Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Superstitious Minds

In the age of sail, superstition was prevalent with sailors and pirates alike. These bizarre and wild false beliefs are fascinating and great fodder for storytelling. From movies like Pirates of the Caribbean to pirate romances, bits of maritime myths can be found. While today’s mariners have science, technology, communication, and knowledge, sailors of old relied heavily on superstitions and folklore to guide them safely across the vast, powerful oceans.   
Red skies at night, sailor's delight; red skies at morn, sailor be warned
One recurring belief was that women on board were bad luck. They distracted men and kept them from their shipboard duties.  If passions were high, dropping an anchor with a woman may occur on the gun deck. Such coupling might have led to the term “son of a gun.”
Seagulls and albatross were believed to carry the souls of dead sailors. Killing one of these birds was considered very bad luck. But these birds flying above the masts in groups of three was a sure omen of death.
Flowers were considered unlucky to have on board as they could be used for a funeral wreath. Therefore, many sailors believed flowers on a ship also meant someone would die on the voyage.
Bananas were the fruit of death. Having bananas on board caused a ship to disappear. But there is truth behind this superstition. Bananas stored in hot hulls fermented quickly, releasing toxic fumes that became trapped below deck. Anyone in the hold would fall victim to the lethal gas. If that weren’t enough, add the venomous spiders that hid among the banana bunches. One bite and it was lights out. No wonder bananas were feared.
Here are a few fun mariner beliefs:
Beautiful thief + Sexy Libertine = Wicked fun
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  • No whistling on board. The action stirs up the wind bringing storms.
  • Naked women on board were considered lucky as they shamed the seas into being calm (think figureheads). I know, this is a direct conflict to not having women on board. Pfftth–men.
  • Don’t set sail on Fridays – Christ was crucified on that day.
  • A shark following a ship was a death omen. (We’re gonna need a bigger boat. Na-na-na-na-na-na-ahhhh!) Conversely, dolphins swimming with the ship meant good luck.
  • A bell ringing by itself surely meant someone was about to die. (Sheesh, choppy waters must be a bitch.)
  • Wine poured on the deck would bring good luck. (Tongue splinters.)
  • Rats leaving a ship meant the ship is doomed.
  • Cats, especially black ones, were considered good luck. Cats were also thought to be indicators of weather by their behavior.
  • A silver coin placed under the masthead would ensure a good voyage. (Kind of like a bribe, I’d say.)
  • Avoid redheads. I’m guessing being a sailor was a hard occupation for gingers.
  • An anchor tattoo will keep a man fallen overboard from drifting away from the ship.
  • Gold earrings keep a sailor from drowning. It also ensured payment across the River Styx. (Boy, mariners sure were into bribery.)
  • A baby boy born on a ship was good luck. It is suggested that a boy born on the gun deck was also referred to as a “son of a gun”.
  • Never say pig – it’s bad luck and brings strong winds. It’s also bad luck say good-bye, drown/drowning, good luck, or to mention rabbit, hare, or fox. (The captain’s name in Blood And Treasure is Fox – tee hee.)
  • Don’t disrespect the sea. Never throw a stone overboard as that will surely create capsizing waves.
  • A stolen piece of wood linked into the keel will cause the ship to sail faster. (Because no one wants to be caught stealing.)
Like any sea dog worth her salt, I incorporated bits of maritime superstitions and myths into all the books in my Romancing the Pirate series—some obvious and some sneakily inconspicuous—to add flavor and authenticity. They were great fun to write, too. Yes, that was a shameless plug. I am a saucy wench, after all.
About the Author

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.