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Thursday, May 02, 2019

Symbols and Pronouns, Ships and Women

Hervé Cozanet,The bow and the figure
of schooner Recouvrance in Brest, 2006

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Sourced via Wikipedia
Symbols often explain some underlying shape of the world as it has been understood for millennia. History can suggest how long a symbol has been present. Language refers to and reveals those symbols. And language is a curious thing. Looked at closely, it can reveal some deep-lying meaning that we hardly notice but which says something important about the world. 

Historical fact shows us that a ship was seldom regarded as merely an object, that it was associated with vigorous life and with myth. Eyes were painted on Greek and Phoenician ships. Roman goddesses and gods found a place on the bow. Viking ships were led by dragons. Once the keel extended into a stem in the sixteenth century, figureheads appeared in wild variety--deities, eagles, unicorns and lions, women, and men. Eventually the military sailing ship and its figureheads vanished. 

Not only was a ship not regarded as a mere object, it was commonly regarded as female. Is this something a post-post-modern ideology needs to stamp out? Or is it part of a foundational, mythic pattern--a symbolic richness passed down to us from our ancestors?

The body of the ship, like the body of a woman, may hold and shelter and nourish human beings who are carried for a period of time. No doubt many bad puns have been made about a female ship carrying seamen, but that does not mean the meaning of ship-as-woman is not deep, not meaningful. At the end of their stay in the womb or in what is called the "belly" of a ship, barring miscarriage or shipwreck, people are born out of a dark womb. In the days of sailing ships, their journey took months. This shape of a long journey ending in a kind of birth into the light is as plain and simple and unabashedly clear a pattern as is the portrayal of stalwart prairie mother Ántonia, her children rushing up out of the doorway of a sod house near the close of Willa Cather's My Ántonia

Sometimes historical ships became connected to notable, literal births. The first Pilgrim baby born in the New World was born on a ship that is part of American mythology, the Mayflower. (Susanna White gave birth to her son as the Mayflower lay at anchor at Cape Cod; another baby, Oceanus Hopkins, was born mid-way across the seas to Elizabeth Fisher Hopkins. The names given to the infants show that the births were seen in a symbolic light.) That sailing ships were used sometimes for cruel, evil purposes that opposed life--carrying slaves in the Middle Passage, for example--does not abolish the underlying pattern, though it makes the shape tragic.

Changing a long-held traditional symbolic pattern is tricky, particularly when the change is bowing to ideology and abrupt change. Jargon and what William Stringfellow called "rhetorical wantonness" are signs of what used to be commonly (now uncommonly) called the powers and principalities, who are always attempting to wrest power for themselves. What are powers and principalities but rulers, authorities, forces, groups that wish to wield power. Sometimes we become the powers and principalities.

In "Every Pronoun Must Go," Theodore Dalrymple shares why objectors seek to change the pronoun:
The Scottish Maritime Museum, dedicated to the history of the country’s shipbuilding industry, has decided that it will no longer use the words she and her to refer to ships, but rather it and its. This is in response to feminists, who have defaced plaques referring to ships as she or her. This change would negate centuries of tradition, during which the words traditionally used on launching a ship, “May God bless all who sail in her,” carried no connotation of insult or deprecation—rather the reverse. 
I expect that he implies here that virtually all those words are now to be ripped and rejected by opponents; "all who sail" are, I suppose, still safe.

At this interesting juncture in Western history, it's not one whit surprising to any of us that protestors (or museums weary of vandalized signs) want to get rid of a pronoun. Only a much-sheltered ostrich could have failed to notice the ongoing pronoun wars. But what is it we jettison when we toss she-ships into the sea? What do we lose? 

Surely we should ask.

Longed-for and prayed-for over millennia of risky births and frequent female shipwreck of childbirth, the image of a woman carrying her infant burden safely to its final destination in the world is what made the wooden womb of a ship into a "she." Long-ago sailing, too, was treacherous and a cause for women to lift up prayers and hopes for sons and husbands. Now women and men may both be sailors, and the voyage is safer than before. But in those earlier times, adventuring sailors might never come home safe in their wooden wombs, just as infants might be miscarried or never emerge from the mother's womb. And every old graveyard tells its sad stories of young women who died in childbirth. In each case, the ship or the body of the mother, safe passage was deeply desired by both men and women but often thwarted. 

Let's go back to the times of baby Peregrine. Early records from the Provincetown and Massachusetts Bay colonies make clear that a Pilgrim or Puritan woman in childbirth was regarded as a person called on to act with heroism. She was called to an adventure she might not survive. The achieving of a "good birth" or a "good death" (if the "good birth" proved impossible) through her labor was something that women thought a great deal about and wished for. In an era when our thoughts about maternity are colored by modern changes in medicine, such thoughts may seem strange. But in all times preceding the past century, a safe pregnancy and childbirth was still regarded as an infinitely precious gift. We still see remnants of that attitude in some high risk pregnancies and in the way women who have given birth feel the need to share their childbirth story--a journey of a baby from the amniotic seas to light, a journey of a woman toward a new phase of life--with others.

We still participate in ancient patterns of life that cannot be thrown away without ending human history. Life is still conceived of as a journey. We all arrived in this place by sailing the inward, female sea to our destination on a nine-month journey. The image of secure passage for the sailor in the ship fused with the image of the child in the womb is neither oppressive nor meaningless but one of many foundational, mythic images of our world, passed down by a long chain of ancestors through the millennia.

Vulkano, Figurehead of the Seute Deern (Schiff, 1919) 2003
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  1. Beautiful musings. I don't see anything offensive about calling ships by a female pronoun or keeping our links to the perilous and myth-heavy past.
    Since Passover has just passed, I should draw your attention along these lines to the heavily female symbolism of this holiday, where the Hebrew people is born out of a Narrow Place (the name for Egypt in the Torah), rescued by heroic women--Miriam (she of the living well that followed the refugees around the desert till her death), the midwives Shifra and Puah, and Pharoah's daughter, who adopted Moses from his own woman-woven vessel in the Nile.

    1. Yes, those entirely fit. I think so many complaints and protests come from a complete lack of understanding that our lives are also symbolic and a story and can be read for meaning and myth.

  2. I served upon 3 men of war in the Navy -- Ranger, Coral Sea, and Kitty Hawk -- and each was considered a "she." Methinks objectors ought to be less deaf, dumb, and blind to traditions, symbols, and myths. Women (not a pun) should know better. And your excellent analysis has helped me to know better.

    1. One thing that disturbs is that young people are so very cut off from the knowledge passed down to us--they know other things, but in general they seem poorly educated in the realm of history, myth, and symbology. And if you do not know these things, many long-held beliefs and many long-formed images make little sense.

  3. After seeing your post, I had a glance at Morison's The European Discovery of America, as being the likeliest handy source of information on this, but it hasn't much. I did find a "him", but see that Shakespeare used "she". For all the ships in the list of ships, Homer does not personify them; Virgil wants to get the Trojans onto dry land, and has little to say about the ships. I don't know when the female ship came into fashion.

    Occasionally I get emails from the young with the helpful addition to the signature lines "she/her/hers" or "he/him/his". I have so far not added "I/me/mine" to my configuration.

    1. I used to own that book (same thing I can say of so many!) Yes, it would be interesting to see exactly when. I suspect it happened once there was actually an enclosed "belly."

      Hah, well, there are many more versions these days...

  4. I have not owned a boat (by which I mean a yacht or what some Americans call a sail-boat) but my late brother, Nick, had several. He sailed for about forty years.

    Late in his life (before Alzheimer got a firm hold of him) I sailed with him three times and briefly became aware of this intense and "other" environment called the sea. It drew me into excesses of romanticism all far too late for me to experience it on my own behalf.

    Nick's relationship with his last yacht, Takista, was very close. Takista wasn't really a possession, it was something both more than, and less than, tangible, a huge influence on his outlook on life. I didn't see this as fanciful. On more than one windy and wild occasion (but notably in the Irish sea) Takista had provided his sole protection against drowning Under those circumstance an inert device (A hopelessly inadequate phrase for such a mobile thing) tends to be the object of anthropomorphism; daydreaming at the helm in fine weather on the Bay of Biscay - a mini universe defined to some extent by the behaviour of the burgee - I sensed a wordless conversation via the wheel and the pressure of the sea on the rudder. All is fine, I was told, enjoy yourself.

    The funny thing is I can't remember Nick referring to Takista as she. He'd had problems with women though was capable of agonisingly intemperate love towards them. But had the subject come up he would have supported tradition. Takista would have become a "she". I know this because of his superstition towards Takista's engine; sails are fine, a yacht's raison d'etre, but an engine is essential when you need to go somewhere where the wind cannot take you. Never a joke about the engine, he was gloweringly serious about that.

    I was merely someone on the sidelines but had I entered the game when younger I would have instinctiively used "she". In a sense I already do something similar in my fiction, the tentative and frequently vain exploration of the distant yet close-at-hand boundaries of gender.

    1. Oh, I had forgotten about Nick and boats, which you certainly had mentioned. I have a friend whose husband is equally enamored of his large sailboat and spends all his weekends driving to coast and sailing once the ice departs. It is a passion, yes.

      Wiktionary says Takista is Finnish: Borrowed from Old Swedish stakker, compare Icelandic stakkur (“coat”), from Proto-Germanic *stakkaz (“short jacket”).

      Our lake, which Fenimore Coopered called "Glimmerglass" but is usually "Otsego," is often sprinkled with sailboats. They look quite wonderful at the 4th, when they are all out for fireworks and are lit with red and green lights and white lanterns.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.