The age of pirates happened to coincide with the big Elizabethan/Renaissance jewelry craze.
Dear Matthew Alice: A friend and I have had a long-standing argument regarding why the sailors of old pierced their ears. Nowadays everybody and his uncle does it, but I believe it was because, on a voyage, they had crossed the equator. My friend says it's because they survived a shipwreck. Who is right? Or are we both wrong? — ]. Simmonds, Vista
I think you mean “pirates” of old. Don’t recall Popeye or Admiral Farragut wearing dangly rhinestones. And no matter how you and your friend are accessorized, your guesses are wrong. Pirates wore gold earrings because they believed it would help their vision. Sailors in general have always been very superstitious, and pirates in particular left nothing to chance. When you depend on the element of surprise to grab the swag, anything you can do to sharpen your senses is probably worth a try. And the age of pirates and buccaneers just happened to coincide with the big Elizabethan/Renaissance jewelry craze, when women and men piled it on. Men with fashion savvy pierced a lobe or two and attached something appropriately ostentatious. But even if a pirate wanted to wear a tasteful pair of Jackie Kennedy-style pearl clip-ons, he couldn’t, because screw-back earrings and ear clips weren’t invented until the 1890s. The pierced-ear earring is the original and is thousands of years old.
Traditionally, a lot of things happen when a sailor crosses the equator for the first time, but ear piercing isn’t usually one of them. On military, merchant, and even cruise ships, “pollywogs” (equatorial virgins, if you will) are subjected to more or less goofy/humiliating/revolting initiation ceremonies in the presence of someone dressed as “King Neptune,” at which time the initiates become “shellbacks.” The tradition is as old as nautical charts and grew out of mariners’ fears of the doldrums, bands of calm winds and periodic fierce thunderstorms that circle the globe both north and south of the equator. Ships could be stuck in the doldrums for weeks, so whatever you might do to appease Neptune was encouraged. Nowadays lots of these shellback ceremonies involve men dressed as women and plenty of cross-gender shenanigans of the balloon-boobs-and-wigs variety (as one officer once said, “Navy ships run on repressed sexual energy”). At the end, you might get an official shellback certificate, but I don’t think you get any earrings. And as for surviving a shipwreck, coming out alive is its own reward.