Following the column I wrote a couple of weeks ago about superstitions held by seafaring folk, reader Lynn Catena got in touch to say: “I remember reading somewhere that people would crush their eggshells before throwing them out so that witches couldn’t sail out to sea and sink the fishing boats.”
She also sent me a copy of a poem featured in a blog by writer and folklore historian Willow Winsham. The poem was written by Elizabeth Fleming in 1934 and the first verse goes like this:
‘Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup;
Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up,
For witches come and find them and sail away to sea,
And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.’
She also cites a much earlier reference in Reginald Scott’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584): ‘They can go in and out of anger holes and sail in an egg shell, a cockle or mussel shell, through and under tempestuous seas.’
But the earliest reference to the smashing of eggshells comes from Pliny the Elder, writing in his most famous work, Natural History, in about AD77. Comprising 37 books, it is one of the largest surviving works from the Roman Empire, and is considered by many to be the first ever encyclopaedia. It covers a variety of subjects, such as botany, zoology, astronomy and mineralogy, as well as contemporary traditions and beliefs. It is one of the reasons we know that Romans invented water mills for refining grain, and developed the technique of ‘hushing’ (also known as ‘booming’), a mining term where torrents of water are forced through soil to expose mineral veins, a method still used now, nearly 2,000 years later.
In Book 28, he discusses spells and charms: ‘There is indeed no-body who does not fear to be spell-bound by imprecations. A similar feeling makes everybody break the shells of eggs or snails immediately after eating them, or else pierce them with the spoon that they have used.’ He doesn’t explain why people break the shells, but with the ocean as the main form of transport during the expansion of the Roman Empire, one might assume that they held similar beliefs about mischievous gods and goddesses.
Pliny the Elder died two days after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which occurred on August 24th AD79. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, who was 18 at the time, described what happened in a letter to the historian Tacitus. Writing around 27 years later, he explained that they had witnessed the eruption from across the bay, watching in horror as a huge mushroom plume of smoke burst into the sky. His uncle set out with a rescue party from his home town of Misenum on the northernmost coast of the Bay of Naples, heading by boat towards his friend’s home on the opposite shore just south of Pompeii. Hampered by thick fumes and constant showers of pumice rocks, they made it across the water, but by the time they arrived, it was deemed too dangerous to set off back. They stayed in the home of the friends they’d come to rescue, and in the morning, with the air thick with dust and noxious fumes, and aftershocks suggesting further eruptions, they went back down to the shore to see if it was safe to set sail. But by now the wind had turned, so again they could not leave. Pliny, who was overweight and already suffered from respiratory complaints, was starting to struggle for breath and had to be supported back to the house by two slaves. He passed away the next day.
I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been to have been there, with no comprehension of how or why it was happening. We get some idea of the terror of thinking the world was coming to an end from Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account: ‘A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood…we had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.’
He goes on: ‘I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me, and I with it.’
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th and the Gazette & Herald on 16th February 2022