Here Be Monsters: Sailor Stories & Nautical Folklore

By Romany Reagan

‘The widow-making, unchilding, unfathering deep.’

—Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

It has been said that no group of workingmen harbour as many superstitions within its collective breast as sailors do—and well this should be, because no body of workers endures such dangerous conditions of employment as those mariners who ply the seven seas to make their living. In this piece, I’ve gathered just a few pearls from the deep. Here you’ll find some interesting superstitions, legends of beasties and ghost ships—ending with one full-length tale of pirate horror. 

If you’d like to enjoy an audio walk through Tower Hamlets Cemetery in London—or just enjoy a sea legend from the comfort of your couch—my audio walk ‘Siren Sea—All is Lost for She’ is a tale of lost love and a sea siren. 

The sea is full of stories. I grew up on the coast of San Diego, California, and I remember well the thrill of skipping school to sit on the rocks at Windansea beach and feel at the world’s end. When looked at from the shore, the ocean seems peaceful and romantic—but the moment we step off dry land, we are at the mercy of a colossal force. That ancient humans sought to master this hostile environment—all but the very edge of which is anathema to mammalian life—is brave and not a little insane. In setting out to face this great blue unknown, honouring a few superstitions could stiffen your spine.

Sailor Superstitions

Whistling

It was felt that whistling aboard the ship amounted to a challenge to the winds themselves and could summon a storm. The belief was that whistling could anger the gods of the sea. The many British pubs named the ‘The Pig & Whistle’ reflect this superstition, since on land the seafarer could whistle as much as he liked without risk. Also, it was unlucky to use the word ‘pig’ at sea—one said ‘hog’ or ‘sow’ instead—but on land it was perfectly safe to do so. (Jeans 4) So, when granted shore leave nothing could be more relaxing than getting to do all the things you’ve missed at The Pig & Whistle. 

‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ illustration

Killing the albatross 

It has also been bad luck to kill an albatross, a superstition at the heart of the 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). On the other hand, cormorants were considered good omens by Scandinavians, who believed that they were the spirits of loved ones lost at sea. (Koger 316) 

Historic champagne ship christening, image of unknown origin

Launching a ship

In earlier times, when a ship was launched she was splashed with human blood as a tribute to the gods of the sea; nowadays we use wine or champagne. Often the vessel was given a female name in token of its becoming a bride to Poseidon or Neptune, this being the reason ships are referred to as ‘she’ or ‘her’. (Jeans 4) 

‘Saipan’ the Cat, USS New Mexico, 1944

Cats & Women

Cats are welcome on board a ship, but women aren’t. On the other hand, pregnant women are not considered to be unlucky, probably because their condition renders them less of a temptation to mariners! (Jeans 4) 

Lucy Bellwood, Cartoonist

Tattoos

The reason so many seafarers have tattoos on their bodies (a Polynesian word, recorded as tattow by Captain James Cook in 1769) is that these decorations—especially if they are in the form of crosses, hearts, flowers, and so on—act as good-luck charms which will ward off evil. Tattooing is a remnant of the early practice of garlanding a ship with flowers that were thought to be pleasing to the gods, especially fierce gods of the sea such as Poseidon. The introduction of flags and bunting on board ships probably came about because of the widespread use of flowers at funerals ashore; sailors today are reluctant to have real flowers of any kind on board. (Jeans 5)

Although I am now waiting for the popularity of bunting tattoos amongst sailors… 

Light a cigarette off a candle, kill a sailor

This belief was widespread in northern German port cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg—that lighting one’s cigarette on a candle means killing a sailor. Why is that? Apparently before the onset of the Industrial Revolution many sailors who were unable to land paid employment on a ship complemented their dwindling savings by manufacturing matches while waiting for their next commission. A careless and greedy individual not using a match to light his or her cigarette would deprive sailors of this much-needed income and thus threaten their livelihood. (Buschmann 315)

The Kraken

Hello beastie…

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His antient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

— ‘The Kraken’, Alfred Tennyson, 1862

The mariners of yesteryear earnestly believed that monsters and serpents of prodigious size lurked in the gloomy depths of the world’s oceans, and they marked their maps and charts thus: ‘Here Be Monsters’. Above this somber warning would appear a creature drawn by an enthusiastic and imaginative artist that might have been more at home in one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno or in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch than in any scientific catalog of animals of the world. Even as late as 1588, a Swiss engraving showed a sea serpent consuming an entire ship, including the patently unhappy crew; the Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus bequeathed to posterity a record of a sighting of a giant sea snake that ‘puts up his head on hight like a pillar, and catcheth away men, and he devours them’. (Jeans 3) 

The creatures referred to as ‘sea serpents’ have figured prominently in myth and legend for millennia. One early example is the enormous Jörmungandr of Norse mythology that was thought to encircle the world. Serpents sighted at sea in seemingly authentic reports have been tentatively identified as real animals such as oarfish, which can grow up to 36 feet in length. Cryptozoologists, on the other hand, have suggested that relic marine reptiles may be responsible for many such reports. “Sometimes an explanation for the previously inexplicable is eventually found. In one such case, the famous Kraken monster of Norwegian waters, known to seafarers of old and feared by them for hundreds of years for its size and alleged ferocity, was almost certainly Architeuthis, a species of giant squid. But for some other apparitions at sea there is still no explanation, other than the accumulated experience and wisdom of the ancient mariner who, asserting that he has seen, for example, a sea serpent in full flight, has seen it, and that’s that.” (Jeans 2) 

Mermaids

‘A Mermaid’, John William Waterhouse RA, 1900

The half-human, half-fish beings known as mermaids and their male counterparts, mermen, were also thought to inhabit the sea. Similar beings include the fish-god Oannes (or Adapa) of ancient Mesopotamian mythology, the son of Poseidon named Triton, and the composite Japanese creature known as the ningyo. It is possible that such aquatic mammals as manatees, dugongs, and Steller’s sea cows (the last extinct since the 18th century) fuelled belief in such creatures. (Koger 315) 

The first merman in recorded history is the sea-god Ea of the Early Babylonians. It is to Berossus, a Chaldean priest of about 200 B.C., that we owe a detailed account of Oannes. However the main attributes we think of regarding mermaids today—that of enticement and a gift of fatal song—derive from Homer’s famous description of the sirens who ‘attempted upon’ Odysseus. With one major difference: the early Greeks portrayed the Sirens as women-faced birds. 

‘Ulysses and the Siren’s’, John Williams Waterhouse, 1891

It is interesting to trace how the siren developed from a woman-faced bird into a fish-tailed temptress. The earliest example of a fish-tailed siren that I have found is an attractive terra-cotta figurine of a ‘mourning siren’ of about 250 B.C., to be seen in the British Museum. A transitional mermaid, with fish-tail, claws, and features, is to be found on a misericord in Carlisle Cathedral, and thus she was pictured in some of the Bestiaries. It is the Bestiaries which gave the mermaid all the attributes associated with her from early Christian days—her vanity, constantly with comb and mirror, her alluring appearance and voice, and her danger to the human soul. Early on in the Christian Era, a fish was a symbol of the soul; and, in medieval Church carvings, a mermaid grasping a fish is an Awful Warning to the Laity. There is a good example from a miserichor in Exeter Cathedral. (Waugh 76-77)

The middle ages was the age of marvels, and the wonders of the Bestiaries were augmented by travellers’ tales and a growing number of ‘sightings’ from sailors on the Seven Seas. The opinion of naturalists of many centuries is that in fact the so-called mermaid was only a manatee, or a dugong, or even a seal, imperfectly observed from a distance. 

Dugong underwater portrait, Lamen Bay, Epi Island, Vanuatu, National Geographic

The dugong and the manatee keep appearing as mermaids in early voyages of exploration and trade. A Capuchin monk, who in 1632 voyaged to the Congo describes with some relish how he ‘eat of’ the mermaid, whom he describes as ‘upwards’ a woman. He found her very tasty, like veal. Likewise the crew of the Halifax reported in 1739 how they had eaten of mermaids tasting like veal. One cannot believe that the good Father, or the crew of the Halifax, would have ‘eat’ of the mermaid if she were in fact partly human. Their reactions would probably have been similar to those of one of Macleod’s retainers in the Isle of Skye who watched a mermaid combing her hair on the rocks: 

‘I lifted my gun’, said he, ‘meaning to shoot her, for I thought, if I got her I could carry her round the country, and myself would be the rich man. And then I put down the gun, for I thought, she’s so human-like, that if I shoot her I will be hanged.’ (Waugh 79) 

West Indian Manatee, National Geographic

The dugong or manatee seen-at-a-distance may well account for some reports of mermaid sightings, such as that of Columbus, who, on his voyage of discovery, saw three mermaids ‘leaping a good height out of the sea’. He found that they are ‘not so faire as they are painted’. (Waugh 79) 

Mermaid not-slip floor mat, Amazon (you know you want one now)

Phantom Ships: The Flying Dutchman & the Legend of Dahul

‘The Ninth Wave’, George Grie, 2009

One of the more enduring examples of nautical folklore involves ghost ships manned by ghostly crews, the sighting of which is traditionally regarded as an omen of doom. Stories of phantom ships have been told since humanity first took to the sea, but it is in the story of Captain Van der Decken and The Flying Dutchmen, however, that we find the best-known form of the legend. Some researchers state that the legend of The Flying Dutchman was fabricated by the British to expose Dutch morals as evil and god-forsaken as a retaliation against the Dutch East India Company (VOC). During the 17th and 18th centuries, the British and the Dutch competed fiercely on the high seas, a situation that led to three Dutch-British wars in the course of the 17th century. There are versions of The Flying Dutchman legend in French, English, and German, all with slightly different details. The legend can be traced back to the 17th century but the fullest version of the legend that we know today is based on 19th-century literature.

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, ghost ships had already featured in English literature. In 1826, Edward Fitzball wrote a play called The Flying Dutchman, and in 1837 Frederick Marryat published a novel called The Phantom Ship

In essence, the legend is about the captain of a VOC trade ship, who sought to reach the East in a great hurry. His sins reportedly committed en route can vary considerably—he is said to have set sail on Easter Sunday, to have drowned a resisting helmsman, and, in most versions, to have sold his soul to the devil in order to sail faster, even above the waves or against the wind. In the end, he loses his soul to the devil and, due to his greed and godlessness, he is doomed to sail the seven seas on board his ghost ship forever. (Meder 122)

It is said that the legend of The Flying Dutchman might have been based on a real person—Captain Barend Fokke. He captained the fastest of the VOC ships, and one day never returned from a voyage. Ships of the VOC had to take a specific route from Amsterdam to Batavia and back. In case they were damaged out at sea, the chances they would encounter another ship were best on this route. It was called ‘the safe track’. Barend Fokke, sometimes known as Barend Fockesz, of the swift, armed merchant ship De Kroonvogel did not care for safe tracks. To shorten his trips, he often left the track. While it took slow and heavy VOC ships 8-12 months to complete a journey, Barend could do it in 6 months. Still, he felt the trip was taking too long, but he realised the only way he could sail faster would be with the aid of the devil. Then one night the devil became his guest out at sea, west of the Cape of Good Hope. 

At night, a small sloop approached De Kroonvogel and a gentleman, all dressed in black, came aboard. Slowly, the door of his cabin opened and the devil entered. 

“You called me, Barend Fockesz?”

“Yes, I want to make even shorter journeys.”

“Then you will always have to sail with full sails.”

“And what if the rigging goes overboard in a storm?” Barend asked.

“Fasten the ropes and wires with iron bars, so that the yard can’t go overboard. Hollow out your masts and fill them with liquid lead, and they can’t break anymore”, the Devil replied. 

“Then the ship becomes too heavy, way too heavy”, Barend said. 

“Oh no, with my help you will sail over reefs and rocks, over shallow water and sandbanks. Be it with head wind or no wind at all, De Kroonvogel will always have full sails. For centuries the seamen will speak of your ship; they will call it The Flying Dutchman.”  

After seven years, the contract came to an end, and the whole ship was taken over by the Devil. Now The Flying Dutchman is sailing the seven seas for eternity, without ever entering a harbour. The ship is always sailing with full sails, be it with or against the wind. 

The Devil said: “From this moment on you are cursed. You are sentenced to sail forever without rest or anchorage. You will taste neither beer or tobacco. Your drink will be bitter water and your food red hot iron. Only a cabin boy will remain of your crew; horns will grow from his forehead and he will have a tiger’s face and skin rougher than a dogfish. You will always be on duty and will never be able to sleep. You shall torment seamen until the end of time. You will become the evil spirit of the sea. You will travel all oceans without stopping or resting. Your ship will bring bad luck to all who see it. And on the Day of Judgement, I will claim your soul.”

From that day until this Van der Decken has sailed his Flying Dutchmen round the seas of the world, sending ships on the wrong course and terrifying seamen. As time passed, he gathered a crew of all the worst sea tyrants, all cursed to sail at his side. Now he is condemned to sail until doomsday in a ship crewed by skeletons, as he turns an hourglass to watch the sands of eternity slowly trickle past. (Archibald 109-110)

“The appearance of the black ship is an omen of storm and destruction for the ships it encounters. In the evenings, many ships have been hailed by The Flying Dutchman and one can clearly see the figure of the captain on the bridge. He has become very, very old now, and in his feeble, bony hand he holds a letter with black wax seals, which he wants to give to the captain of the ship he is hailing. It is a letter for the Lords Seventeen, the directors of the VOC in Amsterdam. However, no one ever dared to accept the letter.” (Jeans 117-119) 

Davy Jones & the Flying Dutchman, Pirates of the Caribbean

Most of us will have heard of the legend of The Flying Dutchman—if for no other reason the fame the legend has earned in the ‘lightly inspired by…’ version made famous by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But many of us might not have heard of the Legend of Dahul, which to my mind is far more unsettling. 

This Breton legend of deathless punishment was collected by Elvire de Cerny in 1859 from an aged sailor and reported in the Revue des traditions populaires. It belongs to the class of Flying Dutchman legends, but takes the story to an even darker place. Though at first glance it seems shockingly lurid, it must be remembered that the authentic history of the sea raiders of the Barbary States and of the Spanish Main furnished many an example of fiendishness equal to that of this story. 

I found a version written down to posterity by one Wilbur Bassett in 1917. (*The full book was digitised in 2009 and is available to read for free online via the link at the bottom of this post in Sources and Further Reading—I highly recommend it!)

The story is the greatest of soul mysteries, the most tragic story of the sea, mother of tragedies. Music, painting, and literature have been enriched by its inspiration, and so long as the sea remains untamed, the idea of the wandering soul, shut forever within ghostly bulwarks, beating in vain towards friendly ports and pounding for centuries through the wrack of the ocean must stir profoundly the imagination of man. The essential elements of the story, as of all legends of The Flying Dutchman type, are the phantom ship and the deathless punishment. (Bassett 46) 

Bassett’s version so magically captures a stormy-night sea-story atmosphere, that I’ve transcribed it in full here, with only light editing.

Put the kettle on and settle in for a gruesome adventure…

The Legend of Dahul

Vanitas, Kevin Best, 2010

An autumn gale gathered its forces and before warning swept into a torrential rain. Night was falling in the little town that sits with her ancient feet in the sea, and in the twilight the heavy drops that beat upon her roofs and poured in torrents down her cobbled streets shone with the dull brilliancy of metal. Upon a side street near the fish market a small house, with high-peaked roof and gabled windows heavily thatched, challenged the torrents with an ancient sea lantern which swung sturdily and unwinking in the tumult. 

Three figures in oilskins, their aged backs bent against the wind, their sticks clattering noisily upon the cobbles, halted beneath the lantern and entered through the low door. The firelight within and the rays of a swinging lamp flickered upon the smoked rafters of the little room and upon the deep-lined faces of a dozen quiet old men and a round-face young fisherman. The smoke of their pipes swayed and drifted above their heads. At their backs, the leaded windows shook with the might of the wind and the impact of the rain and the roar of the sea. 

As the door closed behind the three men, and they had hung their dripping oilskins upon the hooks behind the door and drawn off their heavy sea boots, they joined the circle by the fire. It was a time for stories. Pipe smoke gathered so thickly in the air that the figures of the old sailors seemed like shadowy spirits wreathed in the ghostly clouds from their pipes. The stories started commonly enough, but as the night wore on and their corporeal bodies faded into eerie smoke, and the tangible violence of the storm hushed away into mystic voices of sea and wind, so the stories of these old men of the sea shifted sensibly from the solid ground of physical experience to the tenuous world of apparitions and legend. 

Passing about the circle the lot of speaker came at last to Pierre. The grizzled mate at his right called for the legend of Dahul, speaking quietly and urging Pierre to recount the greatest of his stories. He recalled that Dahul had appeared to the coasting schooner Marguerite—and that afterwards the schooner, with Pierre’s only brother on board, had never been seen again. Since that time, Pierre had never mentioned the name of Dahul. It was no wonder, said the old mate. Were not even the pirates Surcouf and Tribaldor-le-Grand afraid of the mere name of Dahul? The old mate urged Pierre to tell of the spectre ship, and presently he laid aside his pipe and began the tale. 

As they tell and say, there was once a brig that sailed from Barcelona to Palermo. The day was fine, and her master anxious to hasten upon his way spread all sail to the breeze, rejoicing in the prospect of a clear night and a long run. Towards sunset the wind died away and darkness closed down ominously, the stars blotted out by flying clouds from the north. The courses were hastily furled, and all hands jumped aloft to shorten sail and soon had the topsails straining in buntlines. Without a moment’s warning, while the men were still upon the yards, the storm broke fiercely upon them from abeam, bursting the bunted topsails from the boltropes with thunderous crashes, their torn cloths sweeping half the topmen from the footropes away to leeward into the sea. Hatches were hastily battened down and storm canvas held in readiness, but the rising seas swept bodily over the doomed brig, and whirling in green masses along her decks swept the remnant of her crew into the sea. 

Alone and crippled, but still resolute and buoyant, drifting to leeward through the long night the solitary hull rolled away into the darkness. Day after day, and through many a night, the lonely brig drifted on her solitary way at the mercy of wind and wave. By day, the fin of a shark gleamed alongside; by night, wan phosphorescent lights flitted along her decks, and aloft from spar to spar, and in her stifled cabins the death-dew gathered white and damp. 

Slowly, the currents set her to the westward till she approached the Algerian coast. A sail crept out of the morning haze to meet her, one of that fierce band of cutthroats who haunt the darker lanes of oceans and lurk in the deep shadows beyond the harbour lights. She was an Arab felucca, whose graceful sweeping lines glistened in the sun beneath the splendid sweep of birdlike lateen. Slipping to the windward like a gull, her pirate captain hove alongside the desolate brig and hailed her. No sounds came back save the creak of yards in their slings and the hollow voice of idle blocks. At once a score of crew leaped aboard her, burst her hatches and fought each other for the plunder in the poor sea chests of the lost crew. But though the plunder in the mouldering cabin was worth but little, the plunderers were delighted to find the ship sound and seaworthy, and they at once decided to stay aboard her, leaving a few of their comrades to sail the felucca. The strongest and handsomest ruffian of them all was their captain, a man guilty of all crimes, and his name was Dahul. Even his own men dreaded him, and believed that his reckless prowess and contempt of danger were due to an alliance with the devil. Under his orders, new canvas was bent onto the bare yards, fresh rigging rove, and a hot fire blazed in the unused galley. 

So began the piratical cruise of the once peaceful and respectable merchant brig. Spanish galleons from the Indies and the southern seas, humble coasters, and even small ships of war were captured, looted, and burned by this scourge of the sea. So great was the terror of the name of Dahul that many a ship that went down in tempest or breakers was charged to the evil account of his crew. Armed merchantmen gave him battle and ships of war cruised in his wake, but in spite of many narrow escapes he grew bolder and more reckless and appalled even his own men by the utter abandon of his nature. It was whispered that often the fiend stood watch with him at night. Some even heard him talking at night with a man not of the crew, so they were sure that it was indeed the devil, and knew that it was his sinister power that had protected them from the king’s ship. 

Dahul and his ally spent much time together and seemed to enjoy each other’s company greatly, but one night as they were conversing at the wheel, they fell to quarrelling and Dahul, unable to control himself, seized a heavy oak capstan-bar and attacked the fiend, who let go the wheel and with a curse and a terrible scowl disappeared into the darkness. Of a certainty the devil was very angry at Dahul, because it is a sea crime to strike any man at the wheel, but after he had thought the matter over a while he felt very sorry that he had quarrelled with Dahul, whom he rightly considered one of his best friends and allies. He therefore decided to make up with him as soon as possible, and presently managed to mislead a homeward-bounder from the Indies directly into the grasp of the brig. 

The big ship was sighted one fine morning in that sparkling sea that lies between Gibraltar and the Azores. Her billowy canvas and spotless deck shone in the summer sun, and her polished brass glistened peacefully in the shadow of her awnings. Her captain marked the approach of the brig through his glass and drew no ill augury from the approach of a merchant brig under a peaceful flag. Not until two armed boats dashed from under her lee and a solid shot crashed into his hull did he prepare for defence. Before the crew of the big ship could get to quarters, Dahul at the head of his men boarded from her lee fore-chains. With cutlass and pistol the pirates cut down the surprised crew before they could arm themselves. Not a man asked for quarter and not one was spared, including her officers, whom Dahul caused to be bound hand and foot and hanged from their own yardarms. The dead and dying sailors were cast into the sea from the blood-stained decks they had so lately trod, and the pirates rushed below to the booty which they knew a big ship must contain. 

Breaking the cabin door, they came upon a scene which would have softened any but these hardened ruffians, whose lives had been full of plunder and violence. There in an agony of fear they found a Spanish family, with a black-robed priest, calm and resolute, quieting their fears and praying in a firm voice that they might be delivered from their peril. The summer sun shone from the open port on the face of a mother whose tears fell upon the child she strained to her breast; on the startled black eyes of a beautiful girl of eighteen or twenty years who clutched despairingly at her father, a tall Spanish merchant facing the pirates unarmed but like a lion at bay. 

With brutal exaltation Dahul ordered them all dragged upon deck, while his men broke open chests and lockers and rioted in the profusion and variety of plunder from overseas they found aboard. Golden ornaments and precious silver miniatures from Cathay rolled about the decks, and the rich silks of Amoy fell disregarded from the ransacked chests. By the rail stood Dahul, pointing to this silver trinket and that ivory charm as his own portion and demanding that it be laid at his feet. 

The priest, gazing with terror upon this scene of riot and brutality, and fearing that the next mood might involve his charges in some bloody carnival of riot and excess, taking new courage from his faith and from his extremity, approached Dahul with such fortitude and calmness as he could muster. With firm words, he besought the pirate captain to be satisfied with the golden trinkets and the rich fabrics which had fallen to his lot, and to avoid the wrath of the church and the judgement of God by sparing the lives of the unhappy passengers who had fallen into his hands. 

In answer to the prayers of the priest, Dahul slapped him on the back, and with words of praise for his fine physique promised him safety if he would join the pirate crew, now lessened by the losses of the battle. The priest’s indignant refusal aroused the wrath of Dahul, and he struck him with his fist, and with loud oaths ordered him crucified in the image of his Master. With a winning smile and a finger pointed at the tortured priest, he turned to the horrified Spaniard and with promises of life and loot offered him a place among the ruffians of his crew. The curl of proud disdain upon the father’s blood-stained lips seemed to arouse Dahul to a new frenzy, and with a torrent of oaths he rushed upon the dazed mother, snatched the child from her grasp, drew his reeking cutlass across its throat and tossing it to one of his men, shouted to him to have the cook roast the Spanish lamb at once and have a table set for his friends. 

Under his orders the abominable deed was done, and on the table spread upon the after deck was laid the little roasted body of the murdered child. Then, with his face wreathed in triumph, the murderer with affected politeness summoned the stricken family to join him at his dreadful table. The mother roused from her swoon and stretching her arms in agony toward the dying priest, besought his benediction and his prayers. With a sneer Dahul drew up to the table, and called to the priest whose lips were moving in prayer: ‘Yes, that is right, say grace, for I will feast.’ 

The great yards moaned aloft with the pitch and roll of the vessel, and her blood-stained planks seemed to take up and swell the cry of agony of the priest who poured forth all his soul in his last appeal to his God. Dahul blanched and sprang to his feet in alarm as the priest ended and out of a darkened sky a mighty voice, heard above wind and wave, thundered in his ears from he knew not whence: 

‘You shall wander, Dahul, at the will of the winds, at the mercy of the waves. Your crew shall exhaust itself in useless and unending toil. You shall wander upon every sea until the end of centuries. You shall receive aboard you all the drowned of the world. You shall not die, nor shall you ever approach the shore, nor the ships which you will always see fleeing before you!’

The voice was silent. The ship shot away before the rising wind. Mother, daughter, and father, and the priest, now freed from his crucifixion, were transported to the deck of a neighbouring bark as by a miracle, and Dahul and his accursed ship, flying before the wrath of wind and wave, disappeared below the horizon. 

Since that dread day the ship has borne her cursed crew. She wanders on forever, the harbinger of tempest, of fire, and of death. Food never comes to her galley, nor sleep to her bunks. She is without fresh water and without hope. She may be seen on every sea, her black hull like a great coffin, draped in the white shroud of her ghostly sails. Often at night, while far-off thunder rumbles in the air, and the soft lap of a rising swell tells of the coming storm, the fateful brig goes by some luckless ship like the shadow of impending death. Though the wind be light, her close-reefed sails are full to bursting, and she seems to be racing towards the coming storm, yet no sound comes from aloft or below. At times, sulphurous fires envelop her, and out of her cavernous hull come fearful cries. Fierce battles rage upon her decks, and above the uproar is heard the frightful laugh of the archfiend, the companion of Dahul, who stands at the wheel. Bodies writhe in the flames which rise to the very trucks, and the tall masts seem ready to break with the weight of the tortured souls. 

Then the wise sailor who has seen these things commits his soul to heaven and to his patron saint, makes the sign of the cross and shortens sail, for he has seen the wrath of God. 

With this Pierre ended his tale and again picked up his pipe. The wind whistled and raged outside  while the old sea dogs sat smoking. The young fisherman was shaking by the fire and no one said a word for a long while. 

‘Memento Mori with a skull and crossbones’, Philips Gijsels, 1650

Sources and further reading…

Archibald, Malcom, Sixpence for the Wind: A Knot of Nautical Folklore, (Caithness: Whittles) 1999. Book. 

Bassett, Wilbur, Wander-Ships: Folk-Stories of the Sea with Notes Upon Their Origin, (Indiana University: 1917). Book. Digitised by Open Court Publishing Company in 2009: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Wander_ships/DorfAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

Beck, Horace, Folklore and the Sea, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press) 1973. Book.

Buschmann, Rainer F.; Nolde, Lance (editors), The World’s Oceans: Geography, History, and Environment, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO). 2018. Book. 

Heuvelmans, Bernard, The Kraken and the Colossal Octopus, (Abingdon: Kegan Paul Limited) 2006. Book. 

Jeans, Peter, Seafaring Lore and Legend, (London: International Marine / McGraw-Hill) 2004. Book. 

Koger, Grove, ‘Myths and Legends’, p313-316, Buschmann, Rainer F.; Nolde, Lance (editors), The World’s Oceans: Geography, History, and Environment, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO). 2018. Book. 

Meder, Theo, The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands, (London: Libraries Unlimited) 2008. Book.   

          –‘In Search of the Dutch Lore of the Land: Old and New Legends Throughout the Netherlands’, Folklore, 122:2, p117-134. Journal. 

Waugh, Arthur, ‘The Folklore of the Merfolk’, Folklore, 71:2, p73-84. Journal.

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