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Superstitious Sailors

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Some rules are just plain bananas.

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

Sailors have long had a reputation for being extremely superstitious, likely due to the mercurial nature of life at sea: When you're completely surrounded by empty ocean, with the ship as your only source of supply and shelter, a single bad circumstance can easily turn catastrophic (an unexpected storm, an outbreak of disease, spoiled provisions, the list is extensive). This unease would have been especially prevalent during the Age of Sail, when trans-oceanic voyages became increasingly common as a need to connect far-flung colonial territories, but could still last for weeks or months on end. As a result, any practices thought to bring good luck and/or avoid misfortune would find easy acceptance. 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.

See Nautical Folklore for the most common of these superstitions.


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    Comic Books 
  • De Cape et de Crocs:
    • The pirate crew are prone to panicking at the drop of a hat. Some make sense (the sighting of the Flying Dutchman pulled by the Kraken) actually the heroes aboard a Ghost Ship impaled by a huge fish and with a giant octopus serving as Motivation on a Stick, some are more esoteric (a rabbit), and some outright parodic (someone mentioning metaphysics).
    • Armand catches an albatross and wants to cook it. Kader immediately tells him to let it go before he brings bad luck to them.
  • 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 (considered a good omen). Some sailors overhear him and think he's bragging about it, leading to problems later on.
  • 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.
  • In the French comic Bizu, Breton sailors are quite superstitious and believe bringing a rabbit on board is extreme bad luck. They even refuse to pronounce the word, and calls any rabbit a "cyclist" instead.

    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 
  • The Vikings: The Norsemen avoid foggy parts of the sea, calling them "Poisoned Sea". They think it's supernatural and will lead them to the Limbo, but a more pragmatic and logical reason is that they can get lost and crash on reef. Until they are in possession of a proto-compass, they can't plan any large scale invasion of England because the English would be able to stop them on the non-foggy maritime roads they know very well.
  • Master and Commander: Mr. Hollom, an unpopular and overly hesitant officer, is labelled as a "Jonah" - someone who is believed to be bad luck - by the ships crew. The Acheron, the ship they are pursuing, keeps getting the drop on them, usually on Hollom's watch. Other mishaps also occur while he is around, and when the ship is becalmed, the crew's hostility toward him begins bubbling to the surface to the point that he picks up and cannonball and throws himself overboard. And then at his memorial service, the wind picks up again.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean:
    • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl:
      • Gibbs notes at the beginning 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.
      • 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.

  • The titular character of The Adventures Of Captain Wrongel is one of these to an extent, wholeheartedly believing in the superstition that the name of a ship will foretell how it handles on the water. As such, he's horrified when a couple of the letters making up the original name of his yacht, the Victory (Pobeda in Russian), falls off, renaming it the Trouble (Beda), and the book seemingly goes on to prove that he was correct in this assumption, although the Captain is actually The M√ľnchausen.
  • Agatha H. and the Voice of the Castle: Baron Wulfenbach realized that trying to get the crews of his airships to not be superstitious was an exercise in futility, so he instead created and spread his own. For some reason, the sailors are more likely to listen when told that leaving out tools that aren't being used instead of stowing them properly is bad luck rather than just being a tripping and safety hazard.
  • 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 Kingdom and the Crown: In the second book, Mordechai is to sail to Rome, but the rituals and soothsayer readings the crew insist on performing before setting out, and their propensity for viewing any mishap, unusual occurrence or bad reading as a omen of impending doom nearly drive him insane.
  • 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 
  • Alta Mar: An albatross crashing into the captain's cabin is enough to make him want to call off the voyage.
  • 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.
  • Outlander: On the voyage to Jamaica, Claire expresses skepticism and even disdain towards the numerous superstitions held by the crew (not unexpected for a 20th century woman living in the 18th century). The ship's captain - while sympathetic to her feelings and even sharing them to a degree - makes it clear that what they believe matters far less than what the crew believes: Even if it seems illogical, he firmly supports anything that will put the crew's spirits at ease and keep things running smoothly.
  • SeaQuest DSV: Chief Crocker is the sub's resident old salt, keeper of nautical lore and various superstitions, most notably demonstrated in "Knight of Shadows", when he tasks himself with warding off evil entities.
    Lucas: What's that?
    Crocker: (sprinkling something in a doorway) It's salt, it keeps the devil from the door.
    Lucas: Is that why you spit?
    Crocker: No, sailors spit for good luck.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Muppet Treasure Island: Dr. Livesey (Bunson Honeydew) puts together a plan to scare the pirates on account of his scientific fact about pirates being superstitious by having Mr. Arrow (Sam the Eagle), who the crew believe to be dead, pretend to be a ghost.
    Sam: Boogie, boogie, boogie. I am the ghost of Samuel Arrow.
    Sam: BOOGIE!
    [cue all the pirates jumping ship]

    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.
  • The sailors of Talislanta have a superstitous dread of the open seas. As a result, ships tend to hug the coast. Then again, considering how many hazzards there are on the open waters, their fear is not entirely unfounded.

    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.

    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.
  • Popeye: In the cartoon "Mutiny Ain't Nice", Popeye's crew believes that having a woman aboard is bad luck, and he tries to hide Olive from them when she accidentally stows away.

    Real Life 
  • Real Life is full of sailors' superstitions. Superstitions include not whistling while on board a ship, and not allowing women on board. And when sailors from different seafaring cultures started coming into contact with each other, they tended to pick up on each other's superstitions.
  • One explanation for the ban on bananas was that prior to dependable refrigeration techniques, bananas would rot quickly on the way to Europe from the Caribbean and bring all manner of pests and vermin on a ship.