The Flying Dutchman - Charles Temple Dix, 1860's, oil painting on canvas, 58cmx93cm.
The Flying Dutchman
In one of the posts about lich, we briefly talked about Davy Jones, the one who owns everything that falls to the bottom of the ocean.
In the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, Davy Jones is a captain aboard the most famous of the ghost ships, the one that will interest us today in this (relatively) short article: the Flying Dutchman.
The Flying Dutchman first appears in writings in 1790 by Scottish writer John MacDonald in his book Travels in various part of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward.
"The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman. The common story is that this Dutchman came to the Cape in distress of weather and wanted to get into harbour but could not get a pilot to conduct her and was lost and that ever since in very bad weather her vision appears."
The story already seemed popular among sailors, because other texts narrate the legend in 1795 and then in 1805, speaking of a warship caught in a storm on the outskirts of the Cape of Good Hope before sinking. It would then have reappeared in a storm in the same region, then again elsewhere after witnesses to this first appearance spread the rumor "like a forest fire". Subsequently, virtually every new testimony will bring a different cause to the disappearance of the original vessel. Many versions speak of various crimes so atrocious that their perpetrators were cursed by God, but Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) will be the first to speak of a pirate ship laden with bloody booty.
However, it was not until 1821 that a more elaborate story told the legend by naming the captain of the ghost ship Hendrick Van Der Decken. In this story, it is the stubbornness of its captain that leads the ship to eternal damnation.
Either way, the Flying Dutchman would swiftly become the most popular ghost ship legend among sailors, which is saying a lot as there were so many superstitions in this world and at this time. One of the most feared omen was a glimpse of a vessel's silhouette during a storm. However, the only common point of these stories was the name of this ship which belonged to the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) during the 18th century, shortly before its dissolution in 1799 after two centuries of major importance.
In his 2011 book Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions, Jonathan Eyers notes that only one source is regularly cited as the point of origin of the legend: Captain Bernard Fokke.
Captain for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, he was renowned for the extreme speed of his vessel connecting Java and the United Provinces. One of these journeys to deliver letters to Governor Rijckloff van Goens was completed in three months and four days, which was astonishing for the period. The travel time is moreover easily attested by the registers of 1678. This unrivaled speed at the time was of course attributed in a popular way to a pact with the devil, especially as the captain was apparently extremely ugly, which stimulated even more the collective imagination about this boat who was "flying on the waves".
Today, the legend of the Flying Dutchman has evolved from marine superstitions to popular culture thanks to the various readaptations. Richard Wagner dedicated the first of his ten major operas to the ship in 1843 (Der Fliegender Holländer) and many paintings have illustrated it, but it was in the 20th century that the explosion of popular culture made it a staple of ghost ship stories.
The list is too long to talk about all its appearances, but if I personally discovered the Flying Dutchman in an adventure of Scrooge McDuck in an episode of Ducktales written by Carl Barks in 1959, it is indeed the second film of the Pirates of the Caribbean series (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) which, in 2006, will provide it real visibility with the general public.
Strangely, aside from the ship's name and the fact that it's populated by the living dead, there is hardly any connection to all of the various versions of the legend, paradoxically making this version the furthest from its origins.
More recently, it's a story arc of the ultra popular One Piece adventure manga that has taken up the torch to bring the ship and its fictional captain to the masses. If this descendant of Van Der Decken (the ninth of the name) is a sometimes crazy fish-man, the idea of a captain cursed and condemned to wander on his famous ship bringing bad luck to those who cross his path has remained.
To conclude, if we now have an idea where the legend comes from with Captain Bernard Fokke, we lack an explanation for the origin of the appearances of this ghost ship.
And there is an explanation! Because if the Flying Dutchman as well as many boats going in the distance without the slightest wind and sometimes flying above the waves have been (and still are) so often seen, it is because it is an ordinary natural phenomenon.
It falls into the category of optical phenomena, precisely that of mirages (which are not a bad interpretation of our brain and are therefore not optical illusions) and also appeared in One Piece in a reinterpreted way, but respecting the basics of the principle. Its name? Fata Morgana.
So as not to get into the details of the physics of the propagation of light, let's just say that a mirage (as everyone understands it) occurs when a heat layer reversal takes place. Normally, due to atmospheric pressure, warm air is closer to the surface than cold air. However, under certain conditions, a thermal inversion can take place when the ground is clearly colder than the ambient air, creating two very distinct zones of layers of air to the point of deflecting the light which crosses them in an arc. If we are far from it to the point of being under the earth's curvature (or depression), we can then see a mirage. The easiest conditions to observe them are deserts, lakes and oceans but they can also be seen on particularly hot days.
Basic diagram of the optical illusion. When light refracts upwards we get an inferior mirage - This image has been created during "DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio" at Polytechnic University of Milan, organized by DensityDesign Research Lab in 2015. Image is released under CC-BY-SA licence. Attribution goes to "Ludovica Lorenzelli, DensityDesign Research Lab".
Mirages fall into three categories:
-Inferior mirages (or hot mirages) are the most common because they do not require thermal inversion but simply air near the ground so hot that the light will be slightly bent. As the concrete on roads heats up strongly under the sun, this is where it will most frequently appear, giving the impression of a puddle vaguely reflecting what is behind it.
-The superior mirages (or cold mirages) are those explained in the image on the right and allow to see above the earth's curvature something located below (as sometimes Monaco from Nice in France, mountains from the sea or cities in the desert). For the record, 19th-century Scottish explorer John Ross gave up on finding a route through North-west Canada when the mirage of mountains blocking his route rose up before him in Lancaster Sound. It is only the following year that his former second have confirmed that it was indeed a mirage when he continued on the same path.
Basic diagram of the optical illusion. When light refracts downward we get a superior mirage - This image has been created during "DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio" at Polytechnic University of Milan, organized by DensityDesign Research Lab in 2015. Image is released under CC-BY-SA licence. Attribution goes to "Ludovica Lorenzelli, DensityDesign Research Lab".
-The last mirage is now the one that interests us: Fata Morgana. This phenomenon is, in reality, a superposition of upper and lower mirages superimposing and deforming the two images. Not very stable, the image obtained evolves quickly and can display a "real" part to which are added deformations or even multiply on the height a small deformed mirage, giving the impression of observing in the distance a plateau or floating towers over water. The image seeming unreal or fairy, it is subject to the interpretation of the one who sees it, much like a specter can be seen in the mist through the interpretation of the brain. This phenomenon has been observed for centuries because it is often present in the Strait of Messina located between Italy and Sicily and this is where its name (Italian) comes from since the Crusades.
If we will come back to the Morgane le Fay in detail during an inevitable article on the myth of Arthur, just remember that, according to legends, Arthur's half-sister had the power to instantly raise castles and control the elements. When the crusaders thus witnessed the appearance of these towers above the waves, they saw the castles of the fairy or even the mythical island Avalon on which rests the body of King Arthur where Morgane deposited it.
Before the Crusades, legends spoke of sirens inhabiting the seas of Sicily who distracted sailors not focused enough on their tasks. But as Morgane bears the title of "Mistress of the fairies of the salt sea", she was quickly associated with Sicily and more particularly with Mount Etna.
Thanks to these different illusions, however very real to our eyes, ghost islands, monsters, aliens, but above all, ghost ships, appeared over time. Many legends were born thanks to these, adding to the hundreds of others already present in marine environments.
In any case, I hope that this relatively simple article have pleased you while waiting for a graphic redesign of the site which will be accompanied by a certain number of subjects prepared during the summer.