Boat christening an ancient ritual

First Lady Michelle Obama christened a nuclear submarine in Connecticut. Image: White
First Lady Michelle Obama christened a nuclear submarine in Connecticut. Image: White
An English writer once described the tradition of christening a ship as "thoroughly heathen." As it turns out, he was right.

    This week marks the anniversary of a significant christening: On Oct. 21, 1797, the first American warship, the USS Constitution, better known as Old Ironsides, was christened in Boston.
    Last week, on Oct. 10, first lady Michelle Obama swatted a champagne bottle against a new member of the fleet, the nuclear submarine USS Illinois. On a video of the ceremony, she can be heard: “In the name of the United States, I christen thee Illinois. May God bless her and all that sail in her.”
    We call it the christening of ships, a reference specifically to Christian blessing. One of the definitions given in Webster's Dictionary for christening is "to name or dedicate (as of a ship) by a ceremony suggestive of baptism."
     But it is a tradition that predates Christianity. Going to sea has always been a scary proposition, and boat blessing was recorded as early as 3000 B.C.
    An ox was sacrificed to the gods by a Babylonian shipbuilder who had fastidiously examined the boat for cracks and poured bitumen (an asphalt used as a cement in ancient times) over the outside, according to The Naval History and Heritage Command.
    The Babylonians were not the only ones in ancient times who blessed ships. Before launching a ship, Greeks and Romans prayed to Poseidon, the god of the sea. 
     The custom was described as “thoroughly heathen” in the book, How Britannia Came to Rule the Waves, updated to 1900,” by the 19th century English writer William Henry Giles Kingston.
      “A similar ceremony was practiced by the ancient Greeks when they launched a ship,” he wrote. “We ornament our vessels with flags; they decked theirs with garlands. At the moment the ship was launched forth into the deep the priest of Neptune raised to his lips a goblet of wine, and after quaffing from it, he poured the remainder out as a libation to his deity.”
      In the U.S., women became the preferred sponsors in the middle of the 19th century, according to the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. But even in antiquity, the person giving the blessing could have been a woman, according to Kingston.
      "Clearly, the custom we have of breaking a bottle of wine is derived from the libations of the ancients," he wrote. "In most instances, at the present day, the ship is named at the moment she is launched by a young lady, who acts the part of the priest or priestess of old."


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