Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy: The Story of Davy Jones

Written by Cory Gross. Posted in Yesterday Tomorrow and Fantasy

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Published on August 14, 2014 at 2:04 am with 2 Comments

The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was a brilliant piece of cinema capturing the rollicking adventure of swashbuckling films of yore. Using the ride as its jumping off point, it brought together great characters, great actors, great action, and a great story (and skeleton pirates!) to deliver the deeply satisfying kind of viewing experience one rarely gets in movies made after 1960. Then they had to make some sequels. Rather than keep up the strategy that made The Curse of the Black Pearl so successful, writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio took a queue from Lord of the Rings by trying to cram Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End full of mythology and plotlines that never quite jelled together.

However, if you’re an aficionado of maritime lore, there were lots of really neat allusions pillaged for content. The title of the second film, and the treasure chest to which it refers, was taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Just as “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” sounds like an old sea shanty despite being written by George Bruns and X. Atencio expressly for the ride in Disneyland, Stevenson invented his own suitably pirate-sounding song for his novel, entitled “Fifteen Men on the Dead Man’s Chest.” The Flying Dutchman is a legend amongst sailors, and the plotline surrounding it is unmistakably adapted from Richard Wager’s eponymous opera. Inside the ship is an organ decorated with a relief of Gustave Doré’s engravings for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Then there is the man playing it, a Lovecraftian tentacle horror identified with Davy Jones.

The first substantial literary reference of the devil of the deep known as Davy Jones was by Tobias Smollett in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751). This novel follows the life of the reckless, titular dandy who was in part raised by a naval Commodore Trunnion. Amongst these adventures was a successful effort to scare the Devil out of Trunnion with a false apparition, illiciting the following response:

It was then that Peregrine, pretending to recollect himself a little, ran, with all the marks of disturbance and affright, and called up the servants to the assistance of their master, whom they found in a cold sweat upon the floor, his features betokening horror and confusion. Hatchway raised him up, and having comforted him with a cup of Nantz, began to inquire into the cause of his disorder: but he could not extract one word of answer from his friend, who, after a considerable pause, during which he seemed to be wrapt in profound contemplation, pronounced aloud, “By the Lord! Jack, you may say what you wool; but I’ll be d– if it was not Davy Jones himself. I know him by his saucer eyes, his three rows of teeth, his horns and tail, and the blue smoke that came out of his nostrils. What does the blackguard hell’s baby want with me? I’m sure I never committed murder, except in the way of my profession, nor wronged any man whatsomever since I first went to sea.” This same Davy Jones, according to the mythology of sailors, is the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep, and is often seen in various shapes, perching among the rigging on the eve of hurricanes, shipwrecks, and other disasters, to which a seafaring life is exposed; warning the devoted wretch of death and woe. No wonder then that Trunnion was disturbed by a supposed visit of this demon, which, in his opinion, foreboded some dreadful calamity.

Great American storyteller Washington Irving added another literary reference in his 1824 story The Adventures of the Black Fisherman, in which a group of sailors mourn the passing of their friend, but moreso of his treasure:

A long sheet of lightning now flickered across the waves, and discovered a boat, filled with men, just under a rocky point, rising and sinking with the heaving surges, and swashing the waters at every heave. It was with difficulty held to the rocks by a boat hook, for the current rushed furiously round the point. The veteran hoisted one end of the lumbering sea chest on the gunwale of the boat, and seized the handle at the other end to lift it in, when the motion propelled the boat from the shore, the chest slipped off from the gunwale, and, sinking into the waves, pulled the veteran headlong after it. A loud shriek was uttered by all on shore, and a volley of execrations by those on board, but boat and man were hurried away by the rushing swiftness of the tide. A pitchy darkness succeeded. Wolfert Webber, indeed, fancied that he distinguished a cry for help, and that he beheld the drowning man beckoning for assistance; but when the lightning again gleamed along the water all was void; neither man nor boat was to be seen,–nothing but the dashing and weltering of the waves as they hurried past.

The company returned to the tavern to await the subsiding of the storm. They resumed their seats and gazed on each other with dismay. The whole transaction had not occupied five minutes, and not a dozen words had been spoken. When they looked at the oaken chair they could scarcely realize the fact that the strange being who had so lately tenanted it, full of life and Herculean vigor, should already be a corpse. There was the very glass he had just drunk from; there lay the ashes from the pipe which he had smoked, as it were, with his last breath. As the worthy burghers pondered on these things, they felt a terrible conviction of the uncertainty of existence, and each felt as if the ground on which he stood was rendered less stable by his awful example.

As, however, the most of the company were possessed of that valuable philosophy which enables a man to bear up with fortitude against the misfortunes of his neighbors, they soon managed to console themselves for the tragic end of the veteran. The landlord was particularly happy that the poor dear man had paid his reckoning before he went, and made a kind of farewell speech on the occasion.

“He came,” said he, “in a storm, and he went in a storm; he came in the night, and he went in the night; he came nobody knows whence, and he has gone nobody knows where. For aught I know he has gone to sea once more on his chest, and may land to bother some people on the other side of the world; though it’s a thousand pities,” added he, “if he has gone to Davy Jones’s locker, that he had not left his own locker behind him.”

Since then, the invocation of Davy Jones’ name appeared in all the literary and cinematic classics of piracy and seafaring life, as has his infamous Locker: a euphemism for untimely death at sea.

The origin of Davy is lost to time and the search is a highly speculative exercise in retracing the etymology of the name. One of the most popular is that the “Jones” is a corruption of Jonah, the famous Biblical Prophet hoisted overboard by a gang of sailors in a perfect example of learning when to keep one’s mouth shut:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.

Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.  Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”

So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:1-17)

From this it is easy enough to see the derivation of Jones as a harbinger of bad luck for sailors… an errant soul bringing down the wrath of the Almighty on a hapless crew.

Other possibilities are put forth as well, such as Davy Jones being a reference to a British pub owner who locked up drunk sailors and shanghaied them onto passing ships. He was already immortalized in the 1594 drinking song Jones’s Ale is Newe and it’s not difficult to draw that connection either.

A possible origin for the Christian name of “Davy” is found in Saint David, the Mediaeval monk and bishop who became the patron saint of Wales. David was born on a dark and stormy night along the coast of Wales in the 480′s and led a life typical of a British saint. There are a few aspects of his more legendary stories that connect him to the sea. For one, he gained the nickname of “The Waterman”, for his discipline and monastic rule of drinking only water (and eating only spiced bread) and bathing in only cold water. During a drought, he was reported to have prayed earnestly and opened up a gushing spring with his staff. He was bishop of the port city of Menapia in Pembrokeshire, which served as the primary port to Ireland. This would come in handily for some of the most fantastic tales attached to David. Writing in the 11th century, Rhygyvarch’s Life of David records the following:

When Saint Aeddan had been fully instructed, being potent in virtues and thoroughly purified from vices, he made for Ireland. And having constructed a monastery there, which in the Irish language is called Guernin, Ferns, he led a most holy life.

When on an Easter Eve he was the more earnestly engaged in prayer, an angel appeared to him, saying, “Do you know that tomorrow at mealtime poison will be placed by certain of the brethren before the venerable Saint David, to wit, your father?” Saint Aeddan answered and said, “I know it not.” The angel said to him, “Send one of the servants to the father to tell him.” Saint Aeddan answered and said, “Neither is there a ship ready, nor is the wind right for sailing.” The angel said to him, “Let your fellow disciple, called Scutinus, proceed to the seashore, for I will bear him across thither.” The disciple obeys and goes to the shore, and enters the water to his knee. And a monster took him and carried him across to the confines of the monastery.

When the solemnities of Easter were over, the holy father, Saint David, goes to the refectory to a meal with the brethren. There met him his former disciple, Scutinus, who told him all the things which had been done against him and what the angel had enjoined concerning him. They joyfully recline together in the refectory, giving thanks to God. When prayer was ended, up rose the deacon, who had been wont to minister to the father, and placed on the table the bread prepared with poison, the cellarer and the prior consenting to the same. Scutinus, who has also another name, Scolanus, stood up and said, “Today, brother, you will perform no service to the father, for I myself will do it.” The deacon withdrew in confusion, being conscious of the crime, and rigid with astonishment. And holy David took the poisoned bread, and dividing it into three parts, gave one to a little dog which stood outside by the door, and as soon as it had tasted the bit it died a wretched death, for in the twinkling of an eye all its hair fell off, so that its entrails burst forth, its skin splitting all over; and all the brethren who saw it were astonished. And holy David threw the second part to a raven, which was in its next in an ash, which was between the refectory and the river on the south side, and as soon as it touched it with its beak, it fell lifeless from the tree. But the third part holy David held in his hand, and blessed, and ate it with giving of thanks, and all the brethren looked at him, amazed with wonder, for about three hours. He dauntless preserved his life intact, no sign of the deadly poison appearing. And holy David told his brethren everything which had been done by the three men aforesaid. And all the brethren stood up and lamented aloud, and cursed those treasonous men, to wit, the prior, the cellarer, and the deacon, and damned them and their successors, declaring with one voice that they should never have a part in the heavenly kingdom throughout eternity.

At another time too, when among others that most faithful abbot of the Irish, whose name was Barre, had an unquenchable desire to visit the relics of the holy apostles, Peter and Paul, and undertook with unwearied feet the journey devoted to pilgrimage, after he had completed his salutary vow and was returning to the enclosures of his monastery, he visited the holy man, Saint David; and having sojourned there a little while by request in holy intercourse, he was delayed for a longer period, for the ship, wherein he had made ready to revisit his native land, was hindered by lack of winds. Fearing lest there should arise contentions, strifes, and quarrels among the brethren in the absence of their abbot, the bond of charity being relaxed, even as bees, when the king is destroyed, pull asunder and ruin the stores of honeycombs, which they had secured with firm fastening, he searched with anxious mind and found a wondrous path. For on a day he asked for the horse whereon the holy father, David, had been wont to ride for ecclesiastical purposes, and obtained leave. Having received the father’s blessing he goes to the harbour, enters the sea, and putting his trust in the blessing of the father and the support of the horse he uses it for a ship, inasmuch as the horse ploughed through the swelling masses of the waves as through a level field.

As he was proceeding further into the sea, he appeared where Saint Brendan was leading a wondrous life on a marine animal. When Saint Brendan saw a man horse-riding in the sea, he was astonished and said, “God is wonderful in his saints.” The horseman drew near where he was, so that they were able to exchange greetings. When they had saluted one another, Brendan asked whence he was, and from whom he had come, and how he rode a horse in the sea. Barre, after having narrated to him the causes of his pilgrimage, said, “Since the vessel’s delay kept me from my brethren, the holy father, David, gave me the horse whereon he had been wont to ride that thereby I might satisfy my need, and so, fortified by his blessing, I entered on such a journey.” Brendan said to him, “Go in peace, I will come and see him.” Barre arrived in his native land, his journey unbroken, and narrated to the brethren who met him what things had been done. They kept the horse in the service of the monastery till its death. But after its death they made a painted image of the horse as a memorial of the miracle, which even till now may be found in the island of the Irish, covered with gold. It is also renowned for the number of its miracles. (36-40)

The connection here may not be as strong, however, since there is nothing that quite so obviously connects Saint David to the figure of Davy Jones.

There is another Welsh “David” that could be a connection… In Welsh, the name “David” renders as “Dewi”, which is also the name of an old Welsh god often pictured as a great red serpent or dragon and represented as such on the Welsh flag. Dewi has connections to the sea and the image of a great red dragon sea serpent developing into a devil of the deeps practically writes itself. Ultimately, it may even boil down to Davy Jones being one of Old Scratch’s numerous pseudonyms.

I’m going to be taking time off for my upcoming wedding and honeymoon, and afterwards may resume posting on my old blog at http://yesterday-tomorrow-and-fantasy.blogspot.com. If you’d like to be notified of when and if I pick up the blog again, be sure to join my Facebook page by clicking here. My thanks to those of you who enjoyed this column!

About Cory Gross

Cory Gross is a professional educator in the museums and heritage field, sharing his passion for history, science and art in his home of Calgary, Canada. He is also the creator of Voyages Extraordinaires, a blog dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Futurism, which can be found at http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com.

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