USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘sealegs’
Festival
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Semester at Sea- Neptune Day

“There alot of weird traditons on ships. The one I will tell you about is called Neptune Day. Back in the day sailing was really hard, people died all the time, it was real smelly, your chances of making it off the ship were slim. Ships are hard. Seaman….hahaha, had this tradition that when you cross the equator, ‘Woo hoo! You’ve survived!’ It’s a big feat because most people don’t. Clearly this is the future, we wouldn’t die, things didn’t really smell for us, but we still kept tradition. I was there as a student, but for the people who actually run the ship this tradition is really important and we do it to honor them. And it’s just fun. There’s 600 people on a ship and sometimes you just need things to do so you plan an activity for a bunch of college kids. On my ship we did this, they do it every voyage, but we crossed the Equator and the Prime Meridian at the same time, so 0’0″. Normally when you cross the Equator you go from a ‘slimy scally wag’ to a ‘shellback’. But because we also crossed at the Prime Meridian we became ‘emerald shellbacks.’ So we were at the heart of the world. And everyone is really excited and it’s this whole big thing. We have a pool on the ship; you jump into a pool of fish guts. And then you get doused with salt and then you kiss a fish. Our dean, this prestigious guy, paints himself green and is King Trident. He shakes your hand after you get out of the pool, get doused in salt and kiss the fish. And all the teachers dress up, they come out as a parade, and are kind of creepy. There were some kids on the ship too, the teachers kids and they get to dress up too. The students dress up too though, like war paint. Also some people shave their heads. A lot of guys do it. Some girls did it too and gave their hair to Locks of Love. Everyone  watches and cheers you on as you do it. I think it’s from back in the day that people would get lice and needed to shave their heads on ships. And ya that’s pretty much it. It’s a fun day. It’s supposed to be like you’ve earned your ‘sea legs’ after being on the course. I did not shave my head; I’m an actor so I can’t do that. I did shave my friends head though. But I did do the fish guts, salt thing. You didn’t HAVE to do that, but you like kinda did.”

This festival is particularly interesting because it draws on ancient traditions of the sea but also incorporates modern additions, like giving the shaved hair to charities. Upon doing a little more research I discovered that ‘shellbacks’ is meant to mean ‘Sons of Neptune’ and another variant on ‘slimy scally wag’ is (slimy) polywogs. There are historical records going back as far as the early 1800’s describing this ritual of crossing the equator as performed on Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian ships. My participant experienced this tradition while on an academic experience but it is also performed by many naval groups in the United States and Russia. As Captain Robert Fitzroy noted it “was beneficial for moral.” This ritual seemed to have been a really positive and fun experience for my friend. She remembered it fondly and it seemed like one of the most memorable experience she had while on her trip.

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