Ship,Women and Superstition
Sailors have a long tradition of superstition; looking for any edge they could find to give them comfort on stormy nights at sea. One of the longest standing superstitions – one that could also be classified as a bit of an urban myth – is that women on board a ship equalled bad luck.
Depending on the era and the nation, women were often forbidden from sailing on military vessels; as for merchant ships, that was up to the captain, or the company. Sailors believed having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and it was an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard. When women were aboard a ship, men were prone to distraction or other vices that may take away from their duties, this would anger the seas and doom the ship. In some cases women who were on board ship were even tossed over board in order to attempt an appeasement of the gods.
Superstitions abound in all walks of life, but the sea faring folk seem to have more than their fair share. There are so many facets the ancient sailor’s life that he has no control over—the sea, the weather, market prices, politics, health – that he seemed to seize control over any aspect he could. Some believe this was out of a need to have some hope, some control over his fate.
Keeping women off of a working ship was one of those ways, and like many superstitions in the work place comes from a very sensible origin. The fact is while in some cases there were rules against women on board ship (not passenger ships, however) it was more often due to the distracter factor than any superstition. A woman on board a ship full of men on a months-long voyage could bring on all sorts of headaches for the captain, not to mention the woman.
The Other Side of coin
While sailors would sometimes fight tooth and nail to keep women off of their ships, in many cases women were welcomed aboard. There are times when a wife would sail alongside her husband, and there is a reason that literature has examples of women disguising themselves as men to sail – it has a historical basis.
The most ironic twist to the “women on ship are bad luck” superstition was the flip side of the coin, a superstition that had women being good luck in connection with the ship. Women, despite in most cases not being allowed on board a working ship as crew, were sometimes considered better navigators than men. Put this together with the power of a bare chested woman to “shame nature” and keep the waves away, and you have the reason behind the popularity of topless women depicted as figureheads on many sailing ships.
Figureheads, or mastheads, are carved statues fixed to the prow of the ship, and sometimes are depicted as ancient creatures or warriors, but a very popular choice was a bare woman pointing the way to port.
The superstition of women being bad luck on board ship is wide spread, or at least, the awareness that the superstition exists. The reality that women were never allowed on board a merchant ship, however, falls more into the urban legend category.