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Myth / Nautical Folklore

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Strange truths are told of the waves and what lies beneath. The lies are even stranger.

Sailors from time immemorial have had their own brand of folklore. Much of it is borrowed from that of landlubbers, Norse Mythology and Greek Mythology, for instance, but sailors have had their own unique twists. These types of tales are what they sang to each other during long, boring voyages. They included tales of great deeds, quirky superstitions, fantastic creatures and day-to-day life on the sea. Sailor lore also has such things as haunted islands and accursed ships. Sometimes sailor tales were sung rather than told, especially as sea chanties provided rhythm to help with their work.

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There are a few fairly good compendiums of nautical folklore. One of the older ones is Weird Tales from Northern Seas by Jonas Lauritz Idemil Lie. Two more modern ones include Folklore and the Sea by Horace Beck and Seafaring Lore and Legend by Peter Jeans. By fortunate coincidence the photo of Horace Beck looks exactly like the sort of Father Neptune that would be telling these stories.

See also Tropes at Sea.


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Nautical Folklore provides examples of:

  • Abduction Is Love: A lot of mortals marry selkies and mermaids by kidnapping them and hiding the MacGuffin that they need (with selkies it is always the skin, with mermaids it can be something else like a comb).
  • Blood Magic: In some parts of the West Indies, at least until recently, it was common to use animal blood to christen a fishing boat. Most of the Western World, however, is satisfied with Champagne.
  • Born Unlucky: If the bottle fails to break during the christening of a ship.
  • Cats Are Magic: Having a cat aboard was thought of as bad luck, or good luck, depending on whom you ask. Also, in some Caribbean myths, mer-people can transform into cats.
  • Crossover Cosmology: Due to sailors from all over the world mixing more with each other than with landlubbers. Two of the biggest figures are King Neptune and Davy Jones (whose origin is unclear, but seems to be something to do with Satan and/or Jonah).
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  • Curse: Sailors had a lot of stories and superstitions about them, and went to great pains to avoid them.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: Numerous variations.
    • Don't set out on Friday. Don't set out on Thursday, either: That is Thor's day and you don't want to offend the guy in charge of storms.
    • Do not take a murderer, a debtor or a woman aboard. Or a banana, especially if you're going fishing: it's bad luck.
    • Don't build a ship out of black walnut, either. Black walnut was a common wood used in building expensive coffins in the U.S., and it's not a good idea to build your ship out of coffinwood.
    • Never bring a priest is Scandinavian superstition. There are powers and deities that govern lakes and oceans, and you don't want to risk offending them by having a man of God aboard.
    • Don't rename a ship. And never name a ship after a vessel that had bad luck — which is why nobody names their ship Titanic.
    • Heck, just stay on shore.
  • The Drunken Sailor: Generally the cause of the folklore to start with. A tall tale of tall ships over a tall draught of rum.
  • Due to the Dead: US Midshipmen place coins in the grave of John Paul Jones. Presumably he will reward them with a due share of Badassery.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The whole ocean, just to start with, and also home to more.
  • Eldritch Ocean Abyss: Scary things are found in deeper waters.
  • Ethnic Magician: Supposedly all Finns (a word which, at the time, was used to mean what we today call Sami) are Wizards.
  • The Fair Folk: Close cousins of the mer folk and sometimes similar in behavior.
  • Father Neptune: Who else is fit to be The Storyteller?
  • Flying Dutchman: And several other Ghost Ships.
  • Griping About Gremlins: An obscure mythological creature that possibly is the precursor to modern gremlins is the "sea gobelin". This solitary goblin sets up shop on a ship, tangles ropes, misplaces things and scares sailors. Actually seeing the gobelin is a powerful portent of doom.
  • Heaven: Fiddler's Green. Where good sailors or the virtuous who have drowned go to when they die, rather than being a sky utopia on clouds, it's instead a green meadow, lush with every single kind of the most beautiful flora one can lay eyes on. That's where the "Green" part comes from, the "Fiddlers'" part comes from the main feature of said paradise — Fiddlers who play eternally and dancers who never tire. If there exists an oceanic equivalent of the Lord Himself, then expect him or at least his cohorts to be seen here.
  • Hell: Davy Jones' Locker. In works of a more comedic bent, it may or may not be a literal locker, but in more serious portrayals, it could simply be a submerged cave filled with shipwrecks. In any case, don't expect any fire, given that this is the sea we're talking about, especially since some use the phrase "Davy Jones' Locker" as simply synonymous with the bottom of the ocean. (Similarly to how Hell is usually seen as being underground.) And worst of all, as stated by the name, it belongs to none other than Davy Jones himself...
  • Hubris:
    • Do not give a merchantman a grandiose name. That is Tempting Fate. Passenger liners and clipper ships were often an exception to this, having names like Lightning, or even Sovereign of the Seas. Though the clipper that lasted longest was just named Cutty Sark, rather then something grandiose (it means "short skirt", a reference to a Scottish legend about a man who saw some witches dancing, was particularly taken with the young pretty one wearing the "cutty sark", and barely escaped with his life).
    • Warship names, on the other hand, invoke this; many were (and still are) given grandiose and ferocious-sounding names like Victory, Warrior, or even truly fate-tempting ones like Invincible and Indefatigable. Notably, both HMS Indefatigable and HMS Invincible were destroyed at the Battle of Jutland. Then again, ships of those names have been used in combat since without being sunk or even sustaining significant damage.
  • Interspecies Romance: There are several stories of these between a mortal and a mermaid or selkie. They never seem to work out.
  • I Owe You My Life: According to one story a Mermaid was stranded on a beach and found by a kindly Scottish boatbuilder. She offered him a wish and his wish was that no boat he ever built would ever sink. According to the story, his descendants are still building boats and are still famed for their craftsmanship. Mer-people can be kinda odd, but they can know how to pay a debt and respond when treated kindly.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: One Selkie fell in love with a fisherman and married him, and unusually for an Interspecies Romance with fey creatures remained Happily Married without running off to sea. However a storm came and he almost drowned so she shapeshifted back to a seal, knowing that in doing so she could never be with him again.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: Giant sea monsters that make ships look tiny.
  • Lord of the Ocean: Even pirates fear King Triton's wrath.
  • MacGuffin: Amongst seafaring cultures, it was common belief that a child born "in the caul" (that is, with the amniotic sac still attached and covering his/her head), is lucky and cannot drown. In fact, these membranes were sometimes preserved and sold to sailors for a small fortune, because the sailors would carry them for luck and protection at sea. Now a Forgotten Trope in much of the world, as many times the amniotic sac is ruptured artificially by the doctor or midwife. It's still a popular folklore in parts of the South and among the homebirth crowd. Also has some justification in that a labor and birth with a nice squishy layer of water note  cushioning the contractions is usually MUCH easier than one without, especially in the case of artificially rupturing the membranes.
  • Mer Tropes: Merfolk, the legendary half fish, half human people that live in the deep.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: An Accursed Person is a "Jonah". You don't want him aboard.
  • Ocean Madness:
    • One popularly-supposed phenomenon is that sailors afflicted by "calenture" would look at the sea, imagine it to be land and jump over the side.
    • There are various tales of a sailor who would bring the most unattractive woman he could find along on his voyages (to serve as a cook, or whatever). When she began to look good to him, he knew he'd been at sea for too long and that it was time to head home (or at least to the nearest port).
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Dolphins and albatrosses are the reincarnated souls of dead sailors. Do not kill either of them.
  • Pirate Booty: Often with a curse on it, naturally enough.
  • Red Sky, Take Warning: Red skies at night, sailor's delight. Red skies at morning, sailor take warning.
  • Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony: Any mishap that occurs during a ship's launching ceremony — especially if the ceremonial champagne bottle does not break — will be taken as a bad omen or sign that the ship is cursed.
  • Satanic Archetype: Davy Jones is more or less the Devil of the ocean. His Locker is essentially Hell, his ghastly pirate crew are essentially demons, and whenever he himself appears as a character in works based on nautical folklore, expect him to be portrayed as the primordial evil force of the seven seas, or at least the evilest spirit of the deep. He may be depicted making bargains with unwitting seafarers for their immortal souls, he may possess the ability to take control of sailor' bodies, he may tempt seamen into sinning so that he can get them into his Locker where he'll be free to punish them, and he may even oppose the resident God archetype (typically Poseidon, Neptune, or Triton, what have you) for whatever reason. His appearance ranges from simply a phantom buccaneer a la the Flying Dutchman or a pirate captain with a tentacle beard, but whatever the case, he's usually a pirate or other evil-aligned sailor-type. If he's ever given a backstory, expect at least one homage to Lucifer himself, perhaps being a holy being that fell from grace.
  • Sea Monster: Here there be mythical and fearsome sea-creatures. Unexplored regions are full of them.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: Selkies (also known as silkies, selchies and seal wives) are mythological creatures that can become human by taking off their seal skins, and can return to seal form by putting it back on.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: Mermaids and Selkies (seal people) often do this. Be careful about this, though; they might run away. This is not least the case when they became "lovers" because a mortal stole a Selkies skin or a Mermaid's cap thus forcing "love". One Selkie was perfectly happy in her human form, and she only turned seal again to save her fisherman-husband when he was caught in a storm. Knowing she could never go back to him if she became a seal again.
  • Tropes at Sea: More tropes associated with sea and naval life.
  • Turtle Island: Fish, whales, or turtles (mostly turtles) big enough to be mistaken for islands or even continents.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The Age of Sail and its story-telling conventions has become the genre in itself, or if it's not fully a genre, it's the next closest thing.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: If a sailor is pulled overboard by a wave, that's a sign that "the sea will have its own". In fact, learning to swim was considered Tempting Fate.

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