Magical thinking

Life in the Royal Navy could be risky. The crew had to handle dangerous machinery and unpredictable gunpowder, work in harsh conditions and face both enemy attacks and the power of the sea.

Sailors were often very superstitious and thought evil spirits that might cause them harm were at work all around them. They invoked signs, symbols and charms to keep themselves safe.

A compass rose or daisy wheel

Someone on board HMS Invincible drew a compass rose on the inside lid of a shot and gunpowder box. The pattern was supposed to frighten away evil spirits.

Of course, anything to do with weapons and ammunition was particularly dangerous  to the crew as well as enemies. The compass rose on Invincible was tucked away on the inside of the box’s lid.  The pattern is a hexafoil or daisy wheel – a six-petal flower design that you can draw quickly with a compass.  Whoever drew it thought it would confuse and trap evil spirits or witches and bring the gun crew good luck. 

Magical marks of pirates

Hexafoils or compass roses can be found in many old buildings and were probably once so common that they were unremarkable.  Even pirates used protective marks. When the flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard was excavated in North Carolina, USA, protective marks were discovered on some of the gun aprons. Gun aprons were sheets of lead that covered the wick holes of the gun to prevent them from being fired accidentally. It looks as though these marks were intended to protect the pirate gunners.

Spells and charms that leave no trace

Some spells or incantations have disappeared. Some might have just been spoken, not written down.  Sometimes objects associated with them didn’t survive, or their significance might not be understood by archaeologists today. 

Shoes are often found in the chimneys of old houses.  They probably didn’t find their way there accidently but were placed there as part of a magical charm to protect the occupants of the house against witches or evil spirits.

Sailor’s tattoos

Sailors’ tattoos had – and today still have – symbolic meanings. Sometimes these meanings are protective.  A pig tattooed on the left foot and a chicken tattooed on the right foot were said to bring good luck and prevent drowning – maybe God would see the tattoos as the sailor went overboard and spare the poor creatures, along with the sailor.

Most of the evidence of sailors’ superstitions in earlier centuries doesn’t survive.  Just occasionally archaeology gives us a peek into a world where magic existed alongside conventional religion.