History has long forgotten the true beginning of the Shellback Ceremony. But, history has a way of making its way to the present. While the exact details of how the Crossing the Line Ceremony originated, historians estimate that it began over 400 years ago with the Vikings, as well as the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese navies. Meanwhile, the earliest records in the U.S. Navy date closer to the 1800’s. Thankfully, while the start of the tradition remains relatively unknown, the events that occurred and the general motives for the tradition remain alive to this very day in naval history.
The ocean is a harsh mistress. One mistake can cost the lives of hundreds of men and women who serve aboard a ship. Vessels sailing the ocean encountered numerous unexpected hazards and every moment spent breathing was a blessing. Even experienced crews would potentially take heavy losses at a moment’s notice. However, the number of losses also meant that new members were recruited at a rather quick pace, and sometimes not willfully. A test was required to test the mettle of these men who were conscripted, taken hostage, or even those who joined by their own decision but had not yet been tested at sea. Thus, a tradition was born, and the tradition was the birth of the Shellbacks, trusty sailors who have endured their rite of passage and proven their worth to their seasoned crewmates. The sailors who survived the perilous trial by fire became shellbacks and would earn the privilege of participating in the next ceremony as part of the seasoned crew instead of the lowly pollywogs. Of course, the ceremony was originally a much more violent one.
It is believed the Vikings’ ceremony involved maiming, injuring, and whipping their new crewmates. The Vikings also forced their new shipmates to endure a trial of sorts to force them to prove their worth. While there are no concrete records of what the trials involved, it is known the tradition spread to other navies around the Western world.
Order of Neptune
While it’s possible Vikings didn’t call it the tradition “The Order of Neptune” (as Neptune is a Roman god and not a Nordic one); the Western world eventually adopted such terminology. There is no clear record of when the West started calling the crossing the line ceremony as such. The tradition is also where the term “slimy Pollywog” originated, and any sailor who hasn’t crossed the equator is pegged with the term. The trusty shellbacks are those seasoned sailors who have crossed the equator and are also known as the sons and daughters of Neptune. It’s also a measure of a sailor’s seaworthiness.
How do you Cross the Line?
The tradition is typically played out by a script in which the oldest, saltiest shellbacks along with other high-ranking members of the crew dress up in costumes representing members of the Court of Neptune. Typically, a captain will play the part of Neptune, but it’s not always the case, and the eldest enlisted sailor shellback will play the part of Davy Jones. But, there are other members of the court. But, aside from a bunch of old coots dressed up as fictional characters and gods, how is the ceremony performed?
Normally the script for the event is released a few days prior A. However; the event can have slight variations depending on what ship you celebrate the ceremony. The day before the ceremonies we have the good king Neptune arrive with his court and make an announcement telling the ship that it’s infested with slimy pollywogs and that even one is too many. As such, to cleanse the ship of the problem, King Neptune himself will set up a trial to make those unworthy sailors up to par.
In the morning of the event, the pollywogs are made to eat a breakfast that is non-too appetizing like green eggs and ham (but, some ships say their food is made too spicy). From there the pollywogs that are due for their trials will be moved on to the obstacle course. In the meantime, the pollywogs in waiting are forced to do a walk of shame in which they slowly make their way through the berthing while singing or chanting.
The obstacle course includes trails filled with trash, leftovers from the morning; sailors armed with shellacs, salt-water sprays with the hoses, and curiously placed objects. When the sailors finish, they have to take a metaphorical baptism in the waters of the ocean (a pool of water with green dye) which with the blessing of King Neptune signifies their rebirth as shellbacks.
From what I’m familiar with, the sailors do the crawling, dancing, singing, and more simply for the amusement of King Neptune’s court. None of it is as much of a trial for the challenges they will endure in the future, and the event is often done as a form of raising morale. There is a real dark side to the tradition. These days, the Crossing the Line Ceremony is well-regulated and controlled, but back in the past, it used to be dangerously close to endangerment as possible, with some studies claiming it was especially harsh to women and homosexuals.
You see, traditionally the rituals involved during the ceremony were extremely harsh and humiliating. From stories recounting how men had to cross-dress to tales of them being forced to simulate giving others sexual favors. The personnel who refused to participate were ostracized and would often be reminded about their failure to commit to the team.
Back before the regulations were clearly established, sailors in the U.S. Navy would be hit with shellacs to the point of bruising or worse, and hazing was a norm aboard ships. Thankfully, that sort of behavior stopped a few years back when a new NAVADMIN was released.
Do Civilians Participate?
We’ve spoken enough about the military, and if you’re curious about this, then the answer is yes! Civilians do engage in the ceremony and are in fact welcome. Civilian vessels also engage in the activity and are known to be an opportunity for the different crews to join together, especially in research ships where they’re divided amongst the scientist and the ship’s actual crew.
Is it Mandatory?
These days the ceremony is not an obligation. While I’m not certain it was ever mandatory within the United States Navy; I’m fairly in the past it carried some form of repercussion. These days, as long as you notify the chain of command of your refusal to participate, you’re under no obligation to do so. Furthermore, it’s strictly written on page thirteen that nobody is allowed to take action against you for refusing to join. After all, it’s an event dedicated to having fun and raising morale so it really shouldn’t be surprising.
The events are also not as arduous as they once were back when they were scrutinized for reports of hazing. As such, a few of the older sailors feel that the newer ones not only have it easier but that they are missing out. Of course, these old folk just want an opportunity to beat the sailors they don’t like as they were beaten back then.
Regardless, the Navy is keen on maintaining as many traditions alive as it can. Traditions such as manning the rails, which have already lost their true purpose, and even the watch standing which can be automatized or even done by simians are some of the ones who are still alive. Crossing The Line Ceremony will continue as one of the best traditions in the military, and a fun day in the lives of sailors everywhere.
A Naval Carrier usually has around 5000 people on board, and as such, they have to break down each department into time slots. A few departments are small enough for their pollywogs to be grouped with other larger groups, but typically it’s an all morning event. For the smaller ships, this is usually not the case as every pollywog is brought in at the same time.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.