“Gifts of the sea”

Sumbergh Head, Shetland. (Photo credit: Joe DeSousa.) This is one of the locations in Scott’s The Pirate.

I’m currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. This is a pleasant thing, for several reasons. First, it’s a fairly enjoyable read, for anyone who can handle the old novel style. Second, it’s public domain, hence cheap. Third, it’s very long, reducing my book buying expenses. Fourth, it’s set in Shetland, and thus full of Norse tradition and custom. The main problem is that it forces me to think creatively about what I’ll blog about, until I finish the interminable thing and can review it.

But the book solves that problem too, by dropping topics in my lap, through its many long digressions. Tonight: the curious Shetland taboo against rescuing shipwreck victims.

As Scott tells it, the Shetland Islanders had a strong cultural prohibition against rescuing anyone from a shipwreck. This seems peculiar for Christians, especially in light of Acts 27 and 28, which describe St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta, and praise the kindly Maltese who took the victims in.

Nevertheless, I can believe this story about the Shetlanders. Not that they’re bad people. But due to reasons I learned when I visited Iceland.

As Scott tells it, it was the firm belief of the Shetlanders that if you rescued anyone from a shipwreck, it would bring disaster on you. And that disaster would come through the very person you rescued. So if the sea took someone, that was their fate – one in which you dared not interfere.

The cause of this was the Shetlanders’ economic situation. These were poor people, dependent on subsistence farming and fishing. When a ship broke up on their shores, they (like the southern islanders with their cargo cults) saw it as a gift from God. But if God had sent the flotsam, what of the previous owners? Their deaths must also be God’s will. If they survived, their property claims would be a major inconvenience.

When I visited Iceland, the guide told us is that for a very long time, the Icelanders refused to build lighthouses on their coast. The reason was the same – loot from shipwrecks formed an important, sometimes a lifesaving, supplement to their economy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they had a similar superstition.

This is a caution to all of us. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on biblical morality, and submit my personal interests to God’s commands. But nothing blinds you like the cares of this world.

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