Fishing communities are particularly notable for the pervasive influence of superstitions. Yet many fishermen, when asked if they are superstitious, would have replied "No, but I know someone who is!" Today, the reply is usually a little different: "Fishermen are not as superstitious as they used to be". It may be that the degree of economic and personal risk has been lessened, hence there is no need for the superstitious beliefs and practices that were common in earlier times. There are many questions that arise here: What is a superstition? Why do people believe and practice superstitions? What are the functions (psychological, personal/social, etc) of superstitions? What research has been undertaken in this field? And so on. But before we can explore some of these issues, we need to look at the range and nature of superstitions. Hence, we would be most grateful for details of any superstitions that people may be willing to send us.
To simplify matters, we will begin by looking at superstitions under two headings: taboos and charms.
Fishermen's taboos are legion:
There are a whole range of prohibitions, including the following:
The fisherman's wife would not do her washing on sailing day for fear of "washing her man away";
Sounds and words:
Ships would not sail on Fridays;
Some fishermen would not sail if they passed a nun, rook or a cat on the way to their vessel;
Some fishermen would not sail if they saw a rat come ashore off their vessel - assuming that the rat knew something they didn't!
Not stirring tea with a knife or fork
Not crossing knives on the galley table
Not laying a broom on top of of the nets.
Fishes bones were not burnt; egg shells were broken into tiny pieces (to stop witches sailing in them);
Clergy (known to fishermen as "sky-pilots") were generally not welcomed onto vessels, although there were some notable exceptions.
Cutting bread and then turning the loaf upside down. and upturning a hatch cover or sleeping on the stomach, were actions said to anticipate the boat turning over and sinking.
There was much concern to avoid bad luck by not taking money to sea (any cash found in the pockets was thrown into the sea before the ship sailed). One example of this is taken from the J J Poggie, Jr, et al, Taboos Among Fishermen in Southern New England, p260; see bibliography for full details):
"We've only got (two boxes of fish) ; brought tenpence-hapeny out with us, but yer don't catch us at it again""
"Take my advice, mate", replied the skipper of the TIGER, "and do as I do, spend up before yer come out, and then they'll be done with."
"Spend em or not spend em, yer don't catch me bringing any more out" replied the skipper of the DOLPHIN."
Other taboos included not whistling (for fear of whistling up a wind); not mentioning pigs, rats parsons, rabbits, elephants or monkeys.
When the fishing was poor it was sometimes thought to be the fault of an unlucky object on board such as a wooden spoon or scoop (known as a "scutcher")
Losing a hat overboard signified a long trip;
taking a watch to sea signified bad luck;
Good luck charms abound, and may be objects, language or ritual behaviour.
The wearing of an ear-ring is said to improve the eyesight. (A fisherman in the 1970s told me that the ear-ring was traditionally gold, and just sufficient to pay for a respectable burial should he die at sea).
Some fishermen carry good luck charms with them, such as pieces of fur.
One particularly sought-after charm was the caul taken from a new-born baby.
Among the less pleasant charms was the belief that it was good luck to have rats on board.
Some counteracting measures could be relied upon, such as saying the right word or phrase. an example here is the phrase "cold iron", which was said in reply to words like "Whyte" or "pig".
When the nets were shot some skippers would call out "In the name of the Lord!"
For some bad omens salt was thrown, sprinkled or just kept in the fisherman's possession.
Some towns and areas had their own rituals at the commencement of the fishing season, as the following quote highlights:
"Some of the fishermen of Buckie on Wednesday last dressed a cooper in a flannel shirt,with burs stuck all over it, and in this condition he was carried in procession through the town in a hand-barrow. This was done to bring better luck to the fishing. In some of the fishing towns on the north-east coast of Scotland a mode of securing luck in the herring fishery is to 'draw blood', an act which must be performed on the first day of the year." (Toilers of the Deep, 1888, p83)
In the realm of medicine among fishermen (especially during the 19th century) superstition embodied a host of factors that include folk medicine, experience, hearsay and psychology. Although a particular form of treatment may have been totally inappropriate from a medical point of view, it may nevertheless have had positive psychological benefits - and in this sense it could be viewed as a charm. A few examples will suffice:
An eel was thought to cure fever; and, in Ulster and north-east Scotland,a fresh eel-skin was said to cure cramp.
Rheumatism was treated by rubbing the affected limb with red herrings (assuming that the hand of a drowned man was not available!).
Toothache was was thought to be got rid of by carrying about a piece of dogfish (which has been returned to the sea alive).
Deafness was said to be cured by the powder of eel's liver. (The author would like to give this remedy a try!)
Inevitably, there has always been the suspicion that some superstitions were simply used to avoid sailing - such as the Fleetwood fisherman who refused to sail at Christmas because no oranges or nuts had been put on board, thereby infringing his own superstitious belief! Certainly there are elements of triviality, but some of the superstitious practices relative to fishing are of great significance for the participants, and they may be related to the degree of risk faced at sea. Superstitions also provide a sense of control over the unpredictable, and what may appear to be irrational events of life. They also give the participants the feeling that they can bargain to some extent with the deity, hence some superstitious practices, like throwing coins into the sea, have a very ancient lineage.