Sailor Superstition: Klabautermann

The Klabautermann is a water kobold (or “sprite” in English), its name stemming from the Low German verb “klabastern” meaning “to rumble”. It might sound like a troublesome creature but, conversely, is believed to bring good luck to sailors crossing the Baltic and North Seas. Over time, descriptions have emerged of what they wear – a sailor’s raincoat and a woollen hat – and of their physicality – a long beard with a wooden pipe dangling from its mouth.

But far from simply being some form of a Captain’s mascot, the Klabautermann is thought to embody the soul of the ship itself. The ships on which they are ever-present are always the best looked-after, the most sea-worthy, and so earn the good fortune of being escorted by the Klabautermann across treacherous seas to safety.

In retellings of encounters with the Klabautermann, their temperament is mostly described as gentle and merry. They enjoy nothing more than singing upon a ship’s deck, the sound of which can be heard upon the brisk Northern winds. They have a deep affinity with the ocean, and are able to negotiate with it in order to save the lives of sailors who are thrown overboard in storms.

Yet, how their appearance and temperament are known remains a mystery, because although the presence of the Klabautermann is generally seen as a positive thing, if anyone ever sets eyes on one upon their ship, it becomes an omen for everyone on board. The Klabautermann only ever become visible to the crew of a doomed ship, vessels who cannot contend with the ferocity of the ocean.

When I first started researching the Klabautermann after stumbling across them whilst studying another piece of sailor folklore, I found that over time it had taken on some more sinister characteristics, reincarnating as a demon that terrorised ship’s crews and deliberately riling up an unpredictable ocean to put people in danger.

I find this later interpretation of the Klabautermann generic, we have lots of demonic creatures across innumerable pieces of lore. It strikes me as the workings of a bored sailor’s mind, trying to make sense of the harsh conditions of life at sea. On the other hand, imagining a creature so in harmony with a ship – having the sway to make agreements with the ocean itself in order to protect its comrades on board – is hugely intriguing.

So remember, when planning to cross the Baltic or North Sea, make sure your ship is spotless and listen for a melody on the cold breeze.

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