Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans called on their gods to protect seamen. The favor of the monarch of the seas — Poseidon in Greek mythology, the Roman Neptune — was evoked. Ship launching participants in ancient Greece wreathed their heads with olive branches, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new vessel as a symbol of blessing. Shrines were carried on board Greek and Roman ships.
Different peoples and cultures shaped the religious ceremonies surrounding a ship launching. Jews and Christians customarily used wine and water as they called upon God to safeguard them at sea. Intercession of the saints and the blessing of the church were asked by Christians.
Ship launchings in the Ottoman Empire were accompanied by prayers to Allah, the sacrifice of sheep, and appropriate feasting. The Vikings are said to have offered human sacrifice to appease the angry gods of the northern seas. (Editorï¿½s note: We donï¿½t recommend human sacrifices).
A "standing cup" was a large cup fashioned of precious metal. When the ship began to slide down the ways, the presiding official took a ceremonial sip of wine from the cup, and poured the rest on the deck or over the bow. Usually the cup was thrown overboard and belonged to the lucky retriever. As navies grew larger and launchings more frequent, economy dictated that the costly cup be caught in a net for reuse at other launchings. Late in 17th century Britain, the "standing cup" ceremony was replaced by the practice of breaking a bottle across the bow.
Although wine is the traditional "christening fluid," numerous other liquids have been used. Champagne, perhaps because of its elegance as the aristocrat of wines, came into popular use as a "christening fluid" as the 19th century closed.
In 1875, a religious element was returned to naval christenings by Princess Alexandra, wife of the Prince of Wales, when she introduced an Anglican choral service in the launching ceremony for battleship Alexandra. The usage continues with the singing of Psalm 107 with its special meaning to mariners:
"They that go down to the sea in ships;
That do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep."
[Editorï¿½s Note: Donï¿½t forget to put your bottle inside a wine sack.]