A Wick-ed Idea: Real Birds as Candles

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Long before Thomas Edison, someone had another bright idea. Why not take a dead, oily bird, slip a string through its dried carcass, and use it as a candle?

It worked. Up till nearly a century ago, the seafaring communities of Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland Islands used thousands of these feathered torches (1, 2, 3). Aside from possible fire-hazard risks and odor, the idea was practical enough. No oil for a lamp? Too little wax for making a candle? No problem. The stormy petrel (or storm petrel), the so-called “devil bird” used for these candles, was a familiar sight to Scottish sailors in the subarctic.

These birds are still found in these parts during the spring and summer, but the candles are relics of the past. If you click here, a photograph of an old stormy petrel candle is available from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Twitter account. A tarred wick protrudes from the specimen’s head.

Devil, Saint, or Something Else?

Though most petrels produce stomach oils (4), the bird’s name actually is not directly connected to petrol or petroleum. The latter is a combination of the Latin words for “rock” and “oil.” On the other hand, the word petrel is thought to be an alternate or mangled form of “pitteral,” an old English expression no longer in usage today (5). The linguistic variation of the word we have probably relates to the way the bird appears to amble across the ocean’s surface (6).

In fact, the petrel’s ability to “walk on water” has been long tied to another source for its name—St. Peter, whom Matthew 14:29 reports as having performed this miraculous feat with Jesus. Thus, an enduring explanation for the origin of petrel has been that it stems from French and Italian renderings of the apostle’s name (7, 8). However, this does not seem to be the case (9). Interestingly, though, Peter is the English derivative of the Latin (Petrus) and Greek (Petros) words for “rock,” both related to the petr- prefix of petroleum (10).

While the linguistics of petrel may be murky, the rationale behind the bird’s first name is clear. The “stormy” moniker originated from an age-old belief in the petrel’s ability to predict tempestuous weather. A congregation of these creatures flocking near ships was taken as a sign by sailors that a storm was on its way (11, 12). Unfortunately, that ominous reputation is what earned the birds nicknames like “Waterwitch,” Satanique, and Oiseau du diable (literally “devil bird”) (13).

Many seafarers harbored negative attitudes toward stormy petrels, yet such contempt was not universal. Some sailors saw in the birds’ appearance a sort of blessing, a warning that enabled them to anticipate and prepare best they could for oncoming gales and thrashing waves. Thus, one nickname, “Mother Carey’s Chicken,” supposedly derives from Mater cara, a Latin epithet for the Virgin Mary. But just as notions connecting the bird’s name to St. Peter are disputed, so too is this idea (14). What we’re left with is a bit of a mystery.

More Light?

Even if no etymological links exist to those Biblical figures, stormy petrels are no more feathered demons than many other supposed devil birds. In fact, petrels are not the only avian creatures to have been used as feathered torches. Penguins (15) and the extinct great auks (16) have also served the same purpose. I do wonder, though, if the use of petrels as candles is related somehow to how strongly Orkney and Shetland denizens of the past felt towards these birds. Perhaps more light will be shed eventually on this subject.

Sources:

  1. Brox, J. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. p. 21.
  2. Rossotti, H. Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 51.
  3. O’Dea, WT. “Artificial Lighting Prior to 1800 and its Social Effects”. Folklore. Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1951). p. 315. (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.)
  4. Place, AR, et al. “Physiological Basis of Stomach Oil Formation in Leach’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma Leucorhoa)” The Auk. Vol. 106, No. 4 (Oct., 1989). pp. 687–699.
  5. “Petrel”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petrel.
  6. Fraser, I, Gray, J. Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2013. p. 44.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  8. Swainson, C. The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds. London: Elliot Stock, 1886. p. 211.
  9. Fraser, I, Gray, J. p. 44.
  10. “Peter”, “Petroleum”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peter, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum.
  11. Newell, V. p. 56.
  12. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  13. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  14. Swainson, C. pp. 211–212.
  15. Rossotti, H. p. 51.
  16. O’Dea, WT. p. 315.

 

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Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

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Why have sea dogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life on board a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.

Sources:

  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  4. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, AW. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings,” 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.