Old Sayings And Myths From The Sea

Sea myths, sayings, good and bad luck omens, serpents, octopus, and sea snakes, what caused whirlpools, Neptune and his sons and more

My father, a First Class Baker aboard ship in the 1940's, enjoyed telling his children tales of the sea. While most children were being put to bed with stories of "˜Goldilocks and the Three Bears', we were being put to sleep hearing tales of sea monsters and winds brought about by black cats cleaning their paws. While I now know many of these are just myths, I grew up believing them to be fact. One saying was so common in our household as I grew up, that upon waking in the morning or as I retired to bed, if I looked outside and I happened to see a red tinged sky, the words of this would come immediately to mind. "˜Red sky in the morning, sailors give warning, red sky at night, sailors delight'.

While I also now know that my father did not always believe these tales, though many sailors of years past did, he thankfully enjoyed telling them to his children, the very wide-eyed audience that we were. Here are several of my favorites:

In early days of ships, when the power of the ships sailing force was dependent upon the winds, before even steam power, no "˜lady' could be aboard ship. This was considered very bad luck, bringing stillness to the wind, and thus, no power to sail by.

Before science knew what was the cause of whirlpools, when there was no logical explanation, whales lying low at the bottom of the ocean, eating, were believed to be the cause. As they sucked in the vast amounts of food that was surely necessary to sustain their great size, they would then inadvertently cause these deadly whirlpools.

A rabbit's foot has been a symbol of good luck for a very long time. Even early sailors would carry one to keep them safe as they sailed. A whole rabbit was a different story. Even when ships carried live chickens and other small animals for food on long journeys, rabbits were not ever brought. A live rabbit aboard a ship was sure to bring tragedy and death to all aboard.

Barnacles on the sides of ships were thought to be able to transform into certain birds. How else could a bird be explained in the middle of the ocean, for surely he could not have arrived so far from shore.



Tales of great sea monsters sinking whole ships have been discussed for hundreds of years. Giant octopus and squid, once identified, were still said to be of such a size that they could easily pull a ship over and drown all aboard. Reports of sea snakes were also common. Even today, stories of giant serpents and snakes are told among sailors, swearing the tales to be true, and to give them credence, some astonishing animals have been discovered in our ocean depths.

Cats, black cats the worst, were said to bring on gales of winds and even hurricane force winds, if they sat cleaning their paws on a dock within site of a ship.

Sailors arriving at ports of foreign lands would look for sailors wearing rings on their pinky fingers. If they spotted one, they would know that they had met a sailor that was able to control the winds, more commonly referred to as a "˜wizard of the wind'.

Even among sailors, lawyers had a bad reputation. Arguments that always seemed to be brought about by the same person were sure to earn that person the title of "˜sea lawyer'. Any discussion of legal matters aboard a ship was greatly frowned upon, so any calling of a name that included the term "˜lawyer' was a disgrace for the person being referred to.

Early sailors may not have held the belief that many others did, of the earth being flat, and therefore if they sailed far enough, they would surely fall off the earth, but many believed that if they sailed far enough they would reach the land of the devil. This most likely was fueled by tales of sea monsters and other tragedy's, such as ships sailing into the horizon to never return.

Neptune is a Roman God that ruled the sea, and with him, his many sons helped rule islands underneath the sea. The Sargasso Sea is said to be home to these islands of Neptune's sons. The seaweed of this sea is said to be there to hide them from being discovered. Any sailor who ventured into these waters was sure to meet an early death. Only a foolish sailor would attempt to discover Neptune and his sons.

Spending part of his life aboard ship also added to my father's vocabulary certain sayings: As happy as a clam. Between the devil and the deep blue sea. Don't rock the boat. As cold as blue hazes. Women and children first. A ship full of fools. (I once heard him tell my older brothers that after some great guffaw they had committed that that was exactly what he felt he was raising!) The ship has sailed. (Another common one he used if we changed our mind about something, we were informed, too bad, too late, the ship had sailed) Lastly, we were told that if we found ourselves to be in deep water, never abandon ship!

And what was the worst luck that could visit a sailor? If on his way to his ship a sailor crossed paths with a cross-eyed woman, he was sure to have bad luck for his entire journey!

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