Crossing the Line: Ritual and Superstition at Sea CFP

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University of Bristol

A workshop at the ss Great Britain organised by the University of Bristol and the Brunel Institute
Thursday 12 June, 2014
Admission Free / Lunch Provided

Plenary Speaker: Dr Kirsty Reid

Dating at least to the sixteenth century, and taking place on various kinds of vessel, 'Crossing the Line' ceremonies were staged when a ship passed the equator, usually from north to south. Those who were doing so for the first time ('polliwogs' or 'Johnny Raws') were initiated into the Kingdom of Neptune by experienced sailors ('shellbacks') in a hazing ritual that could be deeply humiliating and unpleasant, but could also afford a strange satisfaction. Subjected to head-shaving and ducking, and asked to crawl through and swallow foul substances, sea-farers took part in a ritual that involved cross-dressing, oath swearing, and various forms of pageantry. The ceremony both inverted and strengthened shipboard hierarchies, with young naval officers often initiated by those they outranked.

What did this ceremony aim to achieve? How seriously should it be taken? This workshop, run by the 'Perspective from the Sea' research group at the University of Bristol, invites participants to consider this shipboard ceremony within a number of contexts. These will include (but are not limited to):

• On-board rituals and ceremonies, particularly those taking place in deep water
• Homosocial bonding rituals/ceremonies
• Border-crossing and transgression
• Similar ceremonies involving the subversion of normal hierarchies (i.e. the Boy Bishops)
• Literary representations of the ceremony
• Street theatre and civic pageantry
• The carnivalesque, saturnalia and clowning
• The role of tedium in generating seafaring rituals and superstitions
• The crossing of other lines (i.e. the arctic circle, the Pillars of Hercules, and the date-line)
• Sadism, masochism, and homoeroticism
• The ceremony as a ritual of re-birth

Participants are invited to give 15-minute papers, or to give shorter presentations (perhaps simply detailing an incident of 'crossing the line') that could then be discussed by the workshop.

Please send brief abstracts (up to 250 words) to or by Monday 28 April.