drowning


drowning
   This has attracted a number of beliefs and customs, the most widespread being that anyone born with a *caul will never drown. It was considered unwise to save someone from drowning; at best they will turn into your enemy, at worst the sea will take you instead. It was also believed that the rescuer of a drowning person would afterwards be legally responsible for maintaining that person, or that anyone who pulled a drowned body from the water was liable to pay for his/her funeral. Still extremely widespread is the notion that a drowning person will surface three times before succumbing, and that one's life flashes before one's eyes in the process. In popular belief, there are several ways of finding the bodies of drowned people. One is to float a loaf of bread, loaded with a quantity of mercury, across the pond or river, and it will stop over, or near to, the place where the body lies (N&Q 6s:8 (1883), 367, 435-6), a method which goes back at least to the 1580s. Another way of locating the corpse is to fire a gun across the water, which will bring the body to the surface. Sailors believed that the concussion of the shot bursts the gall bladder of the drowned body and thereby makes it float (Denham Tracts, 1895: ii. 72). A variation on this principle was to fill bottles with gunpowder and contrive to explode them under water (N&Q 5s:9 (1878), 478). A number of other long-standing beliefs existed about drowned bodies. It was thought that a body found floating on the water cannot have been drowned but must have been a murder victim, already dead before being placed in the water, on the premiss that drowned bodies sink. N&Q (167 (1934), 297, 336-7; 168 (1935), 214) cites a court-case of 1699 in which this belief is cited as evidence. Corpses were, however, believed to rise on the ninth day after drowning (when their gall bladder broke), and it was also maintained that males floated face up, while females floated face down. Thomas Browne devotes a chapter of his Pseudoxia Epidemica (6th edn. (1672), book 4, chapter 6) to refuting these notions.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 34, 127; N&Q. 8s:2 (1892), 48; 161 (1931), 164, 230, 337-8; Lean, (1903), ii. 615-16.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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