Pirate fiction probably could not exist without the myths, monsters and other imagined mayhem that has ravaged the seas since man first ventured upon it. Some of the myths about the sea and pirates have been part of the human story for thousands of years. As the quote above suggests, most learned men were skeptical of the more rousing tales of seafarers.
Other parts of pirate mythos comes from the minds of great story tellers, long after the Golden Age of Piracy had come to a close. This page will try to explain the origin of some of these myths. The point of the page is not to de-bunk the myth only to explain them.
Below are some of the most common monsters and myths. In all, the monsters
and the myths only help to blur the lines between the fact and the fiction
of the Golden Age of Piracy.
Images to follow once I draw them or find more copyright free images.
Black Spot: The Black Spot is probably a creation of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island. The Black Spot is a summons given to a pirate as a warning of impending action. Typically it would be a notice to the captain that he was about to be "deposed" or replaced as captain. Two pirates receive the Black Spot in Treasure Island. The first is Billy Bones, the self declared sea captain. (Billy Bones was actually Captain Flint's helmsman). Long John Silver, is the second pirate to get the Black Spot. At the time of receiving the Spot, he was the Captain of the mutineers. He served as the Hispaniola’s Sea Cook and Captain Flint's Quartermaster.
The Black Spot is pure fiction created by Stevenson. It is a terrific bit of pirate lore these days but probably did not exist during the Golden Age of Piracy. Real pirate captains tended to be deposed by being shot in their sleep, thrown overboard, or marooned. In some case a pirate captain would be deposed by election, but there are more cases of violent revolts documented than smooth transitions of power.
At the time that Stevenson wrote Treasure Island the term Black Spot was used to describe any disease among animals or plants that cause black spots to form. This was especially true of the black spot disease that afflicted Rose Gardens. Perhaps (and this is only speculation on my part) the black spot diseases was part of Stevenson's inspiration. Later after Stevenson's death the term black spot was used to describe places of dread or foreboding.
An excerpt from the novel Treasure Island:
Was there an organized pirate government? The simple answer to this question is "no". This is especially true of the depiction of a pirate government in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
Despite the legends in books and movies, no real pirate government existed. However, several sources, including Johnson's General History of Pirates claims that organized pirate settlements formed in Madagascar. Tortuga and the Bahamas also lay claim to large pirate settlements. These settlements were not actually pirate governments as much as they were ungoverned territories where pirates could live without fear of civil authority.
Books and movies often portray wild towns with lost of shooting, loose women, and endless drinking. While this may have happened on occasion no town could survive for years with such anarchy. Other portrayals seem to reflect some complex confederation with pirate some how controlling the anarchy. In reality, no pirate settlement really reached a level of actual government in the strictest since of the words. At best, pirates may have joined together in loose confederations or clans and dispensed vigilantly justice, similar to other frontier towns. The Brethren or the Brethren of the Coast is simply a term applied to pirates and smugglers living in frontier settlements away from formal jurisdiction.
While some like to think of the Brethren as a government it is probably wiser to compare the term brethren to gangster. Just as all gangster belong to a crime family, all pirates belong to a ship. And just as rival crime families will often fight each other, not all pirate ships worked together or respected each other. Thus we can assume where one pirate might be welcomed and allowed to stay in a particular location another pirate would be hanged.
When you compare pirates to gangsters some similarities quickly come to mind.
For more on the Brethren of the Coast see: Pirate Government.
Buried Treasure: Most experts on piracy tend to argue that maps to buried treasure are a work of fiction. They also believe that pirate would not have buried treasure on deserted islands. There are two sound reasons for not believing in buried treasure. 1) There has never been a legitimate treasure map found and 2) pirates tended to spend all their money as soon as they hit port and would return to pirating in order to raise more money. Probably the most famous treasure map is that of Captain Flint, the fictional pirate in Stevenson's Treasure Island. Almost every famous pirate captain has a legend about a treasure map to his secret stash of booty. Blackbeard and Black Bart both have several legends about buried treasure.
With that said, the romantic in me says that buried treasure may indeed exist. Some pirate managed to sack and pillage great amounts of gold and silver. I can't imagine a pirate with 10,000 pieces of eight to carry it with him everywhere he went. Where is he going to put the money? Would he put it in a Bank? Probably not. Would he trust his ship mates to watch it for him when he went to tavern? Probably not. Would he find a place to hide it? Yeah, probably. So maybe somewhere on some spit of land, or hidden in a grave yard, or perhaps in a isolated patch of land near an old port or river bank, a pirate buried a barrel or wooden chest with a bunch of doubloons inside. He probably wouldn't draw a map to where it was unless he knew he was going to die and was giving his shares to a partner.
So will you find "Flint's Treasure" amounting to all the riches
he obtained over twenty years of pirating? Probably not. But is it possible
to find a stash of 1,000 doubloons, or even a couple gold bars buried
near an old pirate lair? I would say it is plausible but not probably
after two hundred years. One thing would be certain; the pirate would
probably hide the money where it was easy for him to get to it but not
easy for others to find. He may also set a trap for suspicious fellows
who might be in the area.
Calypso: A Greek sea nymph, she was a daughter of Atlas. She was the Goddess of Silence. Being a bored lass she made it her point in life to make sure people did not complete there tasks. she was also known as the goddess of deception because of her ability to distract sailors with her beauty only to lead them to ruin and destruction because they failed to pay attention to what they were suppose to be doing.
A new back story is created for Calypso in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. She plays and important part in the final installment of the Trilogy.
Was there a real Pirate Code? To be honest, at best it really was more like guidelines . The pirate code really is pure literary fiction and was developed from ship's articles found on some pirate ships. There was no written Pirate Codex as portrayed in Pirates of the Caribbean, at World's End.
The Code refers to the Ship's Articles and some of the false bravado portrayed by pirates to scare their enemies. For instance it was reported at several trials that pirates declared they would blow up their ship and all go to hell before being captured and hanged. Few pirates ever did so (if any), however a few tried, often being stopped by other pirates -- so much for keeping to the code! Still the threat was known well enough to make naval offers fear boarding a pirate ship.
Other than these boasts and ship's articles, there was no real pirate code. Furthermore, from the few surviving ship's articles their is evidence that not every ship was ran the same way which leads one to believe that no universal code existed and if it did, it was not followed.
There is also was no proof pirate council or pirate king controlling all the oceans (or even a single ocean).
For more on the Brethren of the Coast see: Pirate Government.
Davy Jones Locker: Davy Jones' Locker is a nautical term that dates back to at least 1751 (first known written reference to the word). It is quite possible that the term existed orally among sailors before this date. Since it's first historical mention, the meaning of Davy Jones has changed very little. Davy Jones was sailor slang for the Devil or other evil spirits of the ocean. Davy's Locker or Davy Jones' Locker was the deep ocean's bottom. To be sent to Davy's Locker was to perish at sea. To send someone to Davy Jones was to kill him or her. It should be understood that a person going to Davy Jones usually was not going to Heaven.
The phrase Davy Jones appears in much of the popular nautical literature. There is no reason not to assume the term was common among sailors for many years. Other variations of Davy Jones' Locker are:
* To be in Davy's Grip: To be close to death, or frightened.
To give credit where it is due, The movie POTC, Dead Mans Chest gives a back story for the creation of Davy Jones. This is a piece of original fiction created for the movie and not part of the myth over the years. Davy Jones wasn't the Captain of the Flying Dutchman or Black Pearl. the story was created by the writers of the movie script.
Flying Dutchman: The Dutchman is a ghost ship that can never return to port for some reason. Its origins are unclear, being traced back to a novel, a play, short story and an opera. Most people attribute the ship to Dutch Captain named Bernard Fokke. Old Bernie had a habit of breaking his own speed records while sailing between Holland and the Dutch East Indies. People claimed he must have made a pact with the Devil in order to make his trips so quickly.
Well ol' Bernie ran into a tempest as he was rounding the Cape of Good Hope (tip of Southern Africa) but refused to give into the storm. As the storm worsened his crew begged him to turn around but he swore an oath and said he would sail through the storm even if it took him until judgement day. Needless to say the ship was lost with all hands aboard. (Which makes you wonder who managed to pass on the story about Fokke issuing the oath?) The story dates from as early as 1641. It bears a strange resemblance to early folktales of the Wandering Jew.
Since then, Flying Dutchman has made repeated appearances on Sponge Bob Square Pants, The Pitates of the Caribbean Trilogy, and numerous screen adaptations under the title Flying Duthman or De Vliegende Hollander dating from as early as 1923.
Green Flash: The green flash is a naturally occurring phenomenon where there is sudden flash of emerald green light as the sun sets. This can happen when the horizon and the sky are both crystal clear. It is more common over the ocean but happens over land as well.
Well documented cases of date back to the 1600s but it became more common with longer sea voyages and polar exploration. One of the biggest myths of the green flash was created by Jules Vernes. He claimed it to be an old Scottish legend that 'if one were to peer in the light of the green flash they would gain the power to read the very souls of other people they met'. There was no Scottish myth. Other people claim that the Ancient Egyptians wrote story about mystical powers of the green flash.
Verne was an avid sailor and astronomer so he was probably very knowledgeable about the green flash. Also of note, in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea the protagonist of the story has a fight with a giant octopus, the monster commonly known as the "kraken" in nautical lore.
Jonah: As early as 1611 there are written accounts that describe a Jonah as a person that bring bad luck to ship. Typically a person is marked as someone who cause bad luck to befall a ship. when it happens there is little else to do but get rid of the Jonah, as in throw him overboard. If trouble dissipates, the crew found the right person. If the trouble persists, it may be they grabbed the wrong person and the ship is now cursed by the blood of a righteous person who was killed. The crew may then decide that the only way to appease the spirit of the dead (or spright) is to toss overboard the accuser of the innocent man.
The name comes from the Old Testament of the Bible. Jonah was a prophet that was swallowed by a great fish (commonly considered a whale these days.)
In a broader sense, anything or anyone that brings bad luck is a "Jonah".
From the New American Bible, Jonah 1: 1-16
Kraken: The Kraken dates back to at least 1752 and probably earlier. The word came to the English from Norwegian. The Norwegians called the Kraken, sykraken, sjökrakjen or sea-kraken. The Kraken is an enormous monster capable of pulling a ship and its crew under the sea in a single jerk. The Kraken has been around in movies for a while but it was not called a kraken in any of the movies until Pirates of the Caribbean II, Dead Man's Chest. The kraken also appeared in Mysterious Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, stories written by Jules Verne.
The kraken was always described as giant squid or octopus. Ancient whalers saw evidence of the kraken when they harvested sperm whale and saw suction cup marks similar to those of octopus or squids on the side of the whales. The kraken was always considered mythical, typically measuring as much as 200 or 300 feet in length.
Today we know there may be real kraken in the ocean; however they do not reach lengths of 200 feet. The giant squid is believed to be a living example of a kraken. While the giant squid could not pull down a man-o-war, it would be big enough to capsize or sink a small boat and could easily kill a man if it chose to do so. Real krakens are giant squids reach a length of perhaps 46 feet.
Despite their tremendous size, Sperm whales seem to like to eat giant
squid. It is possible that some of the early specimens of the kraken were
those found in the stomachs of sperm whales after whalers had harpooned
and gutted them. imagine the terror of finding bits of giant squid in
the belly of sperm whale? Imagine sailors assuming the sperm whale ate
the squid after a terrific battle. Knowing how many men sperm whales had
killed while men hunted them, the sailors could only imagine the worst
when seeing the remains of this horrific giant monster found within the
By the 18th century, most people with any type of education considered tales of mermaids as nothing more than the work of over active imaginations, stories the old sea dog would tell to a young whelp to see if he would swallow the bait, so to speak. Yet some of the more superstitious and unschooled sailor may have fallen for the story.
As we enter the Caribbean, Pirates may have heard the legends of the natives of the islands. Among the islands, mermaids were known as Aycayía, (the girl with the beautiful voice). The legends in the Caribbean are similar to those from other places of the World. Sometimes Aycayía was good and other times she was bad.
In the earlier legends, Mermaids would seduce or lure men to their death. Sometimes this was done on purpose and other times by accidents. At other times sailors were killed while mermaids tried to save their lives.
Probably the best known story of mermaids is the Little Mermaid written by Hans Christian Andersen. The original has a less than happy ending. Walt Disney's The Little Mermaid brings a fresher, happier ending and introduces some new characters as well a happy ending.. Fortunately the animators at Disney did not use the mermaid contained here as a model for Aerial.
As early as the 1500s there was conjecture that manatees were the source of the mermaid myth. Manatees like to float along the ocean surface in relatively shallow water and are not overly scared of humans or large ships. In fact there slow peaceful existence has led to their endangerment as a species. In fact a close relative of the manatee, the stellar sea cow is now extinct.
Despite this explanation, there is no solid evidence that pirates would have mistaken the manatee for a mermaid. From a side by side comparison, one would assume, it would take a very drunk pirate to mistake a manatee for a beautiful mermaid! It is more likely that the manatee-mermaid connections were specualtions made far after most learned men had discounted mermaid sighting as just another "fish story". Still, it is part of the mythos
With that said, this modern day speculation of a mermaid/manatee connection
by historians, environmentalists and manatee lovers helps to bring awareness
to the plight of the endangered animal. And that is a good thing.
Sea Spright (also Sprite): A ghost of the sea. The word usually refers to disembodied spirit, a ghost; a supernatural being, goblin or fairy. They haunt ships that have troubled pasts, such as mutinies or perhaps a ship that had a cruel master who was murdered or was beleived to be in league with the Devil. Some people consider former slaves ships to be haunted because of their past cargo. Some sprights haunt spots where ships had sunk, basically creating "haunted waters”. Occasionally a spright will bring warning of impending doom or warn sailors to stay out of the waters but most tend to be vengeful and or troublesome. The word spright dates back to the 1500s and is an alliteration of the word "spirit".
Pirates would often offer a blessing to men they marooned or tossed a man overboard in an effort to bring rest to the soul of the condemned. If the person's soul did not find rest, it was feared they would return from Davy Jones as a sea spright. This was a reason why some ships would not return to islands where men had been marooned or to waters where murderous mutinies occurred or men were thrown overboard.
Sea-serpent: a sea-monster of serpentine form and great length, frequently reported to have been seen at sea. As history evolved and knowledge of dinosaurs and their aquatic cousin, plesiosaurs became more pronounced, the sea serpents began to take the shape of the long extinct reptiles. However, in the 18th century, the sea-serpent was more akin to a giant snake.
Early skeptics dismissed sea-serpents as tricks of light and lumps of sargassum (sea weed). Others claimed the sighting to be whales, schools of fish, dolphins, and seals. As with the kraken, the sea-serpent may actually be a living deep-sea creature, however smaller than the accounts given by sailors of old. The oarfish fits the role of the original sea-serpent quite nicely. Reaching lengths of 8 meters (26 feet)* and weighing as much as 270 kg (600 pounds) could give superstitious pirate a bad night's sleep.
*Unverified reports have reached lengths of 17 meters, about 66 feet.
Selky (Selkies): Imagine a werewolf that is a seal, but it is noy contagious. Selkies are able to transform to human form by shedding their seal skins and can revert to seal form by putting their selkie skin back on. Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them gone. Other times the human will hide the selkie's skin, thus preventing them from returning to seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one particular human for a short amount of time before they must return to the sea. Stories of the Selkies seem to originate in Scotland.