Sea Phantoms and Superstitions

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Sea Phantoms and Superstitions

Sailors in general are often superstitious, as are fishermen and others who live by deep bodies of water. The old songs of the outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland are full of wizardry, with figures in some of the old sea shanties as well. The novelist Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), who understood sailors as few others have, testified repeatedly to their firm belief in the supernatural.

He is the not only author who has dealt with this subject: Coleridge also touched on the matter in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Turning from literature to painting, Scottish master David Scott, in a memorable canvas now in the seaport town of Leith, Scotland, showed Vasco de Gama and his henchmen gazing thunderstruck at an apparition rising from the waves.

It is scarcely surprising that the supernatural should be a preoccupation of sailors, as they have lived until this century with the constant possibility of sudden death.

In Cornwall, England, so rich in romantic associations of all sorts, quite a number of stories concerning marine specters have been handed down from generation to generation and are still remembered.

One of these stories relates how, on a winter's evening when a fierce gale was raging around the Cornish headlands, a fisherman chanced to see a ship in distress. The man called on some of his friends to aid him in the rescue. In a few minutes, a row boat had been manned, for Cornish fisherfolk are accustomed to being on the water in all weather despite the danger of drowning. Very soon the rescuers were almost within earshot of the distressed vessel and could see her name clearly on the stern. They planned to jump on board, their idea being that if the ship had a skillful pilot acquainted with the coast's dangers, the ship might be steered safely into Falmouth harbour. However, just as one of the fishermen stood up in the prow of the boat intending to throw a rope, the great vessel looming before him disappeared from sight.

The ship could not have sunk, for some relics would certainly have survived. Fearing that the devil had conjured up a phantom to induce them to put out to sea, the rowers put retreated speedily, and pulled for home. One and all, they were more afraid of the devil's machinations than of the more genuine perils they were encountering.

Another Cornish fishing tradition is associated with the village of Sennen Cove. This place is situated at the head of a bay flanked by two capes. Sometimes a band of misty vapor stretches across the bay, obscuring the villagers' outlook on the sea. Whenever this occurs, the fisherfolk believe that it warns them not to put out in their boats. At one time, Sennen Cove numbered among its inhabitants a group of skeptical fishermen who laughed at this superstition. Accordingly, when the warning band of vapor next made its appearance, they sailed off singing gaily. But their boat never returned, their fate remained a mystery, and they strengthened rather than weakened the belief they had ridiculed.

Scotland has stories of phantom ships. Near Ballachulish, on the west coast of Argyllshire, there is a rocky island on which the Macdonalds of Glencoe used to bury their honored dead. The tradition of the district tells that once, some hundreds of years ago, a skiff bearing a beloved chieftain's corpse to this place foundered before reaching its destination. For the Macdonalds, it was a horrible catastrophe that a leader of their clan should be denied a resting place beside his ancestors. Soon the accident came to seem supernatural, for invariably, just before any misfortune overtook the Macdonald tribe, the wrecked skiff was seen drifting about the sea, its dead oarsman clinging to it, and a coffin floating in its wake. This weird vision appeared only too often, and it was said that on the eve of the massacre of Glencoe, the specter boat bore a crew of ghostly female mourners who sang a loud coronach.

Another Scottish Highland story claims that a large ship, wrecked off the coast of Ross at the time of the first Celts voyages to Canada, still rises occasionally from the waves and, after sailing for a few minutes, suddenly lurches and sinks beneath the ocean. Dwellers by the shores of the Solway tell how a certain craft, which went down there while conveying a happy bridal party towards Stranraer, is frequently seen sailing at full speed before the gale, the bride and bridegroom clinging to the rigging as though in terror of immediate death by drowning.

Nor is this the only Solway phantom, for that treacherous seaway once witnessed the foundering of two Scandinavian pirate vessels, which are said to rise periodically from the water, the crew of each calling for mercy.

Religion has played a prominent part in some stories of specter ships. At Boulogne, France, for example, there is a tradition to the effect that on one occasion in the Middle Ages, the townspeople wanted to build a church, for they were without any public place of worship. They were anxious to choose a site God would approve, but found it difficult to come to a decision, as everyone concerned suggested a different place.

Finally, a group assembled on the beach, intending to offer up a prayer for a solution to the problem. While they were thus engaged, they happened to look out to sea, where to their astonishment a vessel was seen sailing toward them, the sacred Virgin herself on board. Standing in the bow, she pointed in a certain direction, and the devout people concluded that their petition had been answered. The mysterious phantom vanished as quickly as it had come.

Another French specter ship, however, used to remain in sight for longer periods. The vessel was manned by a crew of demons and great dogsthe perjured souls of men who had been guilty of fearful crimes. Yet the pious knew that they had little to fear, the priests having told them that the repetition of a paternoster would guard against the hideous vision.

Somewhat similar to this story is one associated with Venice, where one stormy evening about the middle of the fourteenth century, a fisherman was requested to row three saints to a neighboring village on the Adriatic. After rowing for a while, he suddenly stopped as though petrified, a galley filled with Saracens having risen beside his boat. The oarsman wanted to start back, but his godly passengers calmed him, and while they sang an Ave Maria the ominous galley was submerged by the waves. The fisherman rowed on and reached his haven. The three saints rewarded him with a present of a gold ring. That ring figures in the old coat-of-arms of the Venetian Republic.

There are legends of the sea in most countries. In Japan, there are tales of phantom junks, distinctive Chinese ships. The Chinese used to paint a pair of great eyes on the prow of each craft to detect any monsters prowling afloat. On the coasts of the United States, there are traditions of spectral vessels. Kindred stories are known in the Ionian Islands, and the folklore of the Shetlands has a wealth of such tales. Around the coast of Denmark and the fiords of Norway, many a phantom vessel was supposed to hover as well.

It was on the North Sea that the most famous of all supernatural ships was said to sail, the ship known as The Flying Dutchman.

The story goes that a sailor who had loved a woman but wronged her, left her to languish, and put forth on the high seas, where he committed many flagrant acts of piracy. But the fates condemned him to sail wearily and everlastingly from shore to shore. He was to endure this punishment until he could win the staunch affection of a virtuous woman and prove faithful to her.

The guilty man longed to walk solid ground once more, but whenever he dared to put in to port to try to win the woman who might be able to save him, the devil drove him on board ship again, and his interminable voyage commenced again.

Century after century passed in this way, the ill-fated vessel gradually becoming familiar to all who sailed the North Sea or lived by its shores. The legend did not disappear with a more skeptical age, for Richard Wagner evolved a drama from the legend, and his powerful musiccharged so abundantly with the weirdness, mystery, and glamour of the surging ocean vividly evokes the Dutchman's ship driving before a gale, the criminal sitting terrified and hopeless at his useless helm.

Sea Monsters

Among persistent legends of the sea is the belief in great monsters of the deep. The sea serpent has been reported since earliest times. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (ca. 23-79C.E.) described in his Naturalis Historia how a Greek squadron on a voyage for Alexander the Great saw a shoal of sea serpents, each thirty feet long, in the Persian Gulf.

Much more terrifying is the great sea serpent two hundred feet long and twenty feet broad cited by Olaus Magnus in his History of Northern People in 1555. It would be a mistake to assume that all reports of great sea serpents belong to the fabulous past or represent confused accounts of known sea creatures, like whales or giant squids. Sea serpents continued to be reported into modern times, although some accounts would indicate creatures nearer to a plesiosaurus than a serpent. This is understandable, as the prehistoric plesiosaurus had a long neck which might appear to look like a serpent. One of the most celebrated of such creatures is the famed Loch Ness Monster of Scotland.

More legendary are the ancient accounts of a gigantic sea creature named the Kraken. Bishop Eric Pontoppidan discussed the Kraken in his Natural History of Norway (1751) and concluded that it was an enormous polyp (octopus) or starfish. It is probable that it was one of the cephalopods popularly known as cuttlefish.

Less ominous are the stories of mermaids, around whom many strange myths have grown. It is generally supposed that mermaid stories grew up around the dugong or sea-cow, which superficially resembles a human form. However, there are early accounts of mermaids that do not seem to fit this description. In an old history of the Netherlands, there is the following account of a sea-woman of Harlem in the fifteenth century:

"At that time there was a great tempest at sea, with exceeding high tides, the which did drowne many villages in Friseland and Holland; by which tempest there came a sea-woman swimming in the Zuyderzee betwixt the towns of Campen and Edam, the which passing by the Purmeric, entered into the straight of a broken dyke in the Purmermer, where she remained a long time, and could not find the hole by which she entered, for that the breach had been stopped after that the tempest had ceased.

"Some country women and their servants, who did dayly pass the Pourmery, to milk their kine in the next pastures, did often see this woman swimming on the water, thereof at the first they were much afraid; but in the end being accustomed to see it very often, they viewed it neerer, and at last they resolved to take it if they could. Having discovered it they rowed towards it, and drew it out of the water by force, carrying it in one of their barkes unto the towne of Edam.

"When she had been well washed and cleansed from the seamoss which was grown about her, she was like unto another woman; she was appareled, and began to accustome herself to ordinary meats like unto any other, yet she sought still means to escape, and to get into the water, but she was straightly guarded.

"They came from farrre to see her. Those of Harlem made great sute to them of Edam to have this woman by reason of the strangenesse thereof. In the end they obtained her, where she did learn to spin, and lived many years (some say fifteen), and for the reverance which she bare unto the signe of the crosse whereunto she had beene accustomed, she was buried in the church-yarde. Many persons worthy of credit have justified in their writings that they had seene her in the said towne of Harlem."

A strange superstition of seafaring life related to the caul, a thin membrane found around the head of some new-born babies. A caul was considered a good omen for the child, and also for anyone who acquired it. Many seamen considered a caul to be a powerful lucky charm against shipwrecks or death from drowning. There are many allusions to the occult power of the caul by early writers, and in Ben Jonson's play The Alchemists (act I, section 2), the character Face says to Dapper: "Ye were born with a Cawl o' your head."

Belief in the power of the caul persisted even into the late nineteenth century, when advertisements relating to the sale of a caul frequently appeared in British newspapers. As much as fifteen, twenty, or even thirty guineas were asked by sellers. In the Western Daily News of Plymouth (February 9, 1867) a notice offered mariners a child's caul for five guineas. The Times (May 8, 1848) offered a caul for six guineas and described it as "having been afloat with its last owner forty years, through all the perils of a seaman's life, and the owner died at last in his bed, at the place of his birth."

Great stress was laid on the soundness of the article, thus in the Times (February 17, 1813) an advertisement stated, "A child's caul in a perfect state for sale."

The notion that a child's caul could prevent drowning prevailed in France as well as in England. It was alluded to in a rondeau by Claude de Malleville (born 1597).

The superstition concerning the caul is from remote antiquity and was prevalent in the days of the Roman empire. Ælius Lampridius in his life of Antonine (surnamed Diadumeninus) stated that paidumeninus was so called from having been brought into the world with a band of membrane around his forehead in the shape of a diadem, and that he enjoyed perpetual happiness from this circumstance. Pagan midwives had no scruples about selling cauls, and their best market was the Forum, where they got high prices from lawyers. Many of the councils of the early Christian Church denounced the superstition. St. John Chrysostom frequently inveighed against it in his homilies.

"Il est né coiffé," is a well-known French expression describing a lucky man, and indicating that he was born with a caul.

It was believed that so long as the child from whom the caul had been taken enjoyed good health, the caul experienced the same and was dry, flexible, and healthy, but when the caul-born person suffered from any sickness, the membrane also underwent a change, either becoming totally crisp or regaining its former flexibility, according to whether the person died or recovered. Often these cauls became heirlooms, handed down from father to son (especially if it had been born in the family), and were regarded by their owners with as much superstition as if the caul-born person were still living. (Of course, the caul, a relatively unusual birth event, meant different things in different cultures. In Poland, for example, a child born with a caul was a potential vampire and the caul had to be treated precisely to prevent that fate.)

(See monsters )


Bassett, F. S. Legends and Traditions of the Sea and Sailors. Chicago & New York: Belford, Clarke, 1886.

Benwell, G., and A. Waugh. The Sea Enchantress: The Tale of the Mermaid and Her Kin. London: Hutchinson, 1961.

Clark, Jerome. Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Phenomena. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Gibson, John. Monsters of the Sea: Legendary and Authentic. London: T. Nelson & Sons, 1887.

Gould, Rupert T. The Case for the Sea-Serpent. London: Philip Allan, 1930. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1969.

Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968.

Jones, William. Credulities Past and Present. London: Chatto & Windus, 1880. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1967.

Rappoport, Angelo. Superstitions of Sailors. London: Stanley Paul, 1928. Reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Gryphon Books, 1971.