Crossing the equator has long been an act filled with ritual significance. Recently, the degree of hazing used in the US Navy has come under scrutiny for being physically and psychologically damaging to the participants. Defense for the custom states that these rituals go back hundreds of years.
They do, in fact. Some were in place during our time period, the early 1700’s. We’re going to take a look at some of these early rituals, and perhaps touch on how they developed over the years.
It’s a popular misconception that, before Columbus “discovered” the New World, Europeans believed that the world was flat. This is not true at all. The ancient Greeks had done the math to prove the world was round, and were within a few miles of being accurate in its size.
Furthermore, sailors, who regularly watched land drop away behind them, and who estimated the range of distant ships by seeing how much of the vessel was below or above the horizon, knew perfectly well that they weren’t going to fall off the edge of the world.
The equator, however, was s different matter.
What is the equator, anyway? The modern definition is that it is an imaginary line surrounding the middle of the earth, at an equal distance from the North Pole and the South Pole. It divides the world into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
This does not seem significant in today’s world, but it matters more than you might think. And the sailors of days gone by, it was of absolutely grave importance. You see, as s ship moves around the globe, the bulk of the earth blocks out certain constellations. And at the line of the equator, the most important object in the northern sky disappears.
The North Star – Polaris.
The Northern Hemisphere is lucky to have what appears to be a “fixed” star in its sky. Polaris sits almost directly over the North Pole. As long as the star can be seen, the direction “north” can be determined. For a ship out-of-sight of land, this information is crucial.
But to a person approaching the equator, Polaris appears to be lower and lower in the sky. At the equator, the star sits exactly on the horizon. Past the equator, it disappears. The marking used to designate latitude indicate the apparent height of Polaris in the sky. And at the equator, the number is ominous – Zero.
So what’s on the other side of zero?
South America. Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. Unknown lands. Also, an unfamiliar navigation system, using not a fixed star, but the constellation of the Southern Cross. Instead of a fixed star, the Southern Hemisphere depends on locating the center of a group of four stars to determine north. Trickier going.
So, approaching this mystical place seemed to require some sort of ceremony.
The French are credited with the earliest “Crossing the Line” ceremonies. Experienced sailors liked to tell younger ones that traveling below the equator was what caused a person’s skin to become black. On the day of the fateful crossing, crew members covered themselves with substances such as the soot from lamps and burned cork. When they were suitably blackened, they burst out upon the recruits, “captured” them, terrified them, and then blackened their faces in a similar way.
Having gone through the ceremony, these young men were now in on the joke, and would become the next generation to perpetrate the hoax.
But it was the English who created the most elaborate “Crossing the Line” ceremonies. Over time, the English developed a tradition of spending and entire day under the rule of “King Neptune” or “Neptunus Rex”. A crew member would dress up in an elaborate costume as the King of the Sea. He would be surrounded by a “royal court” and would hold control over the ship for a period of time. Very often pirates were part of the King entourage. I think this may have been a symbol of chaos.
Men who had not crossed the equator before were judged, punished, re-baptized, and given over to King Neptune. After the ceremony, they were considered to have fundamentally changed. In a time when the Christian God was seen to have constant, active agency in every action and outcome on earth, tearing oneself away from Him, and being given to Neptune, must have been a profound experience.
As time went by, the ritual grew. The recruits were called Pollywogs, or Wogs; the experience men were Shellbacks. According to ritual, the Wogs were slimy, unreliable, effeminate creatures, unworthy to be called true sailors. (It should be noted that this was part of the ritual. Before approaching the equator, sailors who had not experienced the crossing were treated as shipmates in the usual way.) Shellbacks were true men, honest, masculine, reliable and trustworthy.
The hazing part of the ceremony took on more and more epic proportions. Initiates had always received some sort of beating as part of the ceremony – in the 1700’s sailors were beaten on a regular basis, so a few blows were not regarded as a big deal. The beating part of the ritual probably just confirmed what these men already knew, that they had chosen a rough profession. In the 18th century having whip scars was part of the proof that one was a sailor.
But in more recent times , being beaten with was a more serious deviation from the norm.
In the early days, it was a common part of the ceremony to douse recruits in animal blood. On ships that kept live animals as a food source this was easy to come by, and it symbolized the blood of rebirth. The later washing of the recruits, in turn, symbolized baptism, as the recruit was symbolically given to the sea.
Later ceremonies, not having access to fresh blood, substituted garbage. And when the garbage was not enough, sewage was added. Recruits were stripped, covered with lard (and later Crisco), and doused in human waste. Elaborate cross-dressing rituals were added to the fun. It’s possible that they had been there for a long time. Ritual cross-dressing has been part of pre-Christian ceremonies back to the dawn of time, and part of the point of the crossing ceremony seems to have been ‘paganizing’ the recruit. But modern ceremonies included “beauty pageants” and mock strip-shows. Even mock sex acts were common.
Modern sailors rebelled, and went to court, demanding changes, and the excess of the Crossing ceremony have been toned down considerably. Did the ceremonies begin to go too far? Probably. But the rituals still exist. King Neptune still owns the souls of those who go to sea.