A Sailor's Guide to the Gods - SailNet Community
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A Sailor's Guide to the Gods

Baking under the tropical sun in listless winds may be averted by appealing to the right sea god.
"Dad, we're sailing in Greece and you're still talking about Neptune. Come on, don't you know that the Romans were copycats. They stole the Greek Gods and renamed them, the sea God is really Poseidon." My eight -year old daughter, Nari, fancies herself an expert on many subjects, including Greek mythology and she rarely misses an opportunity to correct her dear old dad. However, her point is valid, all sailors know that it never pays to irritate the gods. Remember Odysseus? He provoked the wrath of Poseidon when he blinded his bullying son Polyphemus, the Cyclops from Sicily. The spiteful Sea God bedeviled poor homesick Odysseus for 20 years. Just like using local knowledge to con your way into an unfamiliar anchorage, with all due respect, I consider it prudent seamanship to consult the local gods whenever possible.

Long before Homer chronicled Odysseus' woes, sailors have kept a weather eye on the gods. The Egyptian deities of Nun and Naunet, sub-gods to Ra, lorded over rivers and oceans, guiding sailors on jaunty papyrus vessels along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and up and down the Nile. I remember a long passage many years ago, pounding my way up the Red Sea. If I had known to address my pleas for a wind shift to Nun, maybe the cold ‘Shamal,' north wind might have eased up a bit. I suspect Nun did have something to do with my accidental meeting of the Egyptian Minister of Finance in a local bar in Hurghada however, opening the door to a unique and wonderful tour of the ruins in Luxor.

The Phoenicians, or in biblical terms, Canaanites, were far-ranging mariners who worshiped the Sea God Yamm. While scholars and amateur historians alike have credited the Phoenicians with amazing voyages that seem unlikely at best, one thing they did understand was the ageless chasm between landlubbers and sailors. Yamm represented chaos, which is a pretty good description of sailing, while Baal, the supreme deity and Yamm's hated rival, represented the order associated with land life. Give me chaos and a life at sea any day.

From the Pacific Northwest to ancient Greece, for as long as humas have been at the hands of the elements they have rendered the natural world into forms allowing comprehension.
The Greeks developed a downright bureaucratic system of deities who did most of Poseidon's dirty work. The great Sea God himself was so busy fathering children that he had to farm out most of his administrative duties, and he relied on nepotism. Many of his offspring had influence over sailors, including Aeolus, God of the Winds and Orion, who continues to light the way for sailors. Among the many Greek Gods associated with the sea and seafarers are Castor and Polydeuces, better known by his Roman name, Pollux. These heavenly twins of Gemini are Poseidon's brothers and were shipmates of Jason, who sailed in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.

Triton, who was half-fish and half-man, galloped across the ocean on a seahorse in his role as divine messenger. Amphitrite, a Sea Goddess, calmed stormy seas, a useful function if there ever was one. She could crew for me any time. She traveled the seas in a boat made of mussels, which was likely a maintenance headache. Proteus, the prophetic old man of the sea is my favorite. He is the patron to all of us who love to tell sea stories. He was known for assuming different shapes as the situation warranted and spinning yarns that were not necessarily burdened by fact. Triton and Proteus were part of a popular cult in Rome, when, as Nari noted, the Romans adopted and renamed most Greek Gods.

If you sail open boats in latitudes above 60 degrees north, it makes sense to seek divine help every now and then, which helps to explain why Viking sailors worshiped Thor, the burly, red-bearded God who had storms and sea journeys in his portfolio. Thor was obviously a sailor, evidenced by his prodigious bouts of drinking and story telling. Njord, one of Thor's henchmen, is the Nordic God of Sea and Winds. The father of Freya, he lives among an enclosure of ships, called Noatun. The ritual of using burning ships as funeral chambers is associated with Njord. An early chronicler described a Viking funeral in AD 922. The dead man was dressed in beautiful clothes and seated in his ship. Next, food, drinks and weapons surrounded him. Various animals and a beautiful young woman were sacrificed and laid in the ship with him. Then the ship was pushed off the shore and set ablaze. In a flash," the writer was told, "he goes to Valhalla and the Sea Gods are appeased." It is one thing to waste a perfectly good sailboat, but a beautiful woman too? I'll stick to tossing a dime into the sea instead.

"Sailors from the Indian sub-continent look to Kurakulla for guidance. She is actually the Hindi Goddess of boats, and, logically enough, wine"
Sailors from the Indian sub-continent look to Kurakulla for guidance. She is actually the Hindi Goddess of boats, and, logically enough, wine. If she only had a melodious name, (or it translated into English differently) no doubt you'd see this Goddess splashed across more than a few transoms. Japanese mariners trust in Benten, the Shinto Goddess of Good Luck with a soft spot for sailors. Olokun, is the guardian deity of the mariners for Yoruba sailors of West Africa.

Naturally the mythology of Oceania includes important sea gods. In Polynesia, Tangaroa is both the creator and the Sea God, which makes perfect sense to me. According to Tahitian legend, he fashioned the world inside a giant mussel shell, one wonders if he and Amphitrite were pals? Another story goes that he plucked the Tongan islands from the Ocean depths with a hook and line, a gesture that many sailors appreciate every year. Like most supreme deities, Tangaroa was moody and was responsible for sending huge waves that overwhelmed canoes. In Melanesia, Qat, the spirit of the sea, is a kindly soul that looks after sailors. Aluluei, the Micronesian God of Navigation, sailed away in a giant canoe with a crew of forty rats. Local sailors continue to honor Aluluei by building miniature huts on the outriggers of their canoes.

If there's one goddess to remember in the pantheon of sea gods, it would be Amphitrite, calmer of stormy seas—a useful function for sailors.
Native American cultures developed an extensive pantheon of sea gods. Sedna is the Eskimo Sea Goddess who she evolved from a demon girl that lived under the sea. Her anger causes storms in the Arctic Ocean. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest were bold sailors who fashioned huge dugout canoes. Sga'na is the Sea God, embodied in the killer whale. Djila'qons, the Sea Goddess, lives at head of a major inlet in Haida Territory, (The Strait of Juan De Fuca) and controls all the creatures of the sea and welcomes her sailors home.

In Haiti, the Vodou deity of the sea of is Agwe, nicknamed ‘the admiral.' One of the primary Rada spirits, Agwe, like much of Caribbean legend and folklore, traces his roots to West Africa. While a small ritual Agwe boat may be seen suspended from temple rafters, the actual ceremony conducted at sea is truly inspiring. After and day and night of chanting and worship, a massive feast is prepared and loaded onto the "Barque d' Agwe." Made of wood, this small boat is about six feet long and ornately decorated with images of other Vodou spirits. Once fully loaded, a local sloop hauls the "Barque d' Agwe out to sea. The sloop represents Agwe and a sculpted mermaid, La Sirene, is his consort. Once in open water, the raft is released. Agwe can have his feast and sailors and fisherman can count on his blessings.

The Maya, occasionally called the Phoenicians of the new world, bridged their vast empire with waterborne commerce. Sailors in this culture looked to a variety of gods, including the Moon Goddess Ix Chel. Ix Chel, who was also the Fertility Goddess, was venerated on the island of Cozumel, a busy commercial waypoint for the Maya long before it became a diver's retreat. Those of us who live in the Caribbean or along the east coast are still haunted every summer by another Mayan God. Huracan is the Creator God according to the ‘Popol Vuh,' the sacred book of the Quiche' Maya. He is also famous for bringing destruction to people he doesn't particularly like. As you can guess, the English word "hurricane" is derived from Huracan.

Sailors are a superstitious lot, testament to the number of things that can go wrong on any voyage. A little ritual here and there is an important part of any maintenance program.
Of course, all this talk of gods and goddesses is just good-natured, tongue-in-cheek fun—or is it. Well, I do have one sea story (of course) to relate. Nine years ago I was skippering a 46-foot ketch on a research expedition in Belize. We were looking into the Maya maritime heritage. As the expedition was winding down and I was preparing to deliver the boat back to Florida, I happened to meet an enchanting woman in San Pedro on Ambergris Cay in northern Belize. To my complete delight this woman, Lesa, took me up on my offer to sail north to Cozumel.

Naturally, Ix Chel took a dim view of this arrangement and treated us to strong winds and miserable seas. A projected 24-four hour sail stretched into three days. However, by the time we anchored off Cozumel, it was clear that despite the weather Lesa and I were rather taken with each other. Innocently enough, I suggested we visit the ruins of San Gervaiso, a remote site in the jungle accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. This was the temple where Mayan mariners paid tribute to Ix Chel, as noted earlier, the Mood Goddess who looked after sailors and also happened to be charge of fertility. We rented a jeep, found the site, paid our respects and retreated to the bars along the coast. Now, maybe there is another explanation, but in my heart I am certain Ix Chel is responsible. You see, within a year of that visit, Lesa and I were married, we had purchased our ketch Fortuna, and the aforementioned mythology expert, Nari, was a baby living in the forepeak. Leave it to the gods.

 Suggested Reading:

Single-Handed Sailing by John Kretschmer

A Nearly Doomed Delievery by John Kretschmer

A New Global Champion by SailNet

Buying Guide: Watermakers

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