Superstitious Pirate Crews and Their Rituals


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

In spite of its many challenges, life in a pirate crew also included a culture of closeness and clannishness among the sailors, with traditions of sea-specific language, often curse words yes, but also many technical terms, dancing, music, and strange rituals. This culture served a purpose, especially on a pirate ship. Crews tended to be nationally, ethnically, and even religiously diverse, with pirate crews being even more so.

A pirate ship in the sea with fog
Pirate crews usually contained members with very different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. (Image: Dino Osmic/Shutterstock)

Pirates: A Superstitious Lot

If a crew could not bridge cultural differences and work together in the face of stresses and dangers, the collective chances of survival decreased, and so was in everyone’s interest to promote a certain amount of bonding.

Statue of Neptune
The line crossing ceremony involved one of the pirate crew dressing up as Neptune. (Image: Neuceu/Public Domain)

Sailors were notoriously superstitious. One of the most common rituals was the ceremony of crossing the line. The first time a ship crossed the equator from north to south during a voyage, everyone on the ship who had never made the crossing was forced to undergo a ceremony of sorts, in which, with great pageantry, they were summoned by Neptune, a sailor in a Neptune costume, and ducked into the sea unless they paid a fine to escape it.

Participation from All

The ceremony could also involve playacting with characters like Davy Jones, or Neptune’s Bride, mock trials, ritual shaving, and dancing in the evening to celebrate. It was fun but also deadly serious; most sailors could not swim, and the ceremony was never forbidden, even when officers found it brutal or distasteful. In fact, everyone from the captain on down was required to pay a fine to avoid participation. 

Woods Rogers, who is by most accounts uncommonly stern, even attempting to beat his men out of their habit of swearing, recorded the ceremony in an entirely phlegmatic tone:

This day, according to custom, we ducked those that had never passed the tropic before. The manner of doing it was by a rope through a block from the main yard to hoist them above halfway up to the yard and let them fall at once into the water, having a stick cross through their legs and well fastened to the rope that they might not be surprised, and let go their hold.”

Those that we ducked after this manner three times were about 60, and others that would not undergo it chose to pay half a crown fine. The money to be levied and spent at a public meeting of all the ships companies, when we return to England. The Dutchmen and some Englishmen desire to be ducked some six, others eight, ten, and 12 times, to have the better title for being treated when they come home.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Dark Side of Superstition

Did pirates perform the ceremony of the line? If they happened to cross it, which not all did, and if there were inexperienced men among them, they very likely would have. The practice seems to have been nearly universal, and it continues in various forms to this day, and the line crossing is only one example of the forms of performative, and edgy games that were possible onboard a ship. 

Illustration of Francis Spriggs
Francis Spriggs was known for his violent rituals involving prisoners held by his pirate crew. (Image: Allen & Ginter/Public domain)

Some pirates also seem to have devised their own rituals, that sound like much darker versions of the carnivalesque line crossing pranks. The behavior of the pirate Francis Spriggs, who sailed in company with Edward Lowe and George Lowther, is reputedly some of the most violent and sociopathic of the Golden Asia’s in 1720s. 

Captain Richard Hawkins, Spriggs’ former prisoner, describes a number of Charivari-like games, such as forcing a captive captain to eat a dish of candles or, in what was called a sweat, forcing prisoners to run inside a circle of candles while being pricked by forks, knives, and the sharp ends of compasses in the back side, during which time a violin “plays a merry jig”. This sweating ritual was an interesting reverse of the line crossing one, whereas, in the latter, even the captain is not spared. In the former, Hawkins men begged the pirates to forgo his turn, stating that he had been a good officer to them, and the pirates showed him mercy.

The Broken Repentance

Life at sea was difficult, and piracy was a rebellion against some of its worst abuses, but not a rebellion against the element itself, and certainly not a rejection of abuse. A common trope in both real, and fictional ocean voyage narratives is the episode of what’s called storm repentance: a mariner is so frightened by a terrible sea storm, that he swears to live a better life if God will only spare him. 

The privateer, sometimes pirate, William Dampier, provides a memorable example. Caught in a storm near Sumatra, he relates: “I had a lingering view of approaching death, and little or no hopes of escaping it. And I must confess that my courage, which I had hitherto kept up, failed me here. And I made very sad reflections on my former life and looked back with horror and detestation on actions which before I disliked. But now I trembled at the remembrance of. I had long before this repented me of that roving course of life, but never with such concern as now.”

The thing is, though, that storm repentance never lasts. There is something about the sea life that was hard for men who were sometimes righteous not to leave.

Common Questions about Superstitious Pirate Crews and Their Rituals

Q: What was the ceremony of crossing the line?

Pirate crews were notoriously superstitious. When a ship passed the equator line, those who had crossed the line for the first time had to participate in a ceremony. They were summoned by Neptune, a sailor in a Neptune costume, and ducked into the sea unless they were willing to pay a fine.

Q: How important was participation in the crossing the line ceremony?

All pirate crew members had to participate in the ceremony even if they didn’t know how to swim. Even the captain couldn’t decide not to participate.

Q: What was the sweating ritual?

The sweating ritual involved a group of prisoners being forced to run inside a circle of candles while being pricked by forks and knives. Unlike the line crossing ceremony, people were sometimes spared from participating in the sweating ritual by the pirate crew.

Keep Reading
The Corsairs of the Maghreb
How the Corsairs Treated Their Barbary Captives
The Establishment of the Barbary Region