Sea Phantoms and Superstitions
Sailors in general are often superstitious, as are fishermen
and others who live by deep bodies of water. The old songs of
the outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland are full of wizardry,
with figures in some of the old sea shanties as well. The novelist
Captain Frederick Marryat (1792–1848), who understood sailors
as few others have, testified repeatedly to their firm belief
in the supernatural.
He is the not only author who has dealt with this subject
Coleridge also touched on the matter in his Rime of the Ancient
Mariner. Turning from literature to painting, Scottish master
David Scott, in a memorable canvas now in the seaport town
of Leith, Scotland, showed Vasco de Gama and his henchmen
gazing thunderstruck at an apparition rising from the waves.
It is scarcely surprising that the supernatural should be a
preoccupation of sailors, as they have lived until this century
with the constant possibility of sudden death.
In Cornwall, England, so rich in romantic associations of all
sorts, quite a number of stories concerning marine specters
have been handed down from generation to generation and are
still remembered.
One of these stories relates how, on a winter’s evening when
a fierce gale was raging around the Cornish headlands, a fisherman
chanced to see a ship in distress. The man called on
some of his friends to aid him in the rescue. In a few minutes,
a row boat had been manned, for Cornish fisherfolk are accustomed
to being on the water in all weather despite the danger
of drowning. Very soon the rescuers were almost within earshot
of the distressed vessel and could see her name clearly on the
stern. They planned to jump on board, their idea being that if
the ship had a skillful pilot acquainted with the coast’s dangers,
the ship might be steered safely into Falmouth harbour. However,
just as one of the fishermen stood up in the prow of the
boat intending to throw a rope, the great vessel looming before
him disappeared from sight.
The ship could not have sunk, for some relics would certainly
have survived. Fearing that the devil had conjured up a
phantom to induce them to put out to sea, the rowers put retreated
speedily, and pulled for home. One and all, they were
more afraid of the devil’s machinations than of the more genuine
perils they were encountering.
Another Cornish fishing tradition is associated with the village
of Sennen Cove. This place is situated at the head of a bay
flanked by two capes. Sometimes a band of misty vapor stretches
across the bay, obscuring the villagers’ outlook on the sea.
Whenever this occurs, the fisherfolk believe that it warns them
not to put out in their boats. At one time, Sennen Cove numbered
among its inhabitants a group of skeptical fishermen
who laughed at this superstition. Accordingly, when the warning
band of vapor next made its appearance, they sailed off
singing gaily. But their boat never returned, their fate remained
a mystery, and they strengthened rather than weakened
the belief they had ridiculed.
Scotland has stories of phantom ships. Near Ballachulish,
on the west coast of Argyllshire, there is a rocky island on which
the Macdonalds of Glencoe used to bury their honored dead.
The tradition of the district tells that once, some hundreds of
years ago, a skiff bearing a beloved chieftain’s corpse to this
place foundered before reaching its destination. For the Macdonalds,
it was a horrible catastrophe that a leader of their clan
should be denied a resting place beside his ancestors. Soon the
accident came to seem supernatural, for invariably, just before
Sea Phantoms and Superstitions Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
any misfortune overtook the Macdonald tribe, the wrecked skiff
was seen drifting about the sea, its dead oarsman clinging to it,
and a coffin floating in its wake. This weird vision appeared
only too often, and it was said that on the eve of the massacre
of Glencoe, the specter boat bore a crew of ghostly female
mourners who sang a loud coronach.
Another Scottish Highland story claims that a large ship,
wrecked off the coast of Ross at the time of the first Celts voyages
to Canada, still rises occasionally from the waves and, after
sailing for a few minutes, suddenly lurches and sinks beneath
the ocean. Dwellers by the shores of the Solway tell how a certain
craft, which went down there while conveying a happy
bridal party towards Stranraer, is frequently seen sailing at full
speed before the gale, the bride and bridegroom clinging to
the rigging as though in terror of immediate death by drowning.
Nor is this the only Solway phantom, for that treacherous
seaway once witnessed the foundering of two Scandinavian pirate
vessels, which are said to rise periodically from the water,
the crew of each calling for mercy.
Religion has played a prominent part in some stories of
specter ships. At Boulogne, France, for example, there is a tradition
to the effect that on one occasion in the Middle Ages, the
townspeople wanted to build a church, for they were without
any public place of worship. They were anxious to choose a site
God would approve, but found it difficult to come to a decision,
as everyone concerned suggested a different place.
Finally, a group assembled on the beach, intending to offer
up a prayer for a solution to the problem. While they were thus
engaged, they happened to look out to sea, where to their astonishment
a vessel was seen sailing toward them, the sacred
Virgin herself on board. Standing in the bow, she pointed in a
certain direction, and the devout people concluded that their
petition had been answered. The mysterious phantom vanished
as quickly as it had come.
Another French specter ship, however, used to remain in
sight for longer periods. The vessel was manned by a crew of
demons and great dogs—the perjured souls of men who had
been guilty of fearful crimes. Yet the pious knew that they had
little to fear, the priests having told them that the repetition of
a paternoster would guard against the hideous vision.
Somewhat similar to this story is one associated with Venice,
where one stormy evening about the middle of the fourteenth
century, a fisherman was requested to row three saints to a
neighboring village on the Adriatic. After rowing for a while,
he suddenly stopped as though petrified, a galley filled with
Saracens having risen beside his boat. The oarsman wanted to
start back, but his godly passengers calmed him, and while they
sang an Ave Maria the ominous galley was submerged by the
waves. The fisherman rowed on and reached his haven. The
three saints rewarded him with a present of a gold ring. That
ring figures in the old coat-of-arms of the Venetian Republic.
There are legends of the sea in most countries. In Japan,
there are tales of phantom junks, distinctive Chinese ships. The
Chinese used to paint a pair of great eyes on the prow of each
craft to detect any monsters prowling afloat. On the coasts of
the United States, there are traditions of spectral vessels. Kindred
stories are known in the Ionian Islands, and the folklore
of the Shetlands has a wealth of such tales. Around the coast of
Denmark and the fiords of Norway, many a phantom vessel was
supposed to hover as well.
It was on the North Sea that the most famous of all supernatural
ships was said to sail, the ship known as The Flying Dutchman.
The story goes that a sailor who had loved a woman but
wronged her, left her to languish, and put forth on the high
seas, where he committed many flagrant acts of piracy. But the
fates condemned him to sail wearily and everlastingly from
shore to shore. He was to endure this punishment until he
could win the staunch affection of a virtuous woman and prove
faithful to her.
The guilty man longed to walk solid ground once more, but
whenever he dared to put in to port to try to win the woman
who might be able to save him, the devil drove him on board
ship again, and his interminable voyage commenced again.
Century after century passed in this way, the ill-fated vessel
gradually becoming familiar to all who sailed the North Sea or
lived by its shores. The legend did not disappear with a more
skeptical age, for Richard Wagner evolved a drama from the
legend, and his powerful music—charged so abundantly with
the weirdness, mystery, and glamour of the surging ocean—
vividly evokes the Dutchman’s ship driving before a gale, the
criminal sitting terrified and hopeless at his useless helm.
Sea Monsters
Among persistent legends of the sea is the belief in great
monsters of the deep. The sea serpent has been reported since
earliest times. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (ca. 23–79
C.E.) described in his Naturalis Historia how a Greek squadron
on a voyage for Alexander the Great saw a shoal of sea serpents,
each thirty feet long, in the Persian Gulf.
Much more terrifying is the great sea serpent two hundred
feet long and twenty feet broad cited by Olaus Magnus in his
History of Northern People in 1555. It would be a mistake to assume
that all reports of great sea serpents belong to the fabulous
past or represent confused accounts of known sea creatures,
like whales or giant squids. Sea serpents continued to be
reported into modern times, although some accounts would indicate
creatures nearer to a plesiosaurus than a serpent. This
is understandable, as the prehistoric plesiosaurus had a long
neck which might appear to look like a serpent. One of the
most celebrated of such creatures is the famed Loch Ness Monster
of Scotland.
More legendary are the ancient accounts of a gigantic sea
creature named the Kraken. Bishop Eric Pontoppidan discussed
the Kraken in his Natural History of Norway (1751) and
concluded that it was an enormous polyp (octopus) or starfish.
It is probable that it was one of the cephalopods popularly
known as cuttlefish.
Less ominous are the stories of mermaids, around whom
many strange myths have grown. It is generally supposed that
mermaid stories grew up around the dugong or sea-cow, which
superficially resembles a human form. However, there are early
accounts of mermaids that do not seem to fit this description.
In an old history of the Netherlands, there is the following account
of a sea-woman of Harlem in the fifteenth century
‘‘At that time there was a great tempest at sea, with exceeding
high tides, the which did drowne many villages in Friseland
and Holland; by which tempest there came a sea-woman swimming
in the Zuyderzee betwixt the towns of Campen and Edam,
the which passing by the Purmeric, entered into the straight of
a broken dyke in the Purmermer, where she remained a long
time, and could not find the hole by which she entered, for that
the breach had been stopped after that the tempest had ceased.
‘‘Some country women and their servants, who did dayly
pass the Pourmery, to milk their kine in the next pastures, did
often see this woman swimming on the water, thereof at the
first they were much afraid; but in the end being accustomed
to see it very often, they viewed it neerer, and at last they resolved
to take it if they could. Having discovered it they rowed
towards it, and drew it out of the water by force, carrying it in
one of their barkes unto the towne of Edam.
‘‘When she had been well washed and cleansed from the seamoss
which was grown about her, she was like unto another
woman; she was appareled, and began to accustome herself to
ordinary meats like unto any other, yet she sought still means
to escape, and to get into the water, but she was straightly
‘‘They came from farrre to see her. Those of Harlem made
great sute to them of Edam to have this woman by reason of the
strangenesse thereof. In the end they obtained her, where she
did learn to spin, and lived many years (some say fifteen), and
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Sea Phantoms and Superstitions
for the reverance which she bare unto the signe of the crosse
whereunto she had beene accustomed, she was buried in the
church-yarde. Many persons worthy of credit have justified in
their writings that they had seene her in the said towne of Harlem.’’
A strange superstition of seafaring life related to the caul,
a thin membrane found around the head of some new-born babies.
A caul was considered a good omen for the child, and also
for anyone who acquired it. Many seamen considered a caul to
be a powerful lucky charm against shipwrecks or death from
drowning. There are many allusions to the occult power of the
caul by early writers, and in Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemists
(act I, section 2), the character Face says to Dapper ‘‘Ye were
born with a Cawl o’ your head.’’
Belief in the power of the caul persisted even into the late
nineteenth century, when advertisements relating to the sale of
a caul frequently appeared in British newspapers. As much as
fifteen, twenty, or even thirty guineas were asked by sellers. In
the Western Daily News of Plymouth (February 9, 1867) a notice
offered mariners a child’s caul for five guineas. The Times (May
8, 1848) offered a caul for six guineas and described it as ‘‘having
been afloat with its last owner forty years, through all the
perils of a seaman’s life, and the owner died at last in his bed,
at the place of his birth.’’
Great stress was laid on the soundness of the article, thus in
the Times (February 17, 1813) an advertisement stated, ‘‘A
child’s caul in a perfect state for sale.’’
The notion that a child’s caul could prevent drowning prevailed
in France as well as in England. It was alluded to in a rondeau
by Claude de Malleville (born 1597).
The superstition concerning the caul is from remote antiquity
and was prevalent in the days of the Roman empire. Ælius
Lampridius in his life of Antonine (surnamed Diadumeninus)
stated that paidumeninus was so called from having been
brought into the world with a band of membrane around his
forehead in the shape of a diadem, and that he enjoyed perpetual
happiness from this circumstance. Pagan midwives had no
scruples about selling cauls, and their best market was the
Forum, where they got high prices from lawyers. Many of the
councils of the early Christian Church denounced the superstition.
St. John Chrysostom frequently inveighed against it in his
‘‘Il est né coiffé,’’ is a well-known French expression describing
a lucky man, and indicating that he was born with a caul.
It was believed that so long as the child from whom the caul
had been taken enjoyed good health, the caul experienced the
same and was dry, flexible, and healthy, but when the caul-born
person suffered from any sickness, the membrane also underwent
a change, either becoming totally crisp or regaining its
former flexibility, according to whether the person died or recovered.
Often these cauls became heirlooms, handed down
from father to son (especially if it had been born in the family),
and were regarded by their owners with as much superstition
as if the caul-born person were still living. (Of course, the caul,
a relatively unusual birth event, meant different things in different
cultures. In Poland, for example, a child born with a caul
was a potential vampire and the caul had to be treated precisely
to prevent that fate.) (See monsters)
Bassett, F. S. Legends and Traditions of the Sea and Sailors. Chicago
& New York Belford, Clarke, 1886.
Benwell, G., and A. Waugh. The Sea Enchantress The Tale of
the Mermaid and Her Kin. London Hutchinson, 1961.
Clark, Jerome. Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Phenomena.
Detroit Gale Research, 1993.
Gibson, John. Monsters of the Sea Legendary and Authentic.
London T. Nelson & Sons, 1887.
Gould, Rupert T. The Case for the Sea-Serpent. London Philip
Allan, 1930. Reprint, Detroit Singing Tree Press, 1969.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents. London
Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968.
Jones, William. Credulities Past and Present. London Chatto
& Windus, 1880. Reprint, Detroit Singing Tree Press, 1967.
Rappoport, Angelo. Superstitions of Sailors. London Stanley
Paul, 1928. Reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich. Gryphon Books, 1971.

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