A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who or what is the Flying Dutchman?

March 25, 2009

Please help me with a question that’s been bothering me for years: Who was the Flying Dutchman? What strange mythic figure is he, and does this have anything to do with the Wandering Jew? Are there any other Mysterious Traveling Figures?

Guest contributor Matt Craver replies:

The Flying Dutchman is usually thought of as a what, not a who. Specifically, it's a ghost ship doomed to wander the seven seas for all eternity.

It should be understood, though, that here we're dealing with a story born of oral tradition, so there's no official consensus on the details. For example, in some early versions of the story, the phrase "Flying Dutchman" is clearly just a general description of the ship: in the 17th and 18th centuries, a "Dutchman" was a particular type of vessel, a trading ship of the mighty Dutch East India Company. Such ships would sail between the Netherlands and what is today Indonesia, rounding the Cape of Good Hope on the way. Later, as the story spread (and the influence of the company waned), "Flying Dutchman" was often taken for the name of the ship itself or as an epithet for its captain.

Where did this oral tradition start? Well, there are doubtless any number of ancient legends of wandering seafarers that we have no record of, but one obvious antecedent for the Dutchman story is the Odyssey, which gives us both the template and the term for tales of extended journeys. Odysseus, you'll recall, sets off for his hometown of Ithaca after the sack of Troy but, having earned the enmity of the sea god Poseidon, gets shunted around the Mediterranean for ten years until Zeus grants Athena’s pleas and allows him to return home.

The notion of a cursed sailor on an endless voyage has thus been percolating through our culture for millennia, changing along the way as each new storyteller gets a hold of it. In 1799 Samuel Taylor Coleridge picked up the theme in his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which a sailor is doomed to walk the earth telling his tale of sin and redemption. The first written version of the Dutchman story appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in May 1821. German poet Heinrich Heine gave us the next major version a decade later in his From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski. At the time of these writings the story of the Flying Dutchman was already an old one – the main character in Heine’s version tells of having heard it as a boy from his aged great-aunt. Richard Wagner later wrote an opera based on the Heine story. Since then it has been retold many times in various forms. The screenwriters behind the Pirates of the Caribbean movies cribbed from the Flying Dutchman legend in devising the backstory for the ghost ship the Black Pearl, then wove the Dutchman itself directly into their saga, adding Davy Jones as its captain.

Behind the variations in detail lies the essential core of the story: The Flying Dutchman and its crew are cursed for the hubris and/or impiety of the ship's captain. (In the Blackwood's version he's identified as one Henrik van der Decken; this surname is an obvious pun, meaning “of the decks” in Dutch.) Usually the captain has made the fatal mistake of swearing the ship will succeed in some seafaring feat – most often rounding the Cape of Good Hope in a fierce storm – or else keep sailing until Judgment Day. In some versions of the story, Heaven rejects the Dutchman's crew for this sin; in others Satan decides to take the captain’s words literally. In any case, neither Heaven nor Hell will now accept them; Heine’s captain evocatively says he is trapped in the "living coffin" of his flesh. From time to time, other ships encounter the Dutchman, often being asked to convey letters to long-dead companions or family of the crew; refusing to carry letters from the Dutchman is a very bad idea. In some versions of the story, there is a possibility of redemption, usually through the love of a woman. In Heine’s version, for example, the Dutchman’s captain is allowed to land every seven years to search for a woman who will be “true unto death” – someone Satan believes can never exist.

The thread connecting the the Flying Dutchman to the Wandering Jew, Odysseus, the Ancient Mariner, and, for that matter, Charlie on the M.T.A. is, of course, the idea of exile. The same theme occurs in folktales from other cultures: the Wicked Mendicant from India, any number of stories of ronin in Japan, etc. A complete list of Mysterious Traveling Figures from world myth would be nearly impossible to compile.

Exile isn’t the great fear in our culture it once was. In contemporary American mythology, the wanderer without a home has been transformed into a figure symbolizing freedom and adventure – think of Caine in Kung Fu or the guys in their Corvette in Route 66. In premodern societies, however, exile was a fate akin to death. (It should be noted that exile stories differ from quest stories in that the latter contain at least an implicit hope of return, no matter how perilous the quester's task might be.) Thousands of years ago, the idea of being expelled from the only society of which one was a member was terrifying. Not only was an exile torn from the only life he had known – which might have been as small as the village where he was born – but he was now at the mercy of everyone and everything he encountered. In a scattered, fragmented world divided into in groups and out groups, to be part of no group at all was to be utterly without protection. All wandering-exile legends make this danger explicitly clear, and so warn the listener: “Don’t rock the boat, or you'll be left homeless to face the world on your own.”

Again, this threat doesn't carry the same weight it once did. Nonetheless: if you ever meet a near derelict ship on a stormy ocean, I advise you to accept any letters home the crew asks you to carry. Just make sure you have a crucifix on board.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Beck, Brenda E. F., Peter J. Claus, Praphulladatta Goswami, and Jawaharlal Handoo, eds. Folktales of India. University of Chicago, 1987.

Grinberg, Leon and Rebeca Grinberg. Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Migration and Exile. Yale, 1989.

Heine, Heinrich. The Works of Heinrich Heine, vol. 1.
Trans. Charles Godfrey Leland. William Heinemann, 1906: pp.129-136.

“Vanderdecken’s Message Home; Or, the Tenacity of Natural Affection.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, L, no. IX (1821): pp. 124-131.

Wagner, Richard. Der fliegende Holländer.

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