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Superstitions of the seaHistorian Robert Neff examines the differences in Western and Eastern sailors' beliefs
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승인 2011.04.10  20:16:18
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▲ Ships in Busan in 1884. Courtesy Robert Neff Collection

Sea travel is inherently dangerous. More so in the past than it is in the present. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for European and American newspapers to have one or two accounts of shipwrecks – particularly after a major storm.

Considering the difficulties and dangers they faced, sailors were, understandably, a superstitious lot. To them, the oceans were filled with dire creatures and malevolent spirits that unless appeased, would destroy ship and sailor alike. In fact, one of the earliest mentions of Korea in the American press was the story of a mermaid allegedly captured off the coast of Korea in 1824.

Now, with the passing of time and our relative knowledge of the depths, many of these early superstitions are nothing more than stories to entertain us – when we are safely ashore.

It is a shame that not much has been recorded on early Korean superstitions regarding the sea. The English language newspapers and magazines printed in Korea in the late 1890s provide a few examples, but the best source is undoubtedly Horace H. Underwood’s book, “Korean Boats and Ships.”

According to Underwood, sacrifices were made to the spirits of the sea whenever a ship set sail. These sacrifices often began before the actual ceremony. A couple of days prior to the ceremony, men were to have no relationship with their wives and women who were experiencing their menstrual periods were encouraged to leave the house until after the ceremony so that they would not contaminate the spiritual cleanliness of the sailor. There were other conditions (such as bathing in cold water the night before the ceremony and not eating certain foods that were considered unclean) that had to be met by the sailors.

Pork was considered the ideal sacrificial meat, especially from an all-black pig. White pigs were the next best, but pigs of mixed colors were to be avoided. Naturally alcohol played a large role in the ceremony. The spirits were given a small part of the alcohol while the remainder was, in Underwood’s words, put to “a more practical use” by getting the sailors “as drunk as possible.”

The ships were also decorated with banners and flags. Most of these flags were painted with the images of dragons, tigers or of a great Korean general (in the past, there was apparently no clear distinction between the navy and army) named Im who had distinguished himself during the Manchu invasions. Underwood described General Im has having been “deified as a sort of patron saint of sailors.”

The superstitions regarding women aboard ships seem as confused in Korea as they do in the West. Many Western sailors thought it was unlucky for women to be aboard a ship, but it is surprising to note how many Western merchant ship captains in Asian waters went to sea with their wives. Korea sailors thought it was very unlucky to transport women as passengers during the first month of the year – but surely this applied to only sea-going vessels and not the many ferries and small boats plying the rivers.

It is interesting to note the differences between the superstitions of Western and Korean sailors. Koreans considered dogs to be extremely unlucky and loathed to transport them. According to Underwood, if a dog should run aboard a ship while it is at port, “it behooves the crew to search out the dog’s master and purchase the animal from him even at an exorbitant price.” The dog was then sacrificed on board the ship in front of the banner with a tiger painted upon it.

It is unclear what the Korean sailors thought of their Western counterparts and their propensity of having animals like dogs and cats aboard as mascots and companions. In fact, some of the earliest Western dogs in Korea were cocker spaniels, which are often associated with the British navy.

Cats and dogs were not the only animals found aboard Western ships that visited Korean waters.

The British warship H.M.S. Constance had a goat named William Snow as their mascot. The Italian warship Vettor Pisani had a bear – a gift from the Military Governor at Vladivostock – that was eagerly trotted out as entertainment for visitors to the ship. (It should be noted that by the time the Vettor Pisani returned to Italy it had virtually become a Noah’s Ark – complete with an elephant). While many of the early accounts of Korean visits to Western warships go into great detail of the reaction of the Korean guests to Western naval technology and food, there are, sadly, no accounts of their reactions to the mascots.

In 1890, an American naval ensign described the coast of Korea thus: “countless outlying islands extend sea-ward many miles, liberally interspersed with rock and shoals, between which eddy swift streams of tide-water. The terrors of the Maelstrom would find their counterpart in many a Korean whirlpool, which, forming in the vicinity of some submerged ledge, will cause a large vessel to heel suddenly well over, and will swing her many points off her course in a way to make the stoutest hearted captain tremble for the safety of his charge.”

Many of these places were believed to be the abodes of sea-dragons and the spirits of the dead – victims of the sea. It was common for Korean sailors to offer sacrifices to the spirits prior to entering these dangerous areas. While most of the sacrifices were probably simple affairs of alcohol, rice and fish there were, long ago, much darker and vile offerings. Sometimes young girls were thrown into the sea “to propitiate the sea-dragon.” As Underwood correctly notes, the well-known Korean children’s fable, Sim Chung, revolved around the young girl selling herself as a sea-dragon sacrifice so that she could save her father. The tale is an example of fidelity to one’s father and of a superstition long gone but not forgotten.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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