The Symbology of Ships in the Tattoo world

Ships, when tattoos go with the flow

They are the representation of the passage between life and death. Ships are icons with amazing meanings. And they reveal the darkest side of our beliefs…

Vehicles to afterlife

It is inevitable to think that the souls of the dead in the past went to the afterlife on mystical ships that appeared and disappeared with the approaching of sad events. Ancient Egyptians had a special cult for ships and they believed that it was possible to go the Duat only on a large sacred ship. The Duat is the celestial region where the souls of the dead resided to be judged by the gods. The ruins of these ships were found at the base of several pyramids in a perfect state of preservation. King Arthur was carried on a sacred ship into the magical world of Avalon after his apparent death and also for the ancient Greeks it was possible to go to Hades only by crossing the river Styx on a ship led by the ferryman Charon. For the Vikings, nothing could be scarier than the appearance on the horizon of the ship Nagflar, the giant ship made using the nails of the dead which announced the beginning of Ragnarok. When this ship was completed, in fact, the descendants of the giant Muspell would pour down into the world seeking revenge.

Noah’s ark

In Christian mythology, the ship especially refers to Noah’s Ark (described in detail in the Genesis) on which Noah and his family are saved from the universal flood together with all the animals and plants that they were able to save. According to recent studies, the story of Noah’s ark dates back to the more ancient periods of Classical Hebraism and apparently it is an adaptation of the Babylonian story Gilgamesh where the symbolism of the ship as last resort which saves us from the waters is linked to that of the journey to the afterlife. Gilgamesh, in fact does a long journey that brings him up to the doors of heaven where he meets Noah who tells him the secret of immortality.

Jacob Pedersen, Crooked Moon Tattoo, Helsingborg, Sweden
Jacob Pedersen, Crooked Moon Tattoo, Helsingborg, Sweden

Modern symbology

Other “meanings” on the ship were created only in modern times and they replaced the ancient ones, giving them a purely earthly and military explanation. With the development of absolutistic kingdoms in North West Europe and modern navies (especially British and Dutch) the iconography of the ship changes with the aim to impress the enemy and ships are represented as real armies ready for action. They become a marine vehicle rich in symbols and decorations. The ship is now seen as an amazing creation of human intelligence, and several important ships are pictured everywhere such as the Cutty Sark, able to cover in record times the distance between China and Great Britain.

The Flying Dutchman

The story of the Flying Dutchman starts to spread during the middle of the 700’s and it immediately takes on the features of a “real story”. In fact it is still difficult today to separate reality from fantasy. According to one version, the legend dates back to 1729, when a German ship called the Flying Dutchman captained by the evil Vanderdecken, decides to travel towards Cape of Good Hope, setting sail on Christmas Day (detail also used by Herbert Melville in ‘Moby Dick’).

The path with the devil

Captain Vanderdecken is famous for being a rough and violent man who is not afraid of anything or anybody. While approaching the Cape of Good Hope a storm strikes the ship with high waves, hard winds and lightening. Vanderdecken yells against God and invokes the Devil, promising that if he allowed him to pass the Cape he could take his soul. The Devil accepts but when he comes to take his soul, the clever captain asks for one last wish, he wants to play chess with him. When the devil wins he can take his soul. The dice are loaded so Vanderecken is able to postpone the day on which the Devil will take his soul. The story has it that he who sees that phantom ship is condemned to unhappiness all his life. This story was so strong and rooted in society that even the future king of England George V during his period in the military, was afraid of seeing this ship and always reminded his sailors to carry horseshoes on the ship because they were the only thing that could keep away this curse (it is still used today).

The Mary Celeste

If the story of the Flying Dutchman can be considered a giant and super-iconographic sea legend, the story of Mary Celeste can’t. it’s source the prototype of the cursed ship, Mary Celeste was launched in Nova Scotia in 1860 with the name Amazon. Over the years it changed owner several times. The first captain died of pneumonia. The second, during the launching ceremony, passed to close to a fishing dam and seriously damaged the hull. During the repair operations a fire exploded on board. It was then passed onto a third owner and set sail for London and then Paris. In the Dover Strait it crashed against another ship and sunk. It was repaired and returned to Canada with a fourth captain, but in 1867 it got stranded and was sold again. The new owner repaired it again and sold it after only 12 months. Amazon changed name and nationality and became the American Mary Celeste with a new captain Benjamin Briggs.

Malin, King Carlos Tattoo, Stockholm, Sweden
Malin, King Carlos Tattoo, Stockholm, Sweden

Emptiness around the sea

It left New York in 1872, and about a month later it was seen near the Azores Islands and Portugal, but it was empty. It had no particular damage, the food was basically all there, everything was where it was supposed to be and even the captain’s table was set as if he were to return soon. The logbook was open and the last note dated back to the morning of November 25, when the ship passed six miles from Santa Maria island in the Azores. No unusual comment, nothing unusual at all. The mystery of Mary Celeste was never solved and no trace has ever been found of the crew. During the following journeys the ship continued to have problems until it got stuck on the beaches of Haiti. The reasons were never cleared. Its shape in time became the symbol of the cursed ship, as if it wanted to remind everybody in modern times that ships are not only used to cross the sea carrying goods and passengers, but they can also be a link between the world of the living and the afterlife. And this is something we don’t remember today.