Since ancient times fish have been seen as wise and steeped in knowledge. In fact youngsters were advised to eat fish to improve their intelligence. In America, Tench, whilst also being construed with such qualities, was believed to cure a range of illnesses and so was given the nickname ‘Doctor Fish’.
Fish have long been thought to be aware of incidents on the land as well as sea; if a murder, battle or tragedy takes place near-by they will leave the area. In Normandy, France, the coastal people believed that the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo affected the local fish and drove them away. The sea became poor to fish directly after the battle.
Success in the forthcoming fishing season could be read from the first catch according to a traditional Herring trawling belief. If the first one picked out was female the nets would be full for the rest of the year, with good health and financial security ensured for the families of the fisherman. Counting the fish though is sure to end up in decreasing the size of the catch for the fisherman who fishes on the river but rest assured if an earwig is spotted on the way to fish as this will serve as a positive omen.
In Scotland (UK) the haddock is considered to be a very lucky fish. It is thought that this faith in the attributes of the haddock are as a result of the belief that his is the very fish that was chosen to feed many people. Black spots can be seen around the gills, which were said to indicate the places were Christ held the fish as He distributed them to the people as told in the parable of the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’. In Celtic folklore the salmon is a revered creature for it’s wisdom, being able to navigate rivers, for bestowing powers upon the hazel-nuts that fall into the waters, and for inadvertently providing Fionn with it’s powers when he burnt his finger after preparing the a salmon for roasting.
In many parts of the world bad weather is thought to be imminent if a large shoal of fish are seen swimming near the surface of the water. Although bad weather may be imminent this does mean that the fish will bite more frequently, and even better, according to old Scottish folklore, if the fisherman due to go out to sea has an argument with his wife or partner the night before the catch will be larger.
A wonderful Yorkshire (UK) tradition still occurs when the nets are being fed out in commemoration of Neptune, king and protector of the sea. A slit is cut in one of the cork floats and a coin placed in the cut. The symbolism of this action is to show that Neptune is being paid for what is taken from the sea. It is thought that if the same fishermen become greedy and decide to fish each day of the week then this will be punished by the gods who protect the deep. This is an ancient tradition and yet if we look at the quotas forced upon modern fishermen as a direct result of over-fishing this piece of folklore clearly shows some forethought.
One commonly held tradition is to never refer to things back on land by their real names (instead using nicknames or pseudonyms), and to never take God’s name if vain. If either should occur all the fisherman on board should immediately touch a piece of iron to dispel any misfortune. When lowering the nets the crew should also avoid uttering the words sow, pig or swine; touching iron may save them from misfortune but it is likely that the size of the catch will be affected. Pigs were believed to be to see the wind and therefore can soon change the fortunes of the weather according to folklore. Able to see bad weather coming it naturally follows that pigs may also be able to influence fish to areas new when their name is taken in vain.