seafaring customs and beliefs

seafaring customs and beliefs
   Two deep-sea customs have been reported on a regular basis and are thus well known. The first is usually called 'burying the dead horse' but in the following account, written by an emigrant on the Northumberland in 1874, it is 'burning':
   We having been a month at sea, they 'burnt the dead horse' tonight. This is a usual custom, these being the particulars. All the ship's company have a month's salary in advance, that is they get a draft payable three days after the ship has sailed, which they leave at home in old England. Therefore they work the first month on board shop and are earning no money, so when the month is up they 'burn the dead horse' thereby meaning that they have commenced afresh and now are earning money. The ceremony took place about 7.30pm. An effigy as near the form of a horse is made out of sailcloth etc., with a tar barrel full of combustibles for its body, & is mounted on a carriage with a sailor as jockey & hauled around the decks, with songs. Then an auctioneer is appointed & puts it up for auction, giving its pedigree etc. The highest bidder has it or rather has to make his bid good, which money is made up by general collection. This money which amounts to several pounds is divided amongst the sailors. After this they hauled the horse up to the yard arm & set fire to him, & then cut him adrift. On the whole the performance was very amusing & caused considerable excitement. (Simon Braydon and Robert Song-hurst (eds.), The Diary of Joseph Sams (1982), 34)
   A very similar account is given, of a voyage from London to Melbourne about 1897, in Folk-Lore 8 (1897), 281-4, with the addition of the text and tune of the song 'Poor Old Horse', sung on the occasion. The idea of doing work already paid for being a 'dead horse' is not simply a seaman's term, being reported with similar meaning from various parts of the country and in several trades (Joseph Wright, EDD II, 1900: 38).
   The ceremony of 'crossing the line' is carried out on crossing the equator, on anyone in the ship's crew who has not previously done so. One sailor dresses as Neptune and is let over the side so that he may make a grand show of coming on board, where he is greeted with respect and is welcomed by the captain. Various ceremonies and speeches are performed, but the key part of the custom is carried out on any novices. One by one they are brought forward, blindfolded and with hands tied, and seated on a board. Sometimes a doctor examines them, with humorous dialogue, but invariably the main part is the shaving. After being daubed with tar, treacle, or anything else to hand, their face is scraped with a piece of rusty iron, and they are finally dumped into a sail or tub of water. The precise details changed from ship to ship, but the basic outline was very similar, and a great deal of horseplay took place. Modern cruise liner crews still perform the ceremony on passengers, although the rough handling is obviously toned down on these occasions. Good accounts can be found in Simon Braydon and Robert Songhurst (eds.), The Diary of Joseph Sams (1982), 30-1; Frederick Pease Harlow, The Making of a Sailor (1928), 176-86; Hone, 1827: ii. 697-8. Hone's Table-Book (1827: 315-16) contains an interesting parallel from the Greenland whale fishery, enacted on May Day 1824 on board the ship Neptune, from London. The seamen had apparently prepared for the event, before sailing, by acquiring coloured ribbons, with which to decorate their garland. The basis of the garland was a cask hoop, covered with ribbons, set on a pole, about four feet high. A model of the ship, prepared by the ship's carpenter was fixed on top like a weather vane. What occurred on May Day was an almost exact replica of the crossing the line ceremony, with Neptune addressing the captain, and the comic shaving of any newcomers in the crew.
   There are countless superstitions and beliefs attributed to seamen, but only a sample can be given. In the days of sail, the wind was clearly both a potential ally and feared enemy, and a number of strategies were available for summoning a wind, although few for getting rid of it. *Whistling and the untying of magical * knots are generally known, but other ways include the whipping of the ship's boys, which is reported in 1620 and 1811, cutting a pig's throat, and buying wind with coins (FLS News 21 (1995), 15-16). Seamen were amongst those who believed it dangerous to sleep in the light of the *moon, which was still being reported well into the 20th century (FLS News 20 (1994), 7).
   Sailors had a particular antipathy to sharks, and when they caught one they delighted in treating it with more than ordinary savagery, in revenge for colleagues lost at sea. A shark following a ship was regarded as unlucky, perhaps because it was thought that they could 'smell' a sickness on board and thus seemed to be waiting for a death (FLS News 20 (1994) 6-7). Many sailors were particularly prone to seeing omens in any occurrence out of the ordinary. The ship's cat being lost overboard, birds alighting on the rigging or following the ship (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 1; FLS News 11 (1990), 15-16; 24 (1996), 7-8), and the curious belief reported in The Times (2 Dec. 1966) that no bird has ever been known to alight on the deck or rigging of HMS Victory.
   See also *coins, *Davy Jones, *ears, *fishing industry, *keys, *whistling.
   See series of articles by A. W. Smith, and others, in FLS News 12 (1991), onwards.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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