Pirates have always intrigued people. Whether it was the fearsome Black Beard, privateers like Captain Henry Morgan, or the stylish rogue Calico Jack Rackham, the men who sailed under the Jolly Roger have been romanticized to the point they’ve become a fascination with some people. Portrayed in romance novels and films such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, people are constantly looking into the history of these sea-faring brigands. And one piece of obscure maritime myth is the character of Davy Jones, whose infamous locker was the bottom of the sea.
To really get down to who Davy Jones was, you have to understand that the sea was simultaneously the main source of life for any sailor, and it was also something to be dreaded and feared. Pagan cultures for centuries before pirates sailed the Spanish Main often assigned the most capricious and mean-spirited gods to the sea, for they well knew the force and unpredictability that could come upon mariners. Gods like the Philistine-worshipd Dagon, the heathen god Aegir and the mercurial Greek god Poseidon are all examples of how the sea was tolerant at best, malicious at worst. It’s from this vicious brew that the legend of Davy Jones grew from.
The first written record of the name Davy Jones being used comes from 1751. The reference was in “The Adventures of Paragrine Pickle” by Tobias Smollett. This book described Davy Jones as a devil with “saucer eyes, three rows of teeth, horns and a tail, and blue smoke that came out of his nostrils.” Quite a depiction, and let’s not forget that Davy Jones is described as a fiend and not a man, which elevates him to the status of a malignant ocean spirit rather than a man whom the legend was based on.
The particular name of this evil spirit who would be seen swinging from the rigging before storms and who would be seen by sailors about to die has several, potential origins. One thought is that the name Davy is a perversion of the Indian word duppy, which refers to a malignant demon. Another is that it refers to Saint David, the patron saint of sailors. As to the name Jones it could have come from the association with Jonah. “Jonahs” were considered bad luck on board, and like the biblical story they might be thrown overboard to appease whatever leviathan was waiting for them in the depths.
The myth goes a little further, referring to the bottom of the sea as Davy Jones’ Locker. Lockers were used by sailors to store their possessions, and anyone who sank to the watery hell that was the bottom of the ocean was said to be in Davy Jones’ Locker. This followed long held beliefs that those who drowned at sea would forever be held in its grip, even in the afterlife. There are some legends that refer to a 16th century publican by the name of Davy Jones who would hold people in a locker and then sell them as slave labor to pirates, but there’s nothing to say one way or another whether this is where the term originated.
By the mid 1800s Davy Jones had become completely enmeshed in the mythology of sailors. In fact his personal mythos had grown, some people naming him as a vicious pirate that would make people walk the plank, others that he was a sailor damned by the sea. And of course he remained as an ill omen for any man who saw him, especially if that person had been looking forward to a long and happy life.
“Davy Jones Locker,” by Anonymous at Phrases
“Who Was Davy Jones?” by Trevor Mendham at Wyrdology
“Davy Jones,” by Anonymous at The Way of the Pirates