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:

Japan
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.

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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.

Modern Fishing Gear of the World, Vol I

My book of choice this week has been Modern Fishing Gear of the World, Volume I, a collection of papers written by scientists and innovators in fisheries technology. The book came about through the FOA, as it was a conference in 1957 when all the writers met up and discussed, well, modern fishing gear. It sold out, and my (father’s) version is a third reprind from 1981.

This sizeable tome was first published in 1959 – and, as Hilmar Kristjonsson points out in his introduction, technology in the 20th century develops faster (and bigger) than all the centuries before it. So what was so new and important, that the first of 3 big books talking about fishing will be published? Hilmar goes on to talk about the 3 main technological leaps: mechanisation, echo sounding and synthetic fibres, which together have changed fishing as we know it. But it not just technology that makes the difference – the intent is also a key factor. The drive to create and try new things in a thorough and scientific way changes everything; the need to understand every aspect and variable of fishing, from fish behaviour to physics.

Like most good books, it pays off to read the introduction – Hilmar here starts off with a few facts. Fish production in in 1957 is almost 30 million metric tonnes; a “few years ago” it considered absurd that any more than 25 million metric tonnes would be possible. As of 2010, total global production was 148.5 million tonnes. Needless to say, things have changed and developed a lot more since 1957.

These books are invaluable to me because it does something important to the whole PhD concept: documentation. It’s not that I don’t have any faith in first hand accounts – rather, I am going to rely on them. But what I need is dated, pinned down fact that I can easily read, quote and reference. Which is why I have acquired my father’s copy and absconded with it over to Esbjerg. Not to worry , though. I’ll sure to bring it back – eventually!

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Continued

I am still in Bagenkop, a lovely little town in the south of Langeland, an island in Denmark. Although I am attached to the University of Southern Denmark’s archaeology fieldschool, I have had a chance to walk around the harbour and look at the local area. From Bagenkop harbour it is pretty clear that fishing may be small scale but is very much a long-standing tradition in this area.

Trawl doors in Bagenkop – one of many piled up

Bagenkop is a few kilometers from a village called Magleby. It is in Magleby that I am currently working with my trusty fellow students on what we hope will be a Viking Age settlement. What’s interesting is that up until about 150 years ago Magleby was connected to the sea by a nor (or inlet). They began to reclaim the land in 1853 – although the process never seemed quite successful, as demonstrated by numerous storms that flooded the new land, as well as the need for pumping stations to manage the water table.

A gent fixing his nets in Bagenkop harbour

After the land was reclaimed, the fishermen of the area filed a suit against the government for compensation. Their case was not simply practical; they stated that not only did they lose revenue and access to Magleby’s church (leading to a new one being built in Bagenkop), but also that the reclamation had made the area less attractive than before. they lost their case, a blow followed by another in the 20th century when a bridge was built to connect Langeland to the rest of Denmark with a efficient road system. As a result, Magleby, and then Bagenkop, lost most of it’s fishing trade. Currently the fishing fleet numbers in the few dozen.

A fishing vessel in Bagenkop harbour

In Bagenkop harbour the fishing boats are moored alongside yachts and other small vessels, while the areas directly around the harbour is full of fishing paraphernalia. Given Bagenkop’s tiny size, it is clear that the small fishing fleet one of the only industries here, along with farming and tourism.

The entrance to one of the many small work huts/houses that crowd around Bagenkop harbour

For those interested in archeology, a subject that ties in pretty well in this area, the underwater site is going well, while myself and the land team are still conducting resistivity test and land surveys. History tells us that this area is rich in farmers, fishing and fishermen-farmers, and as such we hope that we can find out where the Viking house that would have been among the earliest of that era in Magleby would have stood. Tomorrow we head to the priest’s garden, the gentleman himself having been kind in allowing a bunch of scruffy students to wander around and talk shop about all this old stuff.

Me, resistivity meter and the same bit of field I’ve been standing in all week

Well, I’ve been pacing up and down the same field for the last week, endured rain, wind, gravel, maths, sunburn and a distinct lack of cake. I’m heading out for a beer, and shall be posting again at the end of the week.

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Denmark

A week ago I said I would be posting again, which given the silence that has reigned since is a bit of a fib, I’m afraid. Well, I meant to post, but as soon as I returned to sunny Esbjerg I got immediately packing to go to Bagenkop. Bagenkop is a lovely little own in Langelend, Denamrk. Langeland is described as the Caribbean of Denmark, which I thought was a bit of a fib myself. After two days and some not too debilitating sunburn, I am prepared to admit that sunshine is not in short supply down here.

I am here not on fishy stuff, but on an archaeological fieldschool, looking firstly for a boat barely a 100 meters of Bagenkop and an area called Ågebet. The second focus is on the land immediately adjacent to this area, currently the village of Magleby. And the sunburn? Courtesy of two days standing on a lawn with a resistivity meter. And only three weeks to go!

We  – or rather, I and the Maritime Archaeology Programme of the University of Southern Denmark (and home to this PhD) are looking at the whole area for some good archaeology. What I can’t help but notice is all the small fishing boats, and of course some trawl doors in the harbour – all of five minutes walk from our accommodation.

More posting soon – that’s a promise this time!

 

Bremerhaven in Brief

Today I am in lovely Bremerhaven, which has been blessed with a glimpse of sunshine and a nice breeze. I have just spent an afternoon with the also lovely Mr. Hans-Hermann Engel, of Engel Netze. As most people know, and indeed anyone who ever had an Engel net knows, this company was a leader in the development of the pelagic trawl. Luckily for me, Mr. Engel has kindly provided me with a large pile of reports, dating back to the first trials in the 1950’s. Now all I have to do, of course, is learn to read German…

British Pathé Revisited

I am slowly falling in love with the British Pathé website – especially the ‘British Instructional Films’. These short films were intended to inform and educate, and mu favourite is this one:

Trawling 1940-1949. A little long at 10 minutes, it takes the viewer through a day at sea with a ship called ‘Jacqueline’. There is a good amount of technical stuff, while the voice-over is in that lovely authoritative BBC World Service accent, guaranteed to ensure tat you are indeed paying attention.

But the ones that caught my attention were these; Nets 1954 and Fishing Industry Exhibition – Grimsby 1956. Both show women (and girls) making nets by – so fast that the eye can barely keep up. Net making is another critical aspect of this PhD study, as the changing materials made stronger nets rather that just larger ones, making pelagic trawling a possibility. Not to mention making their maintenance easier and prolonging the life of the nets significantly. It was in the 1940’s that synthetic materials were first used for fishing nets, eventually replacing natural fibres by 1960.

This also lead me to some footage of a rope factory in the Netherlands, Rope Making Factory for Fishing Fleet 1961. It doesn’t have any sound but it does show the inner workings of the factory, for those as are interested in such things.

A Bygone Craft 1931 caught my attention most of all – but then I wouldn’t mind having a go at building my own coracle!