All at Sea? The Survival of Superstition

Alec Gill investigates how taboo has survived in Hull's fishing community - past and present.

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica concluded that 'superstition has been deeply influential in world history. Being irrational, it should recede before education and, especially, science' (15th Edition, 1979). Superstition, however, shows no sign of receding. Currently, we are being urged by the symbol of the National Lottery to cross fingers for luck. The old folk magic seems ever present.

Eric Maple makes the refreshing point that 'there are apparently no absolutely new superstitions but only ancient ones which ... persist in advancing from generation to generation disguised as novelties' in Peter Haining's book Superstition (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979) . The 'advance' of superstition is through the oral tradition. This sometimes makes it difficult for historians to research because there is little tangible evidence – superstitions are rarely written down. Thus, their survival is even more remarkable.

More by luck than design, my twenty-year investigation into Hull's trawling history led me into this ancient topic. The fishing families of my home-port provide a rich source of superstitious material. Although Hull's trawling industry is now much depleted. the former fishing community demolished and the people re-housed, the ancient superstitions can still be found amongst families linked with the sea. The cliché is true: 'Of all seafarers, there are none more superstitious than fishermen'. Fishing taboos touch many aspects of daily life: the women at home, men at sea, various animals and inanimate objects.

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