Nautical Neptunes

Probably the most visually recognisable ancient mythical figure of all is Neptune, endlessly reproduced since the Renaissance in the art of seagoing European peoples, the Dutch, French and the Italian, as well as the British.124 But it was the national personification of Britain, Britannia (first revived for modernity in imitation of ancient Roman coins by Charles II) who in 1794 put aside her spear and began herself to carry Neptune’s trident.

Neptune was early adopted as a symbol of British canal-building, which aimed to link inland industrial centres to the sea. In 1729, the statue of Neptune which dominates Durham marketplace was donated by local entrepreneur George Bowes, who supported a plan to build a canal which would link the River Wear to the Tyne, thus turning Durham into an inland port. Thomas Telford’s astonishing staircase lock at Banavie, north of Fort William, the longest in Britain, took 19 years to build (1803-1822) and was called ‘Neptune’s Staircase’. Fisherfolk also knew all about Neptune, whose figure, sculpted by George Burn, stands on dolphins between two traditionally dressed Victorian fishwives atop the Fish Market (now a nightclub) on the Quayside of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, completed in 1880.

Sailors and dockyard workers have always been familiar with Neptune, and have even dressed up as the sea-god, often with his wife Amphitrite and other marine mythical beings—Oceanus, Triton, Nereids—in attendance. Sailors have performed the ‘Order of Neptune’ ritual when their ships crossed the equator since the late 16th century; some scholars have claimed that the idea was inferred from propitiation of sea divinities and monsters in the Odyssey.'25 The core of the ritual consisted of the arrival of Father Neptune, who would demand payment from any raw recruit who had never crossed the equator before. If the seaman refused, he would be shaved and either dunked in the sea from the yardarm or soused from a barrel.

A vivid account describes events on the Victorian Antarctic whale-ship, the Balaena from Dundee, when it crossed the equator on 25th October 1892:

At twelve o’clock Neptune climbed over our bows and stood on the focsle-head, just as if he had come up from the bottom of the sea. He was followed by her Majesty; as she had a delicate tendency to embonpoint, it took some hauling ... to get her on deck.126

Neptune was played by a cockney Londoner, Able Seaman Charles Campbell, with a wig of ship’s rope strands

like the stiff ringlets of an Assyrian king. His crown was made of new tin, and glittered splendidly in the blazing sunlight; and his trident. Mrs Neptune was also a very imposing figure, and with a slight alteration of dress would have done well in the part of Mrs Gamp. Her towsy locks escaped from beneath a tin crown in beautiful confusion... she modestly tried to conceal a stubbly chin and ferocious moustache.127

The ancient gods processed around the main-deck to bagpipe accompaniment, before sitting in state on a special throne to dispense mock sentences to the crew (Figure 19.14). All in turn were summoned, interrogated and sentenced to lathering, ducking and shaving in a great pool, where other members of the crew disported themselves at the Sea-God’s attendants, clad in seal-skins. Even Geordie, the second mate, ‘a great, good natured, fair-haired Hercules, well liked by the crew’, came forward blindfolded for sentencing. ‘All hands being initiated into the rights and privileges of the subjects of King Neptune, the ceremony was over’.128

During the dockworkers’ strike of 1889, a carnivalesque procession took place. An illustration from a collage published on the front cover of the Illustrated London News for 7th September shows two dockers dressed as Neptune and a helmeted warrior goddess, presumably Britannia; on the right one of the seated figures may be Hercules, a hero with whom dock workers, as sellers of their own muscle power, often identified.12’ The generally peaceful and festive nature of

Drawing reproduced from W.G. Burn Murdoch’s From Edinburgh to the Antarctic (1894)

FIGURE 19.14 Drawing reproduced from W.G. Burn Murdoch’s From Edinburgh to the Antarctic (1894).

the public processions did much to engage public support.13" Neptune was subsequently a regular feature of local parades in southern English seaside towns, including Eastbourne Carnival on 15th June 1933 (Figure 19.15).

But it was in the Royal Navy that the richest seam of identification with classical figures was to be found. Classical names were sometimes bestowed on ships from Elizabethan times, but the proportion of ships named after ancient Greco-Roman figures grew exponentially in the second half of the 18th century. The naval tradition holds that the man responsible was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), who held the post of First Lord of the Admiralty three times between 1748 and 1792 and initiated extensive shipbuilding programmes. He was reputed to thumb through classical dictionaries picking out attractive names for new ships.131 Certainly, of the 33 British warships involved at Trafalgar in 1805, 16 had classical names (Neptune, Agamemnon, Ajax, Orion, Minotaur, Spartiate, Mars, Bellerophon, Colossus, Achille, Polyphemus, Euryalus, Naiad, Phoebe, Sirius and Britannia); the ship art of some others (e.g. Thunderer) was classically informed. Each ship had a large, beautifully painted figurehead or, as

Father Neptune lights a cigarette for Miss Eastbourne, carnival by Edward George Malindine

FIGURE 19.15 Father Neptune lights a cigarette for Miss Eastbourne, carnival by Edward George Malindine (1933), reproduced by courtesy of the National Science and Media Museum. Photograph by Edward George Malindine, part of the Daily Herald Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Reproduced by courtesy of the National Science and Media Museum.

the shape of ships changed in the 19th century, other external artwork. In about 1890 the smaller internal decorations known as ships’ badges assumed increasing importance, becoming an official feature in 1918.

Ship art illustrated the mythical or historical individual, battle or place after which it was named, and where several ships have over the centuries inherited the same name, the iconographic traditions can often be traced back certainly to the 18th and in some cases all the way to the 16th century.132 The Royal Navy’s museum at Portsmouth holds collections of ship art, including many antique unofficial badges. They gave individual sailors attached to a vessel a sense of identity. Some are straightforward portraits of famous ancient individuals with their easily recognisable accoutrements (HMS Cleopatra’s badge showed her in profile in an Egyptian head-dress; Achilles, Ajax and Euryalus wore helmets; Terpsichore danced with a tambourine; Colossus has the spokes of the sun issuing from a massive head; Penelope wore a veil).133 But some use symbolism likely to have excited discussion and explanation (HMS Argus’ badge depicted a peacock; HMS Despatch the caduceus of Hermes).134 The most sophisticated imply that sailors needed knowledge of whole mythical narratives to decode the image. For Actaeon there is substituted a stag being torn apart by hounds, for Theseus, the Minotaur and a sword, and for Ulysses, a ram and a stake.135

To understand why Agamemnon is represented by a manly arm holding a spear ready to be cast requires knowing that Agamemnon is the preeminent spearthrower on the Greek side in the Iliad, as even Achilles acknowledges during the funeral games for Patroclus (23.890-1).136 (Figure 19.16a) Ariadne is represented by a wreath of Dionysus’ vine and a crown of stars, the constellation known as the Corona Borealis into which the god transformed his former lover (Ovid Met. VIII.152-.82).137 Other badges which might encourage mariners to look up at the stars as well as retell classical myths include those of HMS Orion (a giant hunter) and HMS Venus, which simply uses the astrological symbol for this planet.138 The hero of HMS Bellerophon flies astride the winged Pegasus, his bow strung and aimed downwards at the (unseen) Chimaera, which the viewer has to supply from his knowledge of mythology.139 (Figure 19.1b). Dido is symbolised simply by flames, requiring an explanation of how and why she died.140

Many working-class people knew a good deal about Athena, Aesop, Brutus, the Gracchi, Solon, Caractacus, Boadicea, Spartacus, Prometheus, Vulcan, Hercules’ labours, Atlas, the Cyclopes and Neptune. But the most impressive understanding of ancient myth and history amongst the British working class seems to have been possessed by the crews who manned the fleet of the Royal Navy, the largest organisation and bureaucracy in the British world, which employed tens of thousands of people, in the 18th century, in wartime at least, many more than any British city except London.141 More than a third of them were Irish, and, until the Napoleonic Wars, a significant proportion had been violently press-ganged into service.142

a and b Naval badges

FIGURE 19.16 a and b Naval badges: H.M.S. Agamemnon and Bellerophon, © Edith Hall.

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