Jeremy J. Baer
The Greco-Roman cult of Isis grew from the thousands year old cult of the Kemetic goddess Aset. Through many centuries of evolution it received its definitive form under the Ptolemies, where it was linked with the cult of Serapis. Isis became the goddess of sailors, and sailors haling from Ptolemy’s capitol at Alexandria carried the cult all over the Hellenistic realms. As the Romans devoured the Hellenistic East, their lands in turn were consumed by the militants of the Isiac cult. By the time of Caligula, the cult of Isis which had been once repressed by the conservative Republican Senate seems to have infiltrated every imperial port, and had an especially heavy presence in Rome’s port town of Ostia.
In the recently constructed Roman solar calendar, March 5th and 6th was a time of celebration by the cult adherents. This was the Navigium Isidis, The Vessel of Isis. March 5th was the start of the sailing year in much of the Mediterranean, and Isis had become a divine patron of sailors, for myth had told how she had searched the waters for remains of her murdered brother-husband Osiris. There was also a powerful metaphor at work: the sea was the waves of fate upon which humanity drifted, and Isis was the savior goddess whose intervention could steer humanity on course.
In his Golden Ass, Apuleius gives us an interesting look at this colorful festival. There was a kind of carnival customed procession of people, many of whom were not necessarily initiates in the cult but simple participants in the joyous activities. The men arrived first. Some dressed as a certain profession, some as animals, still others as mythological figures. A few cross-dressed as women, perhaps imitating a practice of the Dionysian cults. Then came the women. They were clothed in white, and had flowers in their hair. They flung flower petals to the streets as they passed by.
The truly faithful of the cult followed behind. Many carried lamps – lamps having a connotation of protective magic in Ancient Egypt. Others carried torches and candles. Singers and musicians dedicated to the god Serapis proceeded next, who with flute and pipe played cultic melodies. Next came new initiates to the cult. The women were veiled, the men shaven headed, all were clad in linen and shaking a sistra.
The priests and ministers of the cult were next in procession. They carried holy water to preside over the ceremonies, as well as various items of cultic significance. Some of the priests were dressed as gods connected with the Isiac cult, such as Anubis. Finally, the high priest of the cult brought up the rear.
A newly fashioned boat decked with Egyptian symbols was waiting for the procession in port. There the high priest prayed over the boat and ritually consecrated it with a torch, an egg, and some sulphur. The vessel was filled with spice and other offerings. The ropes were cut, and off the boat drifted into the high seas.
Back at the temples, the high priest and his ministers said prayers for the health of the emperor, the Senatorial and Equestrian orders, and the Roman people (rather generous of a cult once persecuted by the Romans). In Greek the priests blessed sailors and announced the start of the sailing season. The crowd then adorned a silver statue of Isis with flowers and greenery, and kissed her feet.
The cult may have varied from port to port, but in general it was cause for Spring time merriment.
Modern recreations present the adherent with difficulty. The numbers of followers are few and scattered. Even could they congregate in one place, there would be obvious financial difficulty in buying a boat and filling it with exotic spices (not to mention that setting an empty boat adrift with goods might violate local maritime laws).
Then there are those like myself who do not even reside in a port town. I live in the hills of a landlocked state, hundreds of miles from the sea. Robert Turcan can find little evidence for the cult of Isis in rural areas of the Roman Empire where sailors did not tread, but nonetheless that is modern reality for some of us.
We can only do the best with what we have, and try to recreate the spirit of the occasion if not the actual events. As I see it, there are three forces at work here:
1) reverence to Isis, especially in her aspect as a patron of sailors
2) a general sense of Spring time merry making, almost carnival in scope
3) prayers for the broader social order
As to the first, revering Isis by the solitary modern can be done with sincerity if not always pomp. Lighting a candle or lamp to Isis and keeping it burning for as long as practical that day seems appropriate. Also appropriate is burning some exotic incense or spice to the goddess in lieu of actually filling a boat. If one lives near a body of water (be it an ocean, a lake, or even a decent sized stream), casting a votive object into the water might prove satisfying to the goddess. The one problem here is that local micro-climates vary – March 5 may be the start of Spring in the Mediterranean, but in some locales it may be the dead of winter, complete with frozen bodies of water! Finally, prayers of one’s choosing should be made to the goddess. While most of us aren’t sailors, we can pray to Isis in her higher aspect as Mistress of Heaven, deliverer from fate.
The second element of merry making should provide no problem. Who doesn’t want to have some fun? Of course, everyone’s definition of fun is different. I do not see myself cross-dressing as some ancient males did, but perhaps a night out in town with some friends would not be amiss. Let adherents decide as individuals or as individual groups how best to swing into the mood of things.
Finally, the prayers of the high priest demonstrated a concern for broader social reality, and as concerned citizens we should be no different. Prayers can be made for the heath and guidance of one’s modern head of state and other leading statesmen – unless it offends one’s political sensibilities. But even if individual politicians can offend, certainly a prayer for the general welfare for one’s society can be embraced by someone of any politics. Living in ecologically sensitive times as we do, and given that Isis was linked with fertility and abundance, praying for the health of the planet and its ecosystem might be in order for those so inclined. If nothing else, pray for one’s loved ones and their safety and happiness.
As every port probably celebrated the Navigium a little differently, we can afford a variety of modern recreations of this ancient festival. What matters most is that whatever we chose to do, we remain true to our goddess and ourselves. By doing so we can happily and reverently resurrect an ancient faith into contemporary reality.