Mother Carey

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Mother Carey
Mother Carey and her chickens by J G Keulemans 1877 (frame removed).jpg
"Mother Carey and her chickens" by J. G. Keulemans
Created byTraditional
Portrayed byJohn Masefield, Charles Kingsley, Jessie Willcox Smith, John Gerrard Keulemans, ...

Mother Carey is a supernatural figure personifying the cruel and threatening sea in the imagination of 18th- and 19th-century English-speaking sailors. She was a similar character to Davy Jones (who may be her husband[1]).

The name seems to be derived from the Latin expression Mater cara ("Precious Mother"), which sometimes refers to the Virgin Mary.[2]

John Masefield described her in the poem "Mother Carey (as told me by the bo'sun)" in his collection Salt Water Ballads (1902).[1] Here she and Davy Jones are a fearsome couple responsible for storms and ship-wrecks.

In a Cicely Fox Smith poem entitled "Mother Carey", she calls old sailors to return to the sea.[3]

The character appears as a fairy in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. She lives near the North Pole and helps Tom find the Other-end-of-Nowhere. She is shown in one of Jessie Willcox Smith's illustrations for this book.[4]

Storm petrels, thought by sailors to be the souls of dead seamen, are called Mother Carey's Chickens. Giant petrels are known as Mother Carey's Geese.[2] In The Seaman's Manual (1790), by Lt. Robert Wilson (RN), the term Mother Carey's children is defined as "a name given by English sailors to birds which they suppose are fore-runners of a storm."[5]

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 113, Captain Ahab interrogates the blacksmith Mr. Perth about the sparks fantailing from his hammer: "Are these thy Mother Carey’s chickens, Perth? they are always flying in thy wake; birds of good omen, too, but not to all;—look here, they burn; but thou—thou liv’st among them without a scorch.”.[6][7]

Ernest Thompson Seton's book Woodland Tales is described by the author as a collection of "Mother Carey Tales". In his use, Mother Carey is a Mother Nature figure, the "Angel of the Wild Things", who favors the strong and the wise but destroys the weak: "She loves you, but far less than she does your race. It may be that you are not wise, and if it seem best, she will drop a tear and crush you into the dust."[8]


  1. ^ a b Masefield, John (1902), Salt Water Ballads, London: Grant Richards, 1902, ISBN 1-110-89536-4 The poem in question can also be found on-line, for instance in the Lied and Art Song Texts Page.
  2. ^ a b See entry "Mother Carey's Chickens" on p. 597 of the 1890 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable published by Cassell (London). This is available online from the Internet Archive.
  3. ^ "Mother Carey" by Cicely Fox Smith in "SONGS & CHANTIES: 1914-1916", edited by Cicely Fox Smith, published by Elkin Mathews (London) in 1919
  4. ^ Kingsley, Charles (1863), The Water-Babies, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-19-282238-1 Available on-line, for instance with Jessie Willcox Smith's illustrations at The University of Adelaide Library.
  5. ^ Wilson, Lieutenant Robert (1790), THE SEAMAN'S MANUAL,CONTAINING ALL THE Technical Words and Phrases Used at Sea ..., Clerkenwell, London.: Truslers, p. 71.
  6. ^ As book: Melville, Herman (1851), Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale., London: Richard Bentley, New York: Harper & Brothers. Expanded quotation:

    While yet a little distance from the forge, moody Ahab paused; till at last, Perth, withdrawing his iron from the fire, began hammering it upon the anvil- the red mass sending off the sparks in thick hovering flights, some of which flew close to Ahab. “Are these thy Mother Carey’s chickens, Perth? they are always flying in thy wake; birds of good omen, too, but not to all;- look here, they burn; but thou- thou liv’st among them without a scorch.” “Because I am scorched all over, Captain Ahab,” answered Perth, resting for a moment on his hammer; “I am past scorching-, not easily can’st thou scorch a scar.”

  7. ^ Web site: "Moby Dick Chapter 113: The Forge". Lit2Go. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
  8. ^ Seton, Ernest Thompson (1922), Woodland Tales, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, pp. v, xiii–xv