Fishermen Superstitions

Fishermen superstitions
The Fisherman, by Charles Napier Hemy, 1888, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Similar to other people, fishermen had superstitious beliefs and believed certain things caused good or back luck. For instance, fishermen superstitions resulted in seafarers’s claiming a newborn’s caul would secure its wearer from drowning. There was also a belief that breaking up an old boat would bring bad luck and that those engaged in such a task were “sure to come to grief in some way or other.” Northern fisherman claimed it was positively “dangerous” to mention the word “horse” when at sea because bad luck would follow.

1885 Image of a Fisherman, Author's Collection
1885 Image of a Fisherman, Author’s Collection

Besides those three things there were many other fishermen superstitions with one of the most frequently being the fisherman’s net. For example, if a fisherman experienced no luck for a period of time, it was suggested the fisherman cast his net on the opposite side of the boat. If a fisherman believed another fisherman was getting his catch, he was told to “take a mouthful of water from a running stream, under a bridge, where the living and the dead pass (the latter on their way to burial) … and sprinkle this over his nets.” Another to improve a fisherman’s luck involved affixing silver pieces (such as small coins) to his net on the first day of the year or hide a small piece of silver somewhere on his boat.

Animals sometimes created good luck for fishermen. One animal said to be lucky to the fisherman was the mouse. If a mouse ate a fisherman’s nets after the nets were put away for the season, the fisherman was promised “great expectations.” Because mice were so lucky, some fishermen purposely kept oats in with their nets hoping to entice them. Another lucky animal for the fisherman was the cat. Apparently, the cat was thought to be good luck to a fisherman when it washed its face with its paws and particularly when it washed the back of its head.

Some fishermen superstitions had more to do with the fisherman or his actions. For example, one superstitious belief was that a broom, salt, or an old shoe thrown at a fisherman before he went to sea would bring him success. One newspaper reporter wrote, “I know one little village where on a certain day in the fishing season there is supposed to be great luck in getting drunk, and going to the sea in that state, on the principle, the bigger the spree the bigger the chance.” Whether it worked or not, remains to be seen. Good luck was also the result of a fisherman not lending his boat during the fishing season. Superstition said that by doing so a fisherman was “liable to give his luck along with it.”

Several things could also cause fishermen back luck. For instance, a fisherman was never to start out in a new boat on a Friday unless he wanted bad luck. To demonstrate the unluckiness of Friday, one wealthy merchant dared tested it:

“[He] devised a notable scheme to give a fatal blow to the superstition … He caused the keel of a very large ship to be laid on a Friday; he named her the Friday; he launched her on Friday; he gave the command of her to a captain of the name of Friday; and she commenced her first voyage on a Friday, bound for China with a costly cargo … The result was that neither ship nor crew was ever heard of afterwards.”

A Victorian Fisherman Mending the Jib, Author's Collection
A Victorian Fisherman Mending the Jib, Author’s Collection

If a fisherman lived on the Banffshire coast, bad luck would follow him if he spoke of salmon. In fact, if there was one thing that bothered a Banffshire fisherman it was someone saying “‘there is a salmon in your pump,’ or some such harmless expression containing the name of the hated fish.” There was no way to overcome someone saying salmon as was pointed out in the following way:

“There is no remedy for this, if he [the fisherman] would retain his luck, [he had to call] … ‘cold iron’ immediately afterwards, or if that is not done he must bark his nets afresh, which entails much trouble and more expense.”

Several other things might result in bad luck for a fisherman. For instance, if a fisherman spoke about “a four-footed beast, particularly a hare, while at sea,” the fisherman was supposed to grasp cold iron (such as an anchor) to prevent back luck. When it came to witches, fishermen had the power to protect themselves against their influence “by nailing an old horse-shoe inside the stern of his boat.” Doing so deprived the witches of power. Mountain ash was also said to be “equally efficacious,” and, in fact, it was used more regularly as a protective mechanism than a horse shoe because there was less ridicule.

References:

  • “A Few Fisher Folks’s Fancies,” in The Graphic, 18 November 1882
  • “Salt Water Superstitions,” in Shields Daily Gazette, Friday 28 June 1895

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