From the earliest moments in history when people believed sailing into the horizon meant falling off the face of a flat Earth to later centuries when the horrors of giant sea monsters and tales of mermaids luring sailors to their deaths, seagoing humans found ways to keep safe from the mythological dangers through superstition. • Some are based in fact and many are not, according to Amara Nash, curator of the Florida Maritime Museum, 4415 119th St. W in Cortez. The museum recently opened its newest exhibit, "Sailors & Superstitions," which will run through Dec. 5 with lecture series in between.
What Nash found to be intriguing when planning the exhibit two years ago was how intertwined superstition and tattoos were for sailors across the centuries. So, Nash has incorporated the history of tattooing, the meaning of nautical tattoos and some of the superstitious meanings behind tattoos.
"For example, some sailors would tattoo a pig and a chicken on their legs because the pigs and chickens were in wooden crates and if the ship sank, it would often be those crates that would survive by washing up on shore," Nash said. "Another one is that sailors used to believe that a tattoo of a crucifix meant that sharks couldn't touch them, even if they were in the water and surrounded by hundreds of them."
Sharks have a long, sometimes dark history with sailors in both fact and fiction. It was a sign of doom if sharks were spotted trailing a ship at sea. Black cats remain to some as a sign of bad luck, and there are commercial fishermen even today in the historic village of Cortez who "will turn right around and go home for the day" if a black cat crosses their path on the way to their boat, Nash said.
"Other cats were considered to be good luck because they kept the rat population under control, and they were sensitive to barometric changes, which made predicting the weather easier. But no black cats because they were thought to be a witch's familiar," she added.
Women on a ship also were considered bad luck, but in perhaps typical sailor thinking, women on board were sometimes fine as long as they were scantily clad.
And even today, if you bring a banana on a fishing boat, you may be asked to leave immediately. Nash said she is unsure of the origin of the superstition, but some anglers say the oil in the skin is a natural fish repellent.
The superstition dates back to the 1700s when boats hauling both bananas and fishermen had to sail quickly before the fruit spoiled, making it difficult to fish. It evolved into a belief that bananas will cause a boat to sink.
Nash said it's those kinds of things that make the exhibit unique, which "focuses on different aspects of perspectives and views that people have in the maritime industry. And one thing I learned that I thought was unique about the tattoos is that they were like a sailor's resume. They would get tattoos of places they've been, things they've done and had tattoos for things like crossing the equator. You could really tell a lot about a sailor just by looking at him."
Nash said since the exhibit opened, it's been a wide age range of guests from older sailors feeling nostalgic to younger curiosity seekers to tattoo enthusiasts in general who want to see some equipment on loan from the Lucky Supply Tattoo Museum in Largo.
"People are really liking it," Nash said. "It's fun, and there are some surprises in what people will learn."