crossing the Line

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A ceremony performed on board ships when their passengers and crew are crossing the equator for the first time. Traditionally, it is performed by one of the ship's crew attired as King Neptune, encrusted with barnacles, wearing a golden crown and flowing beard, and clasping a trident. He summons the novices one by one who, after receiving the attentions of both surgeon and barber, are tipped backwards into a bath of sea water, where King Neptune's assistants ensure they receive a good ducking. Nowadays, less onerous ceremonies are held for passengers aboard cruise ships and other commercial vessels which cross the equator.

The ceremony undoubtedly owes its origin to ancient pagan rites connected with the propitiation of the Greek sea god Poseidon, known to the Romans as Neptune. In classical times it was the custom to mark the successful rounding of prominent headlands by making a sacrifice to the appropriate deity, many of whom had temples erected in their honour on such points. With the spread of Christianity many of the vows and oblations paid to the heathen gods were transferred to the saints. In 1529 the French instituted an order of knighthood called Les Chevaliers de la Mer in which novices were given the accolade when rounding certain capes.

Subjects: Maritime History.

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