Like many others, Julius Mora, a Cortez fisherman, took heed of black cats. The sight of one could deter any fishing trip. His grandson, Richard Culbreath, remarked that if a black cat crossed Julius’s path on his way to go fishing, he would regard it as a sign of bad luck. To be cautious, he typically chose not to go fishing that day.
Superstitions have long been used to understand the world around us. For sailors, superstitions evolved in the hopes of providing good fortune, luck against drowning and protection from oncoming danger. Life at sea could be unpredictable, and it’s no wonder these ideas were respected by those sailing the often-dangerous waters around the world.
Sailors faced the possibilities of disease spreading quickly below deck and the risk that navigation devices could malfunction, leaving them far from home or a friendly port. Often, if something went wrong, they found themselves with few options to control their own fate, besides hopeful adherence to common superstitions.
Some superstitions varied from place to place, and as people traveled they were exposed to new ideas and cultural beliefs. Over time, some similar superstitions were practiced by people of different cultures. Superstitions were given new life as they were adopted, but often their origins were lost or their meanings became convoluted.
Animals, in particular, were often represented in nautical tradition. As signs of ill fortune, some sailors believed that a shark following a ship was a sign of imminent death. Another such belief claimed that hares were actually witches in disguise. Some animals, however, could bring about good luck. The rooster and pig were often seen as tattoos on the knees or feet and were meant to keep a sailor from drowning. The porpoise and various birds, including the wren and the seagull, were signs of protection or guidance home.
The superstitions surrounding cats differed greatly around the globe. They are well-known superstitious figures, but opinions often varied on whether they brought good or bad luck. In some cultures, cats were seen as a source of good fortune. From a practical perspective, cats reduced or eliminated the rodent population onboard, which helped keep some diseases to a minimum. This is probably why some sailors viewed killing or harming a cat as bad luck. The punishment for such a crime onboard could have been flogging, termination of service, or an “accidental” death.
Conversely, others thought it was dangerous to have cats onboard. Some fishermen thought they might be able to control the weather. The static in their fur coats was rumored to culminate as lightning and bring about terrible storms.
Although many of the superstitions and beliefs perpetuated by sailors of the past are not regarded today, some are still relevant. To learn more about maritime superstitions and tattoos, visit the Florida Maritime Museum during our upcoming exhibit, Maritime Mythologies: Sailor Superstitions, on exhibit Oct. 9 through Dec. 4. Please RSVP if you plan to join us for light snacks and refreshments 5:30 p.m. Oct. 8 for our opening reception.
The Florida Maritime Museum is currently closed for maintenance but will reopen Sept. 22. If you would like information about the museum’s upcoming exhibits or programming, please call 941-708-6120.
Krystin Miner, curator of the Florida Maritime Museum, grew up in Manatee County and treasures the unique history of the area.