August 25, 2013

Throw the Pig Overboard

My brother and father like to sail, but I'm definitely a landlubber. Sometimes I just get seasick riding the bus, never mind actually being out on the water.

Maybe that's why I don't write too much about New England's rich maritime folklore, but the following piece of nautical nonsense was so interesting I couldn't ignore it. It's from Robert Cahill's 1990 book Olde New England's Strange Superstitions.

Cahill writes that the Puritans who settled in New England did not approve of using compasses on ships. What power could possibly make a metal needle move except for Satan, their arch-enemy? In 1635, a ship called Angel Gabriel, which navigated by compass, was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Maine. Most of the passengers and crew were lost at sea. Many other ships without compasses in the same fleet reached shore safely, so the Puritans felt Satan had a hand in the Angel Gabriel's destruction. Served them right for using a compass!

Cahill then goes on to say that many ships coming from England used pigs as a rudimentary navigation system. That's right, pigs. Livestock was often carried on ships to supply food for the lengthy crossing, but in addition to providing bacon pigs had an additional use. Sailors believed that pigs innately knew where the closest land was, even if they couldn't see it. If a ship was lost at sea the crew would throw one of the pigs overboard and watch to see which direction it was swimming. The helmsman would then steer the ship in the same direction.

Somehow following a swimming pig was not considered Satanic, while following a magnetic needle was. I'm glad we live in a more enlightened age, and I'm sure any pig making a trans-Atlantic crossing today feels the same way.

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