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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 127 - Tom's Ping-Pong Canary Show (Traditions Week)

Tom's Notes:

Weird and disgusting traditions

4 impressions on Google in the last 7 days for CHCH hookers. Ranked 83.

Audience feedback:

Hi guys, after discovering you through some other history podcast (might have been Impossible History) you have made my week every time - several times a week in fact due to your back catalogue. As I'm a dad of two small children who does not enjoy sleep, I've been listening to you as they drone along during bed time in my other ear - often biting my pillow not to laugh. And no Tom, I do not personaly enjoy anal sex as a recreational activity if biting the pillow brings back memories. Thank you so much for ensuring me that I'm not alone in my strange mix of interest in history, whiskey and Pliny the elder. Best regards Jon.

PS: for you only: I have a genuine wish for you guys to keep going for a long time. Now I am a member of the Bath thing (I'm the one who paid in North Korean kroner), but please advise where and how I can make a more sizeable contribution. If nothing else, to help fix Tom's microphone or to help you guys market yourself a little further.


Just heard the last public episode “minor lion based surgery”.

You guys guessing my nationality (australian???) made me think of a possible topic for an episode.

Strange and tiny countries that should not be or should not have been.

Before you think of Belgium (hint, hint), try thinking online nations, “private” initiative nations on disputed land, independent abandoned oil platforms etc

My early research once again made me thankful for living in a post-Enlightenment society. What is it with tribal communities and doing odd things to their genitals? Seriously. Just stop it. Going through puberty is hard enough as it is without having a tribal elder sitting on your chest whilst someone else circumcises you and makes you eat your own foreskin, or slices your cock down the middle, or cuts out your clitoris. Weirdly, these initiation ceremonies are global. There are examples from Aboriginal Australians, Native American tribes, Indian tribes, African tribes and South East Asian tribes. What’s wrong with having a beer and a curry on your 16th birthday? Maybe a balloon too. Just other people’s your private parts alone. Also, don’t tie up toddlers and throw them off buildings like they do in areas of India.

So having learnt things I wish I had never learnt, and seen pictures I wish I’d never seen, I decided to settle on something where at least it was grown adults who were doing odd things to each other, and the groin area was out of bounds (mostly). That is, ‘crossing the line’ ceremonies.

Crossing the line ceremonies are at least a few hundred years old and are widely practiced aboard naval ships from English-speaking countries, and sometimes on cruise ships and various other types of floaty on water transportation apparatus. The ceremony, which is practiced slightly differently in different organisations, takes place when a ship crosses the equator. I’ll describe the versions practiced on board naval ships.

Generally the ceremony starts with a procession of one of the sailors, usually more senior crew members, dressed as Neptune. I’m not sure anyone has ever seen Neptune, so there is a degree of imagination required. You might go for the hunky old merman in the Little Mermaid with his oversized fork (this is presumably how he remains so buff – it allows him to eat lots of tuna). You might go a bit more Roman, and allow Neptune to have legs and an underwater chariot being pulled by some odd combination of horse and fish. Be you. Neptune is often joined by his queen; Amphitrite (Am fuh trai tee); usually a very reluctant sailor who wears a bra and a mermaids tail. “Oh no! Not me, but I’m so manly, how embarrassing for all these other men to see me dressed saucily like a women! A thong you say?! The Cher outfit from the turn back time video?! I couldn’t possibly.” “Nope, no one mentioned a thong, or lipstick, or anything else for that matter. We asked you whether you wanted a coffee.” There might also be someone dressed as Davy Jones, and a throng of senior seamen dressed imaginatively with titles like the Royal Baby, or the Royal Surgeon etc. Then there are larger number of ‘Bears’ who help with the running of events. All of those involved in proceedings are called Shellbacks because they have already undergone this initiation before, everyone else is called a Pollywog, a wog, or a Tadpole.

After the procession of Neptune and his court, the Bears round up all the Pollywogs and proceed to deck. There is usually a silly trial where Pollywogs are interrogated to find out if any of them have ever been across the equator before, then the Pollywogs are expected to undergo a series of moderately unpleasant tasks in order to placate Neptune and become a Shellback.

Almost always, Pollywogs are dipped in a pool of seawater. Frequently they have to kiss the Royal Baby. The Royal Baby is usually a fat crewmember in a nappy with some unpleasant substance smeared over his belly (mustard, chilli sauce, grease, raw eggs etc.). The Pollywogs have to kiss his belly, at which point the fat man wiggles his belly in their face. Often the Pollywogs have some unpleasant substance daubed all over them. They are often whipped with bits of hosepipe, made to crawl over a slippery deck, have their heads shaved, eggs smashed on heads and/or made to crawl through rubbish. Pollywogs also frequently have to consume something a bit revolting, like soap or grease.

Let’s refer to one of the earliest documented examples of the crossing the line ceremony. It comes from the journal of Joseph Banks. Banks was a botanist and naturalist, hehe, so a nudist who studied people’s bottoms. In 1768 to 1771 he was part of James Cook’s expedition aboard HMS Endeavour that charted the coast of New Zealand and circumnavigated the globe. “Aye bro, there’s a boat and it’s big as! I wonder if they like playing rugby. Pity we can’t offer them any Moa, we’ve eaten all them. Tasty as.”

So old tackle out and show us your arse Banks describes a crossing the line ceremony on 25th October 1768 (thank you project Gutenberg).

This Evening the ceremony of ducking the ships company was performed as always customary on crossing the line, when those who have crossd it before Claim a right of ducking all that have not, the whole of the ceremony I shall describe.

So, everyone on board ship was rounded up and interrogated to discover if they had crossed the equator before; including dogs and cats. Those who were found to be southern hemisphere virgins were then told they were to undergo a ducking, or pay 4 days allowance of wine. The senior officers, including Captain Cook and Banks were let off because they gave Brandy to those who were officiating. In the end, 21 men underwent ducking. One by one, these men were tied to a rope that was fastened on the main yard (this is the lowest cross beam of a sail). The men were then ducked into the sea three times.

Thus ended the diversion of the day, for the ducking lasted till almost night, and sufficiently diverting it certainly was to see the different faces that were made on this occasion, some grinning and exulting in their hardiness whilst others were almost suffocated…

Here’s another notable account of a crossing the line ceremony from the pen of Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy. This ceremony took place on the voyage of the Beagle, famous of course for a certain Charles Darwin, the botanist, naturalist and bug botherer. On the 16th February 1832 the Beagle crossed the equator. Let’s quote at length because I’m too lazy to paraphrase.

At sunset that day we were out of sight of St. Paul (or St. Peter), and soon after dark were hailed by the gruff voice of a pseudo-Neptune. A few credulous novices ran upon the forecastle to see Neptune and his car, and were received with the watery honours which it is customary to bestow, on such occasions.

Next morning we crossed the Equator, and the usual ceremonies were performed.

Deep was the bath, to wash away all ill;

Notched was the razor—of bitter taste the pill.

Most ruffianly the barber looked—his comb was trebly nailed—

And water, dashed from every side, the neophyte assailed.

The disagreeable practice alluded to has been permitted in most ships, because sanctioned by time; and though many condemn it as an absurd and dangerous piece of folly, it has also many advocates. Perhaps it is one of those amusements, of which the omission might be regretted. Its effects on the minds of those engaged in preparing for its mummeries, who enjoy it at the time, and talk of it long afterwards, cannot easily be judged of without being an eye-witness.

Poor old Charles Darwin, the arse inspecting nicky-nacky-noo-noo, was unfortunately a southern hemisphere virgin. So, he got the full treatment (although not as badly as the sailors on board). Let’s hear what he had to write about it:

17th We have crossed the Equator, & I have undergone the disagreeable operation of being shaved. About 9 oclock this morning we poor "griffins", |109| two & thirty in number, were put altogether on the lower deck. — The hatchways were battened down, so we were in the dark & very hot. — Presently four of Neptunes constables came to us, & one by one led us up on deck. — I was the first & escaped easily: I nevertheless found this watery ordeal sufficiently disagreeable. — Before coming up, the constable blindfolded me & thus lead along, buckets of water were thundered all around; I was then placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water. — They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. —at last, glad enough, I escaped. — most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces. — The whole ship was a shower bath: & water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through.1 |110|

Anyway, there have been controversies surrounding these ceremonies. It’s the usual story, just like sports team initiations at Universities; it’s about striking a balance. Done the correct way, these ceremonies are a great way to break the monotony of life at sea, have a laugh, breakdown barriers and build a team of closely knit individuals who have been through all sorts of weird stuff together. At their worst, they are hazing ceremonies were people are bullied, hurt, injured and humiliated. There have been a number of incidents where the ceremony has been taken too far, but it would appear that the majority of people who go through the ceremony look back on it fondly and even receive a certificate. And some of those certificates are really lovely. There are lots of examples on the internet. There are also plenty of accounts, photographs and videos of the ceremony taking place (not just modern either, for example, I came across photographs from the 1930s).

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