superstitions- such as may be found on any fishing vessel, and such as are always firmly believed by many of the crew. We shall speak particularly of the superstitions prevalent among the Gloucester fishermen. Among the fishermen of European birth, so many of whom may be found on the whaling and other vessels on the coast of California, entirely another class of superstitions doubtless prevail, similar to or identical with those current in the countries whence they came.

The superstitions of the fishermen may be roughly classified into three groups:

    (1) Causes and indications of ill luck;
    (2) superstitions regarding the weather and other natural phenomena which may or may not relate to causes;
    (3) superstitious usages which have no special bearing upon the welfare of the fishermen.

Causes and Indications of Ill Luck.-- A Jonah is any person, thing, or act which is supposed to bring ill luck upon a voyage. It is characteristic of the fearlessness of the Gloucester fishermen and the energy with which he throws himself into his occupation that these prejudices of ill luck are rarely applied to the fate of the vessel itself. Concerning this the men have but little anxiety, their whole interest being in the successful completion of the voyage. There are many kinds of Jonahs.

Certain persons are often selected by the fishermen as Jonahs, being those men who have been unlucky in their fishing voyages. The belief in luck is very deep-seated. When a vessel is unlucky on one of its voyages some of the crew are pretty certain to leave and to ship on other vessels. In the course of contact changing from one vessel to another certain men chance for a number of successive voyages to ship on board of unsuccessful vessels. The "ill luck" of these men soon becomes known among their comrades, and they are branded as Jonahs. A man may be extremely successful for a number of years and later he may fal on a few voyages, and it is at once said of him that his luck has changed and that he has become a Jonah. Men are sometimes discharged from vessels because of their reputations as Jonahs, although no other fault can be found with them. Sometimes when a vessel is unlucky the crew resort to a strange method of determining the unlucky one. They induce the cook to put a nail or a piece of wood or coal in a loaf of bread, and the man who happens to get this is declared a Jonah. It has been observed, however, that when the cook's verdict has been pronounced against a man who holds a good reputation as a fisherman and lucky man it has little effect. "Luck" is everything and no kind of divination will counteract its influence upon the reputation of its happy possessor. Sometimes the fisherman resorts to strange expedients to free himself from the odor of "ill luck" which clings to him. For instance, he will carry his bed-sack on deck and set it on fire, and fumigate himself thoroughly, for the purpose of exorcizing the evil influence.

Vessels sometimes get the reputation of being Jonahs. These vessels have considerable difficulty in getting crews until their luck changes. They are sometimes withdrawn from the fisheries on this account. The schooner Florence, which was sold from Gloucester to New London, and afterwards made exceedingly successful fur-sealing trips in the Antarctic Ocean, once had a bad reputation as a Jonah, which perhaps influenced her owners to take her out of the fisheries. The same vessel subsequently transported the Howgate expedition to Cumberland Sound.

Certain articles of personal property or apparel are thought to be Jonahs. A man carrying a black valise or wearing white woolen stockings or blue mittens would find much difficulty in shipp on board of a Gloucester vessel. A black valise is regarded with special disfavor, and the almost universal use of white mittens and nippers is largely due to this common prejudice regarding color. It is not uncommon for the more influential and skillful fishermen to carry with them some of these suspicious articles for the purpose of overcoming the prejudices of their associates, and the influence of such men is having good effect. There are other kinds of Jonahs which are not so generally believed in. Some fishermen, for instance, think that it is a Jonah to make toy boats or models on board the vessel;' others, that fiddle of a checker-board is a Jonah; others, even, that it is a Jonah to leave a bucket half-full of water on deck, or to soak mackerel in a bucket, saying that "so long as you soak them in a bucket you will never get enough to soak in a barrel". Some think that it is a Jonah, when vessel is coming to anchor on the Banks and is "sticking out" her cable, to have a splice stop in the hawse-pipe, and it is frequently remarked by such that he vessel will not be successful in that berth, and the result will be that she will have to change her position. It is also thought, by a very few however, that it is a Jonah to have a dory, in leaving the vessel, turn round from right to left or in a direction contrary to that of the sun. Some skippers think that it is a Jonah to keep the vessel's deck clean when on the fishing grounds, and they will allow only such cleaning as is absolutely necessary. Others, are the contrary, are very particular in the matter of having their vessels kept clean.

The prevalent belief in "luck" has already been mentioned. Certain vessels and men acquire the enviable reputation of being the luckiest in the fleet, and it is always thought a piece of good fortune to be able to ship on board of such vessels or in company with such men. Certain articles also gain the reputation of bringing good luck. For instance, during the past two or three years, since the United States Fish Commission has been sending out collecting tanks full of alcohol on some of vessels, it has come to be regarded by many of the fishermen as a matter of good luck to have one on board. One of the most successful Gloucester skippers went out on a voyage in 1880 without the tank which he had been accustomed to carry and was unsuccessful. Upon his return he came to the headquarters of the Commission and begged for a tank, saying that he would not, on any account, go out again to the fishing grounds without collecting materials on board. Such instances as these are mentioned simply to indicate how great importance is given to little things, and to show how the superstitious instincts of these men lead them rapidly from one belief to another, while the general skeptical tendency of the age prevents any very strong and permanent belief in any particular form of superstition.

Unlucky Days and Acts.-- The belief that Friday is an unlucky day still holds among many of the fishermen, but the old idea is fast dying out. A quarter of a century ago few Gloucester fishermen would go to sea on a Friday, but at the present time little attention is paid to this; and in this respect the fishing vessels are perhaps in advance of many vessels in the merchant marine and in the Navy. This revolution in opinions has been brought about simply through the influence of a few independent and determined men.

Certain acts are considered unlucky; for instance, to kill a "Mother Carey's chicken" or petrel. This superstition is also going out since many of the vessels during the past years have been obliged to kill these birds for bait. It is regarded unlucky by a great many fishermen to drive a nail on Sunday. To combat this idea certain skippers have been known to amuse themselves on that day when at sea by driving nails. It is unlucky to leave a hatch bottom side up upon the deck; such an act is supposed to be the possible cause of some future disaster to the vessel.

Accidents, too, are unlucky and are sometimes regarded as sufficient reasons for disaster. To let a hatch fall down into the hold is considered especially unfortunate, while to break a looking-glass is disastrous not only to the vessel but to the person, family, and friends of the man who is the cause of the breakage. * [*The superstition regarding the ill effects which may result from breaking a looking-glass is very wide-spread on shore as well as among seamen. In various parts of the United States- in the cities as well as in rural districts- the remark is often heard that the breaking of a glass indicates "seven years hard luck". It will be seen that this belief is not confined to fishermen, but, like many other superstitions with which they are credited, is doubtless borrowed from people on shore. ]

Fishermen are not as a rule given to forebodings of ill. They always go to sea with brave hearts, the idea that they may never return to port seldom being allowed consideration, not matter how many of their comrades have been lost within a few days.

Beliefs Regarding Natural Phenomena.-- Among fishermen we find the ordinary beliefs regarding the influence of changes of the moon upon the weather. The fisherman, like any other sailor, will often whistle for a wind or will stick his knife into the aft side of the mast to insure a fair wind. The fishermen observe carefully the direction of shooting stars, thinking that the wind will come from the direction toward which the stars shoot. There is a common belief in Maine that the flood-tide brings in a wind, that the wind is likely to die out with its ebb, also that it is more likely to rain on the ebb than on the flood; and this belief is more or less common all along the New England coast. In Maine the fishermen believe that children are always born when the tide is at the full and die when it is ebbing, and that only at this latter stage of the tide do deaths occur.

When the sun "sets up its backstays," or "draws water" in the morning, it is a sign of foul weather; at night, of fair weather; "sun-dogs," or parhelia, indicate foul weather.

When the wind backs, or veers from right to left or against the sun, it is believed that it will not continue steady. This belief is so common among seamen that an old distich tells us that:

    When the wind backens against the sun
    Trust it not, for back it'll run.

If the wind moderates with the setting of the sun, it will rise again when the sun rises. The peculiar appearance in the water which the fishermen describe as "a crack in the water," seen in the calm weather, is the sign of an easterly wind.

The fire of St. Elmo, the "composants" (corpo santo?), as the fishermen call it, is regarded as a natural phenomenon. It is believed to rise higher upon the mast as the storm increases, and at the culmination of the storm to reach the highest point on a vessel's spars or rigging.

Backing winds are generally followed by unsettling weather; hauling winds are thought to indicate settled weather.

The following are old saws of general prevalence:

    Mackerel sky and mares' tails,
    Make lofty ships carry low sails.
    Rainbow in the morning,
    Sailor take warning;
    Rainbow at night,
    Sailor's delight.

    Evening red, and morning gray,
    Is a sure sign of a pleasant day;
    But evening gray and morning red,
    Will bring down rain upon your head.

    If the morning is marked by an easterly glin,
    The evening will bring rain to wet your skin.
    If in the southwest you see a smurry sky,
    Douse your flying kites, for a storm is nigh.*
[*On the east coast of the United States and British North American Provinces storms generally follow more or less closely the direction of the Gulf Stream, which, north of Cape Hatteras, closely approximates to a northeast course. Therefore, an easterly or northeasterly storm "begins to leeward," as the fishermen say; that is, it gradually moves to the northeastward, notwithstanding the wind may be blowing heavily from that direction. As a result, the first indication of a storm, particularly in winter, is generally noticed in the changes that appear in the sky to the south and westward. If the sky assumes sha hazy, greasy look00 called "smurry" by the fishermen- with small patches of distich in regard to the "easterly glin; since, if the morning sky is specially clear in the east, so as to form a glin, it is generally thick with an approaching storm in the opposite direction, -J. W. C. ]"

Some of these beliefs concerning the wather doubtless have more or less foundation in fact, and are based on a close observation of results growing out of natural causes, though the "weather-wise" observers may not always be able to explain the relation between the "signs" and the changes which they predict.

Superstitious Usages.-- Some fishermen will not have their hair cut except when the moon is increasing in size, fearing that otherwise their hair will fall out. This idea, which is akin to the common one found throughout the rural districts of the Eastern and Middle States that animals killed in the waning of the moon will shrink when cooked, is by no means peculiar to the fishermen. The fishermen of former days, like other sea-faring men, were accustomed to wear ear-rings to improve their eye-sight; but this custom is almost, if not entirely, extinct among the American-born fishermen. Once in a while a veteran is still to be found with the picturesque old ear-rings in his ears. The European fishermen of California and the Southern States still adhere to this practice. Some fishermen carry potatoes in their pockets as a preventive of rheumatism, and wear nutmeg round their necks to cure scrofulous or other humors. These usages are also shared by hundreds of thousands of our shore population, who carry in their pockets the "lucky-bones" of fishes, certain bones of animals, as well as horse-chestnuts and other vegetable products as prophylactics. Many of the Roman Catholics among the fishermen of course wear amulets as personal safeguards. A fisherman who has wounded his finger with a fish-hook will immediately stick the hook into a piece of pine wood, thinking that he thus may hasten the cure of his wound. Warts are supposed to be removed by counting them and pronouncing over them a certain formula of words. In dressing codfish, some fishermen always save the largest fish to dress last. It is a very common custom to nail a horse-shoe on the end of the bowsprit for good luck. Among the French Canadians employed on our fishing vessels there are a few who still retain their ancestral belief in spirits and fairies; and the Scotch and Scandinavians and others have brought over with them the folk-lore of their fatherland. They soon become ashamed of talking about such beliefs. Whatever their private opinions may be, they seldom refer to them after having been associated for a few years with their unpoetical and skeptical shipmates.

A curious custom is found on many of the cod vessels, especially those of Cape Cod, connected with the process of dressing the fish. After a fish has been decapitated, its body is passed by the header to the splitter. If the body still exhibits signs of life, the splitter will usually ask the header to kill the fish, which he does by a blow upon the back of the skull. This act, performed upon the severed head, is supposed to have an immediate effect upon the body, which is in the hands of another man. A Gloucester fishing captain of thirty years' experience, who sits near us while we write, remarks: "It is a singular thing, but it is surely true, that when the head is treated in this manner the body always straightens out."

- Top of Page -

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

Privacy Policy | Disclaimer