Pollywog or Shellback: The Navy’s Line Crossing Ceremony Revealed

The Navy is chock full of myth and tradition, and what happens at sea even affects our language. Many naval traditions, from the Sirens and Sea Monsters of the Odyssey to the boatswain’s call, date back hundreds and even thousands of years.

The Line Crossing Ceremony might just be the most interesting of today’s naval traditions.

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A Time-Honored Tradition

Line Crossing Ceremony

Line crossing ceremonies have been a part of naval tradition for at least 400 years.

No one is really sure when or how the Line Crossing Ceremony, “Order of Neptune”, came about. The ritual dates back at least 400 years in Western seafaring.

The ceremony observes a mariner’s transformation from slimy Pollywog, a seaman who hasn’t crossed the equator, to trusty Shellback, also called a Son or Daughter of Neptune. It was a way for sailors to be tested for their seaworthiness.

When a ship crosses the equator, King Neptune comes aboard to exercise authority over his domain and to judge charges brought against Pollywogs that they are only posing as sailors and haven’t paid proper homage to the god of the sea.

High ranking members of the crew and those who have been Shellbacks the longest dress up in elaborate costume and each play the part of King Neptune’s court. For instance, the ship’s captain might play the part of King Neptune himself. What proceeds is a day of festivities, which builds camaraderie among the seafaring crew.

How to Perform a Line Crossing Ceremony

Each ship might have their own traditions and nuances, but the fundamental structure goes something like this:

  1. King Neptune and his royal court: his queen, Davy Jones, the royal baby, and other dignitaries, arrive to the ship the evening prior to the equator crossing.
  2. Pollywogs entertain the royal court with a talent show. Dancing, song, skits or poetry count among the merriment.
  3. After the show, Pollywogs receive a subpoena from Davy Jones to stand before the court the next day and answer to charges brought against them by the Shellbacks.
  4. After breakfast, which is made too spicy for the Pollywogs to eat, the accused appear before King Neptune, who sits in judgment. They perform a variety of activities which might involve wearing their clothes inside out or backwards and crawling across the deck through objectionable debris, often the uneatable breakfast that was served to the Pollywogs.
  5. Next, the Pollywogs kneel before the King and kiss the royal baby’s belly, which according to some accounts is covered in grease.
  6. Lastly, the Pollywogs take a royal bath in a pool of sea water before being declared Shellbacks, after which they receive their certificates, which they can proudly hang on their wall at home.
Pollywog Line Crossing Ceremony

Pollywogs take a “royal bath” after they are judged by King Neptune, after which they transform into trusty Shellbacks.

Many accounts dwell only on the final, elaborate ceremony that takes place on the day a ship traverses the equator, but the month leading up to King Neptune’s arrival, when the Pollywogs are separated off from the Shellbacks, is also significant. The Shellbacks plan the coming festivities, but they also spend the entire month taunting the Pollywogs until a mock mutiny is staged by them on the day before the Equator crossing — Pollywog Day.

Notable Line Crossing Ceremonies

On the open sea, even the leader of a great nation must answer to King Neptune. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, too, received a summons to appear before the sea god and pay his respects. The charges brought against him:

  1. Disregard of the traditions of the sea.
  2. Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Rex.

In 2010, a Line Crossing Ceremony was an international affair. Sailors and Marines from the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Peru and Uruguay crossed the equator together aboard the USS New Orleans.

“We have the same sort of ceremony in my country,” said Lt. j.g. Juan Pablo Rosato of the Argentine navy. “It is interesting to see how similar our maritime cultures are to one another. I think that being able to participate in the rite of passage with another friendly navy is always an honor and it allows us to know each other better.”

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and U.S. Navy