Did Pirates Have Their Own Religion?

Pirates existed outside mainstream society and often created a world of their own. For example, pirates had cities and towns in the British Caribbean they essentially ruled, allowing them to create a home for themselves. But did this tendency also extend to religion—did pirates have a faith of their own?

Pirates did not have a religion of their own, and most pirates followed the faith of their birth or were not very religious. You could often find pirates of different faiths on the same ship. Some pirates also had superstitions they would follow, though these were not true religions.

This article will explore the history of pirates and religion in further detail. It will answer commonly asked questions, such as whether pirates were religious and what some of their superstitions were.

Were Pirates Religious?

Sources are limited about whether pirates were religious, especially primary sources. [1] However, it is essential to remember that piracy involves significant criminal activity, including theft and murder.

Such activity is prohibited by most major religions, helping to explain why there is limited evidence of pirates as a whole being especially pious. This fact is especially true of the pirates with whom people are most familiar, such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham. 

However, there were some exceptions.

Religion was one of the motivating factors for numerous acts of piracy around the world, including: [2]

  • Attacks on Spanish ships by Dutch pirates in the 16th and 17th centuries were partially motivated by religious conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant Netherlands.
  • The Catholic Knights of Malta engaged in acts of piracy against Ottoman ships that were partially motivated by religious differences – the Ottomans were Muslims, and the Knights of Malta had a history of participation in the Crusades against the Arabs and Ottomans.
  • Outside of European pirates, many pirates in other parts of the world, such as the Indian Ocean, were Muslims. Like some of the Christian pirates described above, religion played an essential role in their piracy, and they were mainly known for their disdain of Christians.
  • After Spain and Portugal expelled Jewish people in the late 1400s, some turned to piracy, joining Ottoman pirate ships that commonly engaged with Spanish ships. Though there is little documentation of the reason behind their turn to piracy, there is a significant possibility that their religious persecution played a part in this decision.

Additionally, many individual pirates were known for their self-made versions of ’holiness.’ 

One of the best-known religious pirates was Bartholomew Roberts. Roberts was one of the most successful pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy and was also known as Black Bart. He is the inspiration for the character Dread Pirate Roberts from the book and movie The Princess Bride. [3]

However, aside from being a ruthless pirate, he was also highly religious. As part of his faith, he never attacked on a Sunday and did not drink alcohol. He also prohibited alcohol and gambling among his crew. [4] 

One cannot definitively say that Roberts followed the letter of Christianity. As part of his activities, he killed numerous captives, often in painful ways, and committed many other crimes that are considered sinful in the Christian religion. However, he did seem to follow a religious code of his own. 

Pirates who were not religious would often repent and turn religious when captured and sentenced to execution. Captain Kidd, for example, claimed to repent of his crimes and called on God just before authorities executed him by hanging. [5]

One of the results of many religious pirates was an increase in conversions.

As mentioned above, one of the religious motivations for piracy was the legacy of the Crusades. Just as the Knights of Malta committed piracy against Ottoman ships, Ottoman pirates would attack Spanish ships and ships from other Catholic countries. 

During these attacks, pirates would often attack slave ships. Though not all pirates engaged in the slave trade, some did, thanks to the chance to make lucrative profits. They would also take crew from captured ships into slavery, especially if they were from another religion.

To escape slavery, many Christians captured by Ottoman pirates “turned Turk”—that is, they converted to Islam for a chance to join these pirate crews. Not only did they avoid being sold into slavery, but by joining the pirate ships, they would also have an opportunity to share any profits earned by their plunder. 

Were Pirates Superstitious?

While most pirates were not overly religious, they were superstitious. 

Many pirate superstitions overlapped with sailor superstitions. One of the reasons for the many superstitions held by both groups of people is the inherent risk involved in sailing. 

While traveling by ship is relatively safe today, it was a dangerous undertaking for many years. There was always the risk of being lost at sea or caught in a natural disaster like a storm. There was also the worry of being attacked at sea—merchant ship crews feared pirate attacks, while pirates would fear attacks from other pirates and navies. 

One of the best-known pirate superstitions was the tradition of throwing salt over their left shoulder. This ritual intended to keep the Devil away from the pirate—and their ship.

Other pirate superstitions include:

St. Elmo’s Fire

St Elmo’s Fire is a natural phenomenon where atmospheric electricity is discharged during storms, causing pointed objects (like the mast of a ship) to glow blue and make a hissing noise. [6] Pirates believed that if the light shone high on the mast, it was good luck, but if it shone on the deck, it was bad luck. 

Additionally, if the St. Elmo’s Fire only appeared once, it was generally a bad omen that something terrible would befall the ship. However, if the mast glowed blue twice in a short period, it was a sign that the vessel would be safe at sea.

Belief in Pagan Gods

Part of pirate superstitions was a belief in numerous pagan gods, including:

  • Thor. Many believed no ship should set sail on Thursday, named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Many believed no ship should set sail on Thursday, named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. This angry deity would send a storm to destroy the vessel and those who sailed her if they broke this cosmic rule.
  • Hermes. Some believed that Hermes, god of travelers and occasionally magic in Greek mythology, was the source of St. Elmo’s Fire. [7]
  • Neptune and Proserpine. Pirates would throw gold coins into the sea before setting sail as an offering to Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. They would also avoid cutting their hair and nails while at sea. If they did so, the cut hair and nails were considered offerings to Proserpine, the Roman version of Persephone. This oversight would make Neptune angry, and he would send a storm to destroy their ship.

[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source
[7] Source

Recent Posts

error: This content is copyrighted.