SINCE THE EARLY DAYS OF PIRATES, FISHERMEN AND SAILORS, sea voyages required not only skill and bravery but also the ability to balance the fine line between faith and fate.
Humans have often tried to make sense of the unknown for comfort, so it’s only natural that seafarers concocted rituals to channel good luck for safe navigation or to ward off bad luck for disasters at sea. From urban legends and folklore to old wives tales and traditions, superstitions are deeply engrained into human existence.
Whether you’re superstitious or not, the following legends and lore tell tales of perilous life at sea while proving that humans are deeply connected to the mysteries of the ocean.
Women on the Water
While it’s true that strong women are often considered a threat to society, in early centuries, they were thought to distract sailors and bring bad luck aboard. Women weren’t allowed on the crew, but ironically, naked women brought good luck to sea. That’s why you see so many bare-breasted figureheads of majestic women on the bow of old ships. They were known to guide the way and protect the men — but only if they were unclothed.
Don’t Set Sail on Fridays
Some say it’s unlucky to start a journey on Fridays, because Jesus Christ was crucified on that day of the week. Others believe it could fall on the notoriously unlucky Friday the 13th. Some even say it was bad luck to sail on Thursdays, because it was Thor’s Day, the Greek God of Storms. Nowadays, Fridays are the most popular day to start a vacation, unless foul weather is in the forecast. Can’t get struck by the sea gods!
Renaming a Ship
You better choose wisely when thinking of boat names, because bad luck will follow those who rename a ship without permission. Legends say if you change the name without consulting the God of the Sea, Poseidon, you will be cursed. You can, however, perform a ceremony to amend this. Poseidon keeps a scroll of all ships that cross his seas called the Ledger of the Deep, so you must call on him with two ceremonies: one name purging and one renaming. You basically just have to let him know you’re changing the name, and everything will be fine. People all over the world still perform these ceremonies.
No Bananas Onboard
This superstition seems a bit odd, but its origins actually make sense. From mechanical failures and mysterious illnesses to sudden changes in weather, bananas were often blamed when something went awry. It roots back to the Caribbean trade of the 1700s when wooden boats struggled to deliver fruit quickly before it spoiled. Apparently, the oil from bananas also acts as a natural fish repellent and becomes a nightmare for fishermen. Some present-day fishing boats still ban them. And of course, there’s always the famous “slipped on a banana peel” scenario — which actually happened on many occasions.
Place a Coin Under the Mast
According to ancient Greek beliefs, souls of the dead on their way to Elysium were taken across the river by Charon the Ferryman and charged one small coin for the journey. Anyone without the toll was left behind. Ancient Greeks adopted the custom of placing a coin in the hand or mouth of the dead to pay their fee to Charon for a safe passage to the other side. For the ultimate protection, shipbuilders later honored this practice by putting a coin beneath the hull of the mainmast before launching.
LEGENDS OF MYSTERY & MYTH
As mysterious mistresses of the sea, mermaids are interesting folklore, because the stories of their origins vary around the world. You may envision a beautiful woman with green hair and sparkly scales seductively calling you into the deep waters — and that is what many sailors thought they saw while losing their mind out at sea for months at a time.
In Greek mythology, mermaids were a symbol of Aphrodite, (Goddess of Love, Beauty and Desire) and known to mankind as the source of all biological yearnings, tempting the weak spirit. In European folklore, a mermaid could become human and acquire a soul if she married and conceived with a mortal. Most legends portray mermaids as soulless temptresses relating back to the historic taboo of women on the water. It’s been said that manatees rising from the sea and fluttering their alluring fins were the illusion that caused many of these sightings. However, mermaids are good luck in many cultures, and some regions still allege to have modern-day encounters.
The Loch Ness Monster
Hiding out below the deep waters of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, this sea monster is credited with some of the most highly reported sightings and press coverage. Legends say the first detection of this giant creature dwelling in the loch date back to 500 A.D. In 1933, the alleged monster went global when a local newspaper published the claims of a few people spotting what became know as Loch Ness Monster. Suddenly, similar reports of a 30-foot-long creature with a long neck and snake-like head came pouring in from the public. In 2012, an image by photographer George Edwards was hailed as one of the best ever taken of the alleged creature, but he later admitted it was fake. Even so, “Nessie” remains a worldwide sensation.
In 350 B.C., Plato wrote about a far-off land called Atlantis in his famous work, Timaeus. The giant land was located somewhere west of the Rock of Gibraltar and opposite of Africa’s northern coast near present-day Morocco. It was struck by an earthquake, destroyed by the sea’s upheaval and sunk to the bottom where it thrived as an underwater city. Over centuries, many deep-sea divers and seafarers claimed to find evidence of sunken walls, stone pillars, giant arches and roads from the mystical land. Maybe they are fragmented shipwreck parts scattered around, or just maybe they are remains of a deserted underwater island.
The Bermuda Triangle
Also known as “Devil’s Triangle,” this region is located off the coast of Florida between Bermuda and the Greater Antilles and is notorious for ships and aircrafts mysteriously vanishing without a trace. More than 50 ships and 20 airplanes have disappeared here, and authorities receive numerous reports of strange occurrences such as missing rescue crews and ships that disappear without sending distress signals.
The USS Cyclops naval ship vanished in 1918 with no survivors or trace of the wreck. Scientists believe this area faces unique geographic conditions such as methane gas excreting bacteria below the seabed, triggering the release of hazardous gas. This could explain the “mysterious fog” that caused pilots and sea captains to meet their untimely fate. But the mystery remains — how does a giant 542-foot-long Navy ship completely disappear? The world may never know.