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Superstitious Sailors

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"Do you not know, ma'am, that your mariner is the most superstitious soul that ever breathed?"

Sailors have a reputation as being extremely superstitious, likely as a result of the mercurial nature of the sea. Bringing a woman on deck can be considered terrible luck, as well as throwing rocks at seagulls, watching the land as you leave port, or any manner of other things.

This is usually Played for Laughs, but can be Played for Drama if someone gets hurt.

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See Nautical Folklore for the most common of these superstitions.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • One Donald Duck comic has Donald recite two different lines from "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" that accidentally make it seem like he killed an albatross. Some sailors overhear him and think he's bragging about it, leading to problems later on.
  • Popeye: In the cartoon Mutiny Ain't Nice, Popeye's crew believes that having a female aboard is bad luck, and he tries to hide Olive from them when she accidentally stows away.
  • Tintin: Captain Haddock suddenly gets cold feet before setting out to find the wreck of the Unicorn, citing that it's unlucky (having previously broken a mirror). Fortunately, the Thom(p)sons drop by to deliver an accidental Inspirational Insult.

    Fan Works 
  • The Temeraire AU fanfic All the Oceans is mostly told from the perspective of William Laurence's suspicious and increasingly superstitious crew. The titular dragon is of the aquatic flightless Sui-Riu breed instead of a flighted breed used by the Aerial Corps in canon, so the Corps and the Navy's Admiralty work out an arrangement where Laurence remains with the Navy and keeps Temeraire to help in combat and with prize-capturing, but Laurence's crew is not permitted to know of Temeraire's existence. As an aquatic breed, Temeraire is able to pull off increasingly implausible feats from the perspective of the crew that range from emitting steam to aid in the ship's escape and spontaneously sinking ships, to befriending sea serpents for help in battle and snapping an enemy ship captain in half who tried to kill Laurence. Laurence starts doing odd things like showing up at his own funeral, reading in Latin under the moonlight, and apparently calling the sea "my dear". This spawns numerous rumors that Laurence is a sea witch, has a pact with the devil, or, according to the ship chaplain, is even the Second Coming.
  • In the Assassin's Creed and Temeraire fanfiction Trade Winds, Desmond Miles finds himself in the Temeraire-verse's Age of Sail and winds up becoming a sailor, putting his One-Man Army Assassin fighting skills to good use against Frenchmen trying to board the ship he's on, and serving as a one-man boarding crew himself. His crewmates shortly become afraid of him and start rumors that he made a pact with the devil, or is himself a demon or the devil in human form. When he gets jumped on the Allegiance and defends himself against his crewmates, he threatens to kill them and throw them overboard if they jump him again, which doesn't exactly dissuade the gossips.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Master and Commander: An unpopular and borderline incompetent officer is labelled as a "jonah" by the ships crew - someone who is believed to be bad luck - when the ship is becalmed. This eventually drives him to suicide.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean:
    • Gibbs notes at the beginning of the first film that a woman, "even a miniature one," is bad luck when young Elizabeth is on the ship. Throughout the series, he frequently tells stories about sailor superstitions and lore, though the world of Pirates being what it is, these usually serve to make him Mr. Exposition.
    • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: When Jack grudgingly allows Anamaria on the ship (after promising that after the mission is over he'll give it to her in payment for the ship he stole and sunk), Gibbs reminds Jack that it's bad luck to have a woman on board. Jack points out that trying to leave her behind would be far worse.
    • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Elizabeth takes advantage of superstitions to pretend to be a ghost while stowing away on a ship.
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    Literature 
  • Gentleman Bastard: Sailors firmly believe that every ship needs women and cats on board to ensure a safe journey. When Locke and Jean set off on a voyage without either, the resulting poor morale and some truly awful luck combine to set off a mutiny, though they get accosted and recruited by pirates anyway.
  • Mentioned a couple of times in the Horatio Hornblower series.
    • In The Happy Return, a sailor tries to call a speedier wind down on the ship by sticking his clasp-knife into the mast, which is supposed to be a sure-fire method.
    • Hornblower restrains himself from contradicting Bush's conviction that gales always occur on the equinox because the day and night are the same length. Hornblower happens to think it's because gale-causing conditions simply occur at that time of year, but knows that he would be met with the polite, false agreement "accorded to children and madmen and ship's captains."
  • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: The title mariner is cursed for shooting an albatross, which sailors consider bad luck as they are considered good omens and can lead one to land. As a result, he loses his entire crew and is forced to Walk the Earth forever, with the albatross' corpse hanging from his neck.
  • In Small Gods, the sailors have a number of superstitions and ritual practices, most notably a taboo against killing dolphins. Almost all of these turn out to be justified as they are part of a system of obeisance to the vindictive Sea Queen, who is enraged by killing dolphins.
  • In Sharpe's Siege, Captain Killick takes full advantage of sailors' reputation for superstition; he invents a legend that hanging a sailor in still air is bad luck, and when he wants to make his ship look unsalvageable he has the figurehead removed because "No sailor would take away a figurehead if a ship still had life in her."
  • Sailors' superstition is a recurring motif in the Aubrey-Maturin series; sometimes it's a particular plot point (as in the above page quote), but more often simply part of the "background noise" of the characters' world (e.g., touching wood to ward of bad luck that might arise from hubris).

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Gilligan's Island, the Skipper's superstitiousness is a running trait, often putting him into conflict with the Professor. The show varies with regard to whether what he's worried about is actually real.

    Puppet Shows 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons adventure OA5 Mad Monkey vs. the Dragon Claw. The sailors of the merchant ship Victorious Morning are very superstitious. If anything that could be considered a foul omen occurs (the sun is hidden behind rainclouds, a seabird drops dead on the deck, an abandoned settlement on an island), they will be frightened and more likely to mutiny.
  • Sailors in the Forgotten Realms tend to be extremely superstitious, but given that Umberlee, the goddess of the sea, is Chaotic Evil and known for her violent mood swings, this makes some sense, as most of their superstitions are based around not doing something that might incur her wrath.

    Video Games 
  • Golden Sun: Before the crossing of the monster-infested Karagol Sea, a sailor steals the captain's lucky anchor charm and hides it in the crows' nest so he won't risk being killed. When the captain finds out, he refuses to cast off without it. Isaac and crew find it and return it to the captain, allowing the ship to leave (the sailor goes unpunished).
  • King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow: The former ferryman Hassan (he even has a pirate-style gold earring) has a rabbit's foot, but is quick to offer it to Alexander since it hasn't brought him much good luck lately. Maybe getting rid of it will bring him good luck.
  • Played for Laughs in The Longest Journey with Captain Nebeway, who invents the craziest maritime superstitions on the spot that allegedly prevent him from signing a map delivery receipt — all to conceal the fact that he cannot actually read or write.
  • Fallen London and Sunless Sea has the various Zailors being quite superstitious, and their superstitions being increasingly strange. Not following along with them will terrify them or piss them off, and utterly flaunting some of them will be the equivalent of a Moral Event Horizon because you're dooming their entire vessel. It doesn't help that some of them have a basis in whatever passes for reality down in the Neath. And in Sunless Skies, new superstitions are born to replace the ones left behind on Earth, which annoys the hell out of most captains.
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    Web Comics 
  • Erfworld: Units with the Seafarer special are extremely superstitious, to the point that they won't even attack a feral animal out of fear that it will curse them. Forecastle, the only non-sailor on the ship, is keelhauled for accidentally taming the animal in question; in theory anyone could have done it, but he was the only one who did. This animal ends up saving the entire fleet due to its Luck Manipulation Mechanic and the insights this gives into the enemy strategy.
  • Girl Genius: The novels mention that Klaus Wulfenbach has put this to use. Instead of trying to get rid of superstition among his navy, he had mad social scientists alter the superstitions a bit. Anything considered "bad luck" is something that is actually genuinely bad; leaving a rope unfastened on deck, carrying an open flame too close to the gas bag, so on. The things deemed "good luck" are statistically improbable but ultimately irrelevant coincidences like two ships finishing their preparations at the exact same time. The end result is that the navy has exceptionally high morale combined with combat readiness.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Looney Tunes short "Hare We Go", Bugs Bunny accompanies Christopher Columbus on his first voyage, which angers his crew because they consider rabbits on board to be bad luck.
  • The Octonauts: Kwazii is a former pirate who always believes that whatever strange phenomenon the Octonauts are facing is caused by some kind of ghost or supernatural sea monster.

    Real Life 
  • Real Life is full of sailors' superstitions. "Red sky at night, sailors' delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning" is perhaps the most famous. Other superstitions include not whistling while on board a ship, and not allowing women on board.

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