This post is to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.
A storm at sea is one of the most feared experiences, as it often presages shipwreck. Mariners would do anything to survive tempestuous waters, from weather forecasting to casting holy oil or auspicious soil from the tomb of a Persian Sufi saint, Abu Eshaq Kazaruni (d. 1035) on the waves.
Occasionally, sailors wailing from fear were also briefly plunged into the sea: to calm them, not the waves though.
Oil features prominently in K. V. Hariharan’s paper on ‘Sea-dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’, a catalogue of traditional adaptation practices to a range of marine hazards, including cyclones: ‘Seafarers seemed to have known the effect of oil to smoothen the sea surface’. As storms approached seafarers ‘covered their body and garments with oil to smoothen the surface of the water they touched on thus presenting less resistance to the wind and preventing breaking of the waves – the real dangers in wave motion’.
The sewn boats in the archipelago of Lakshadweep, South India, boats fastened with coir, not nails, have also been coated with an oily material for the same reason seafarers covered themselves with oil: making the vessels waterproof and smoothing the water around them.
In addition to coating, seafarers also poured oil directly onto the sea to prevent the waves from breaking on their vessel. Throwing oil on the waves was applied so widely that it became in idiom in Dutch (‘olie op de golven gooien’) and English (‘pouring oil on troubled waters’) with the meaning of settling a disagreement and ‘bringing about a state of calm after great anger or excitement, etc., by tact and diplomacy.’
‘Oily seas’ that appear during the stormy southwest monsoon (June-September) along the Kerala coast, however, are not caused by mariners but natural processes. According to B. Arunachalam, an authority of Indian marine navigation:
[…] such a sea-surface – the kedu neer – is believed by seamen to generate a relatively smooth surface, ideal for anchoring or drifting during foul weather in rough seas. The mudbanks of Cochin, for this reason, are treated as safe anchorages during active monsoon times.
Kedu neer (Tamil கெடு நீர் ) literally means ‘bad water’. It refers to a turbid and calm marine area with almost no waves. A recent scientific study suggests the calmness of the ‘oily sea’ is linked to the wave damping effect of fine suspended matter, not oil. Mariners may have called these patches ‘oily seas’ as the water over the mud banks near Cochin, Kerala, known to generations of fishers, behave similarly to waters that have no waves because they were covered by a thin oil patch.
It was not only in the tropical seas where mariners made use of the oil’s water calming properties. Bede, the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk, tells us ‘How Bishop Aidan foretold to certain seamen a storm that would happen, and gave them some holy oil to lay it’ [642-645 AD] off the Kentish coast in cold North Sea, recorded in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, in the British Library at Add MS 1450.
Bede lists his sources including Utta, the priest who received the oil from Aidan, in order to add credibility to Aidan’s sea calming, revered as miracle. The credit, however, perhaps should go beyond Aiden, to local mariners anonymous to chroniclers.
As Aidan served on two islands, Iona and Lindisfarne, he spent considerable time in boats where he may have experienced and learned the practice of pouring oil on waves from local fishers and seal hunters who ferried him. Could Aiden’s holy oil be the same kind of oil local mariners used to quell waves? If so, this is an example of how local knowledge or rather adaptation practice to extreme weather became canonised.
Nautical idioms preserve seafarers’ practices. Most of us, landlubbers, need to take a historical perspective to unpack and appreciate their meaning, and we may still ponder over their relevance today. Faced with the unfolding changes of our climate, a major concern of our time, seafarers may serve a great source of inspiration by the way they kept their knowledge alive with keen observation, tireless experimentation and sharing.
If you have an "oil on water" story, you can tell us here.
References and further reading
Arunachalam, B. Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2002) Shelfmark YA.2003.a.26499
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (London, 1954). Book III, Chapter XV. Shelfmark 4824.m.1
Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum; Plympton annals for the years 1066-1177, Shelfmark Add MS 1450
Hariharan, K. V. ‘Sea-Dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’. Journal of Indian History, 1956. 34 (Part III (Serial No 102)), pp.313–320. Shelfmark Ac.1928/2
Jeans, P.D. Ship To Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea (Santa Barbara, 1993) Shelfmark YC.1996.b.3808
Jyothibabu., R. Balachandran, K.K., Jagadeesan, L., Karnan, C., Arunpandi, N., Naqvi, S.W.A., Pandiyarajan, R.S., 2018. ‘Mud Banks along the southwest coast of India are not too muddy for plankton’. Nature Sci. Rep. 8, 2544. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20667-9 [Accessed 3 December 2019].
OED, pour oil on troubled waters. [online] Oxford Dictionaries | English. 2019. Available online at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pour_oil_on_troubled_waters [Accessed 3 December 2019].
M. b. Otman, ‘Ferdaws al-moršediya fi asrar al-samadiya’. In: F. Meier and I.A. Afšar, eds., Die Vita des Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni in der Persischen Bearbeitung von. (Istanbul, 1943) Shelfmark Per.D.537
Sa'di Shirazi, Gulistan (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kulliyat. Shelfmark IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v
Subramanian, P.R. Kriyavin tarkalat Tamil akarati: Tamil-Tamil-Ankilam (Madras, 2000)
Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner eds., Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1989:749) Shelfmark OIA 423
Varadarajan, L. Sewn Boats of Lakshadweep. National Institute of ([Dona Paula], 1998). Shelfmark YP.2019.b.606
Wright, J.R. A companion to Bede: a reader’s commentary on ‘The ecclesiastical history of the English people’. (Grand Rapids, 2008) Shelfmark YC.2009.a.15214.