April 13, 2014

Don't Be A Jonah: Bad Luck On Ships and Boats

I am not a sailor.

My brother loves to sail. My father loves to sail. I come from a long line of Nova Scotia fishermen, but somehow I didn't get the sailing gene. Instead I got the "I get seasick even riding a bus" gene. Maybe I inherited that one from my mother's side.

I'm still interested in nautical lore, even if I'm not a sailor. There is quite a bit of it in New England, naturally, and much of it concerns what might bring bad luck to a ship.

A person or thing that brings bad luck to a ship is called a "Jonah." The term of course comes from the Biblical prophet of the same name. Jonah is best remembered for being swallowed by a whale, but that's only part of his story, which goes something like this: Jonah was commanded by God to go preach in the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but refused to go. Instead he boarded a ship sailing in the opposite direction. He wanted to put as much mileage between himself and Nineveh as possible. God wasn't buying it, though, and sent a terrible storm which threatened to sink the ship. The sailors on board determined that Jonah was to blame for the bad weather and tossed him overboard. The storm abated and the ship reached its destination safely. (Jonah meanwhile was swallowed by a whale and eventually went to Nineveh).

"Sorry Jonah, but you gotta go!"
Similar stories appear throughout European literature and folklore. For example, in Shakespeare's play Pericles, the hero's wife dies in childbirth while at sea. A huge storm threatens to sink the ship, but the sailors calm it by throwing her body into the ocean. Don't be sad - since Pericles is one of Shakespeare's late romances there's still a happy ending. In folklore, mermaids often cause storms to delay or sink ships carrying handsome sailors they want to marry. The storm can only be stopped if the sailor throws himself overboard into the mermaid's waiting arms.

So apparently if you're on a ship carrying a reluctant prophet, the corpse of someone who died in childbirth, or a handsome sailor you will experience bad weather. If it's carrying all three just swim back to shore right away!

Here in New England, the following were considered bad luck:

  • A man carrying a black valise on board will bring bad luck and should be shunned.
  • Anyone carrying an umbrella on board brings bad luck.
  • It is unlucky to pound nails on a ship on Sunday.
  • Hawks, owls and crows will bring bad luck it they land on a ship.
  • Dropping the hatch into the hold is bad luck.
  • Never watch a ship sail out of sight, because it's the last time you'll see it.

Some men were also just considered naturally unlucky. A new crew member on a fishing boat will be blamed and labeled a Jonah if the boat brings in a small catch on his first trip. Stories are told of men who hexed three ships in a row with their bad luck. Time to pursue a new profession!

All is not grim, though, and there is light at the end of the voyage. Here are some things that bring good luck:

  • Dropping a cake of ice overboard before leaving port
  • Bees or small birds bring good luck if they land on the ship.
  • A horseshoe nailed into the mast will protect the ship from witches.

Now I just need something to prevent motion sickness on the MBTA bus!

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