fishing industry


fishing industry
   Two of the main reasons usually cited as favourable to the growth of superstition are dangerous working conditions and the degree on which success/failure is affected by 'luck' rather than skill. Fishing has clearly fulfilled both these criteria, in abundance, for centuries, and even the introduction of new technologies has not altered the basic nature of the business, and fishing communities have a reputation for being extremely superstitious. Beliefs clustered around various parts of the life, both on shore and at sea, but at the risk of stating the obvious, it must be stressed that not all fishermen were or are superstitious, or to the same degree. In addition, none of the beliefs cited are unique to the fishing community, they all turn up in some guise or other in other trades or communities, particularly, it seems, in the mining industry.
   Fishermen had to be particularly careful what happened to them on their way down to the boat. It was considered unlucky for a seaman to meet a woman on his way to the quay, few fishermen would allow a woman on board a ship, and they were not allowed down to the quay to see the boats off (although they could be there to welcome them home). It was also bad to meet a clergyman or see a drowned animal. Seeing a rabbit, hare, or pig was unlucky, as was a squinting person, but meeting a *hunchback or an idiot is lucky. Despite these dangers, it was very unlucky to turn back after you had set off from home - even looking back was avoided.
   Sailing on a *Friday was avoided if possible, and beginning a voyage on *Friday the Thirteenth was out of the question. But the worst day of all, was *Holy Innocents Day (28 December), which is not surprising considering the story of the slaughter of innocent children after which it is named. While at sea there were numerous prohibitions to be considered. Talking in plain terms about the size of a catch was to be avoided as tempting fate (compare *counting), and many words were avoided altogether. One of the strongest taboos was the word 'pig', and fishermen and their families would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid saying the actual word. They would use synonyms such as 'porker', or spell it out, but no remotely satisfying suggestion for an origin for this has been advanced. Paradoxically, Gill points out that many families in fishing areas actually kept pigs. The word was taboo, no part of a pig should be taken on board, to see a pig on the way to sailing was unlucky, but the animal itself on shore was not forbidden or even feared.
   Carrying a corpse on board ship was avoided if at all possible, and if it was absolutely necessary it had to lie across the ship (not end on) and should leave the ship before any of the crew. *Coins figure in more than one custom. All new vessels had to have a coin beneath the mast, and many fishermen would cut a slit in the cork floats on a net and insert a coin to pay for their catch. Most ships had a *horseshoe nailed to the mast, and a knife stuck into a mast would encourage a fair wind.
   Many seamen share the belief with the general population that possession of a child's * caul will protect you from drowning, and they naturally have a vested interest in possessing one. There was a curious tendency in past times for seamen to be unable to swim. This was perhaps based on an idea that to learn would be to tempt fate, or that if the sea wants to take you it will not be cheated and there is nothing you can do to prevent it.
   That *whistling can be very dangerous is a belief shared with other professions. At sea it was believed that it conjured up a wind, of which much could be disastrous, although in sailing days a little judicious whistling might be necessary if you were becalmed. There was also a hint that whistling attracted the attention of unwelcome forces which were best left alone. A whistling woman was a particular anathema. Seamen were careful not to put certain items upside down - a bowl or hatch cover, for example - as this would cause a boat somewhere to capsize. On shore or at sea, the ringing sound made by a *glass accidentally knocked must be stopped immediately or another sailor would be washed overboard.
   It was not only the fishermen themselves who were circumscribed by superstition, but their families at home had to be careful in certain actions. Wives must never *wash the man's clothes on sailing day (or other inauspicious days such as New Year's Day) or she will 'wash him overboard', families must not wave him goodbye, or even say anything as final as 'goodbye'. Do not point to ships, or count them, or watch them sail out of sight, and so on. In fishing communities, these worries were well understood, and women would be as careful to avoid meeting a seaman as he would to meet them.
   It is still considered extremely unwise to change the name of a boat, as it brings bad luck to the vessel and its crew. R. L. Stevenson's novel Treasure Island ((1881), chapter 11) is the first to mention the idea, but, as Gill points out, it is far from uncommon for fishing trawlers to undergo a name-change. Ships which are bought second-hand by other companies, and whole fleets which were taken over, have regularly had their names changed, as did ships which were requisitioned in the two world wars. Similarly, some companies use the same name for a succession of vessels. Nevertheless, the seamen themselves dislike the practice, and often blame a name-change for subsequent ill luck (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 33; Igglesden, c.1932: 116-19).
   On a lighter note, the mackerel fishermen of Sussex, and their families, had a celebratory feast every year on the day the season started, which was often *May Day or just before. The celebration was called 'Bendin' in', which may refer to the custom of bending the nets or may be a corruption of the word Benediction (see, for example, Simpson, 1973:117-18). There are various records from round the country of the sea, the boats, the men, the fish, etc., being blessed at the beginning of the fishing season. Another regular feature is for the fishing boats to be decorated with *garlands.
   ■ Christina Hole, Folklore 78 (1967), 184-9; Shaw Jeffrey, Whitby Lore and Legend (enlarged edn., 1923), 137-43; Gill, 1993.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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