The Causes of Superstition. - It is customary among
writers to give fishermen
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
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
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
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,
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,
[*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. ]"
Douse your flying kites, for a storm is nigh.*
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."