Last week I started reading a very interesting book called Coastal Cultures, by Rob van Ginkel. It’s a book that studies the anthropology of fishermen in northern Europe, which is to say it uses a lot of long complicated sentences to describe the why of things. It is a very good book, overcoming my dislike of the theoretical side of archaeology and anthropology. The bit I particularly liked was the chapter on superstition and taboos in fishing. To say that fishermen have many superstitions is like saying there are fish in the sea; there are a great many of them and they come in a great many forms.
Mr van Ginkel analyses these superstitions by looking at the form they take – he has three different categories. The first are words that cannot be said, the second things that should not be seen and the third things you should no do. He also discusses why superstitions exist – not the direct origin, but superstition in general. There are no sure conclusions, but the ideas discussed are fairly common sense: trawling is bloomin’ dangerous and superstitious behaviour is a way for the individual to control his fate, that if the ship he’s on and that of his community and livelihood. Now that trawling is safer that it was 100 years ago, and certainly a 1000 years ago, superstitions hang on partly for the same reasons as before, and through habit. After all, you wouldn’t want any bad luck by breaking with tradition.
After this comes in the debate as to why some things are the focus of superstition. words like pig, sheep, hare, rabbit, fox, rat, mouse, dog, cat, raven, seal, otter and (for some as yet unknown reason) salmon, are all not to be spoken – and most of these are not limited to one place. Most of these taboo words appear in most places in Europe, from Estonia to the Hebrides. One interesting aspect is the growth of stories that explain superstition, like one from Britanny about a cat which curses a fisherman – so cats become unlucky. One possible explanation is all these animals are the forms which witches could take – making these superstitions medieval at least. But there are many theories – some less common sense that others.
The bit on women and priests does discuss some ideas which I consider to slightly far fetched – though am neither a man or a fisherman, so I can’t really judge whether fishermen consider meeting a woman on their way to their boats bad luck because the boat is also a woman and represents a form of fertility, holding fish in the hold and providing nourishment. Much like women, the sea/boat is somewhat unpredictable… Priests are seen as outsiders, not understanding the local ways and perhaps disrupting the natural order. This is further amplified because they don’t do any hard work, unlike wives or children, who in the past would have been an indispensable labour force.
In the end, superstitions and taboos are part of what makes us human, and reflect very clearly how dangerous and uncertain our lives once were. You think your superstitions are outdated and weird? Well, I love them! They are a huge and humanising part of our past, and to let them go would be a shame. Of course, I would hope there are some sensibilities about it – I for one wouldn’t want to miss out a boat trip because the skipper said I was unlucky (I’m not… just very, very seasick!).