Sailors of the air defence and command frigate of the Royal Netherlands Navy, Zr.Ms. Evertsen (HNLMS Evertsen), participate in the traditional rituals while crossing the Equator (All images courtesy: Twitter/@HNLMS_Evertsen)
As the Dutch warship Evertsen, steaming towards Mumbai to participate in the military exercise crossed the equator on Saturday, it performed a traditional naval riutal which has its roots in the Roman era. On crossing the equator, an actor colourfully dressed as Neptune, the Roman God of fresh water and the sea, welcomed the 130 sailors into his kingdom with a traditional ceremony of water wave.
The historic navy custom of nautical 'Crossing the Line' is full of characters, including queen and an entourage of Neptunus Rex, dressed in colourful costumes ready to carry the initiation rites into 'the Ancient Order of the Deep' whenever a ship crosses the equator.
Traditionally, it commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the equator. During the ceremony, the 'Pollywogs' or 'Tadpoles' - members who have never crossed the equator onboard a warship - and 'Shellbacks' - those who have paid homage to Neptune earlier and who have been inducted into his empire - perform various rituals in the 'royal court'.
With Queen Amphitrite sitting beside him, King Neptune, usually wearing a gold crown and holding a trident, presides over the assembly. As part of the rituals, Pollywogs are dunked in water to cleanse them of the dirt and put through a series of tasks. Tradition stated that sailors had to be cleansed of impurities, both physical and mental.
After trials and punishments, the Pollywogs, once initiated, are designated as Shellbacks and are presented with a certificate or affidavit to mark their initiation.
As Royal Australian Navy (RAN) - which adopted 'Crossing the Line' ceremonies following its inception and first voyage from England to Australia in 1913 - notes, there are different categories of Shellbacks too.
"A Golden Shellback is one who has had the honour of crossing the equator where it dissects with the international date line in the Pacific Ocean. Rarer still are Emerald Shellbacks who have the distinction of having crossed the equator at the Prime Meridian in the Gulf of Guinea west Africa," the RAN explains.
Citing historical references, the Australian Navy reveals that the Phoenicians of the Mediterranean, when passing through the straits of Gibraltar to trade with Britons, would often engage in religious ceremonies of appeasement to the God of the Seas during their voyages. The Vikings of Northern Europe also had their own geographical parallels.
"The present-day ceremony is thought to have originated from the superstitions of those days and over time the custom made its way to the English-speaking world. The ceremony eventually lost its religious aspects becoming, to a large extent, a means of inducting young novices into the world-wide fraternity of mariners," says the RAN.
Megan Harris, a Senior Reference Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP) of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, says the ceremony predates the establishment of the US Navy.
"As scholars have pointed out, the ritual has its roots in the days in which all sea journeys posed grave dangers, and crews needed to ensure that new sailors could meet the rigors of life aboard ship," Harris wrote in her detailed blog, seven years ago.
Of course, the sailors of different countries have added their own set of rituals while crossing the equator.
The team of six women officers of Indian Naval Sailing Vessel Tarini (INSV Tarini) which completed a historic global circumnavigation voyage in 2018 had settled for a cake-cutting ceremony while crossing the equator into the Southern Hemisphere!