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Weird Science: Equator Mythology

Shellbacks and Pollywogs

It is a longstanding maritime tradition to initiate sailors who are crossing the equator for the first time. Those who have not yet crossed are known as “pollywogs.” After crossing the equator they become “shellbacks,” or trusted subjects of Neptune, the Roman god of water. These titles separate the experienced sailors from the novices. Historically, being a rookie sailor was one of the most degrading positions on a ship. Crossing the equator was a right of passage for the rookies. The event was traditionally celebrated with ceremonies, which have come to be called the “crossing the line” ceremonies. In the past, these events were often cruel and involved a great deal of hazing of the pollywogs by the shellbacks. After a significant amount of punishment and harassment had been dealt, pollywogs could finally join the ranks of the more experienced shellback sailors.


Tales of these ceremonies go back to Captain Cook. One of the officers on board Cook’s ship wrote about how the crew was dunked in the ocean when their boat crossed the equator. Some officers, however, were able to avoid the embarrassing ritual by paying the shellbacks.


Equator crossing ceremonies are still carried out today onboard various ships including those in the United States Navy and Coast Guard, as well as pleasure cruises and research boats. Today the event is often a morale booster or a celebration of the achievements of the sailors or passengers on board. Although the hazing has been removed, the ceremonies still function as a sort of initiation ritual. (SF Fig. 3.1).


SF Fig. 3.1. (A) A certificate commemorating a sailor’s first equator crossing is given to new sailors.

Image courtesy of S.W. Emerson, Wikimedia Commons

SF Fig. 3.1. (B) The act of “crossing the line” across the equator has become a celebratory rite of passage in recent years, as sailors are doused with water aboard the USS New Orleans.

Image courtesy of US Navy

Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.