An aunt of mine who lives up on the North York Moors called me after reading the column I wrote last month about robins and the superstitions associated with them. I’d mentioned that in times gone by, seeing a robin was bad luck and some people, if they received a Christmas card featuring a robin, refused to display it. I wondered if that superstition still prevailed today.
According to my aunt, it certainly persists on the Moors and the east coast. A friend of hers, who died just four years ago and lived in the village of Loftus near Saltburn, would tear up any Christmas cards she received with a robin on them as she believed they were portents of death. My aunt also belongs to a local history group that meets regularly in the picturesque fishing village of Staithes, and she reported that a couple of members still refuse to display cards with robins on them.
My aunt’s paternal side of the family hail from Staithes, and she declared they were a ‘superstitious lot’, as were residents of many of the villages dotting that part of the east coast. She also revealed that some members of her group refuse to say the word ‘pig’ aloud and will either spell it out letter by letter, or refer to them as ‘squealers’. It is well known that seafaring communities have many superstitions that have lasted down the centuries, such as not whistling on a boat as that would ‘whistle down the wind’, encouraging a storm to brew. When your way of life is so hazardous, when your very livelihood, never mind your life, lies at the mercy of unpredictable weather, it is not surprising that you resort to whatever means at your disposal to try to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
But I was mystified as to why the word ‘pig’ was so taboo. I have found a couple of explanations, but none that I would call ‘definitive’. One was that as pigs couldn’t swim, it was considered a temptation of fate to either utter their name or to bring them on board. What confuses me about this theory is that many sailors had never been taught to swim either. So how come their presence didn’t tempt fate too?
Another suggestion is that the pig is one of the most important animals associated with Celtic myths. Manannan was a sea-god heavily associated swine, purportedly being the custodian of a never-diminishing herd. If the numbers reduced for any reason, they would magically and spontaneously replenish. Sows were associated with fertility and wealth, while male boars were symbols of courage. However, they were also associated with deception, disobedience and with bringing about death. So perhaps therein lies the the root of the superstition.
My aunt also mentioned that it was unlucky for seafarers to cross paths with a woman en route to their boats. If they did, they would turn tail, go all the way back home and start their journey again before daring to set sail. Some also believed that having women on board a vessel was unlucky. There were similar beliefs around church ministers too, with one explanation being that this symbol of what they called the ‘new religion’ would earn the wrath of the ancient sea gods.
I found an interesting quote from 1968 in the Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland which goes: “We don’t mention pigs. We call ‘em Grecians, jacks, four-legged dinners, ‘owt but a pig. But the odd thing about Staithes people is that while they won’t speak of pigs, almost every fishing family keeps one.” There were similar beliefs around salmon, which would be replaced with the words ‘fine bit fish’ or ‘reid fish’, while rabbits became ‘bob tail’, ‘fower fitter’ or ‘mappin’. Rats and cats are also said to be unlucky (although I was under the impression that a ship’s cat was an essential member of the crew, its job being to keep the rat population down!).
If by some dreadful misfortune the unlucky word was uttered, the only way to turn fortunes back again was to touch something metal and declare the words ‘cold iron’. Others believed that the only way to undo the curse was to spill the blood of the animal in question.
I hope the same didn’t apply to women and church ministers!
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