Gods and Fishermen

Last week I discussed some superstitions and what they tell us about human behavior, as discussed by Rob van Ginkel in his book Coastal Cultures. Of course, these were those superstitions that continued by Christian fishing communities. So I got curious and decided to look at non-Christian superstitions and religions in regards to fishing. Naturally I turned to a copy of Andres von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World. So here are a few as described by the author, and a few other sources:

Ebisu is a god who protects fishermen, workingmen and luck, as well as one of the seven gods of happiness or fortune. The Japanese Shinto religion contains the idea that all living things have souls and to kill a fish, a  living thing, brings guilt onto the fisherman. Rituals are therefore performed to apologise to the fish, and to prevent insult to any gods or ghosts. This explains the need for a shrine in Tokyo’s fish market dedicated to crayfish killed by the local restaurants. This is seen elsewhere in Japan, like the island of Saiko-to, where a ritual is performed on behalf of the souls of whales killed by whalers – a ritual observed every year since 1679. Here is a statue of Ebisu.

A statue of Ebisu in Kesennuma, Japan. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Sub-Saharan Africa
With a long history and many different and varied population groups, lumping Africa into one short entry is a rather unfair, so I shall no doubt expand on it a later time. But some rituals and ideas are generalised over large areas, such as the idea that women cannot be on boats. For some, they cannot even be near fishing equipment. This is sometimes extended to not having sex at all during the manufacture of fishing equipment or during fishing. As a result, all rituals concerning fishing are male-only affairs, with different rituals for different types of gear. Other traditions survive, like the placing of rams’ or goats’ horns in the bow of a boat, or the placing of bottles filled with liquids.

There are numerous African traditions that have (unsurprisingly) made their way to the Americas. In Brazil, the city of Salvador (province of Bahia) celebrate the goddess Lemanja (or Yemanja). In February and December there are celebrations in her honour, In February it is customary to leave gifts for the goddess, which are collected by fishermen with baskets and taken out to sea. Gifts are feminine in nature, including items like lipstick, mirrors and combs. The two celebrations are on exactly the same two days as the celebrations of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes – the Catholic Our Lady of Seafaring. They are public holidays too, recognising both the African deity and the Catholic. Here’s a brief description.

Offerings to Yemanja during the Salvador festival. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Eyes (Oculi)
Eyes appear all over- they are common in the Mediterranean. They can be painted or carved on either side of the bow. the history of this goes back a long way – the Ancient Egyptians pained eyes in their boats. The eye for them was a representation of the god Horus, who lost an eye battling another god. The eye that was gouged out was recovered offered to the gods, hence becoming a symbol of protection, renewal and also sacrifice. The Romans and Ancient Greeks adopted this from the Egyptians, still using it today.  Muslim fishermen do not paint an eye, although Turkish boats are said to, out of tradition. Since Christianity the eye is meant to protect against the evil eye. In China and the Near East eyes are painted on as they were believed to be able to see their way across the sea and to find fish.

Eye of Horus. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Blood and Animals
Eyes are not the only body part to be influential; the smashing of a bottle of wine or champagne is thought to derive from a traditional animal sacrifice on board a ship. A cock or rooster was the traditional  sacrifice, although in many counties it had to be black. The blood from the sacrifice had to be painted on the boat to ensure the best results. A practice from the English Middle Ages was to put the head of a bull on the bow, something which was done by some Portuguese fishermen up until the 19th century. A red towel on a modern Turkish fishing boat is a modern derivation of an older ritual of slaughtering a ram, the skin of which was hung from the bow to show that they had fulfilled their superstitious obligations.

A figurehead is one way to protect you ship. As time went on, they became more symbolic, representing status and identity rather than protection or luck. This one is on HMS Warrior.

There are many and varied religions and no doubt just as many superstitions to go with it – and no doubt I shall find more and collect them together for another post. To finish up, here’s a link to a lovely little statue of a Polynesian fishing deity in the British Museum.

P-I-G… and other animals

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!).

Not unlucky – just very, very daft.