March 5 was the date of an annual, ancient Roman, nautical religious festival called Navigium Isidis (“Vessel of Isis”), which was dedicated to Isis, an ancient Egyptian goddess who had been reinterpreted by and for the Greco-Roman world. In the Roman Empire, Isis was identified with various Greek and Roman goddesses, such as Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Tyche, and Fortuna. These complex theological associations were often expressed pictorially, and she was occasionally depicted as a syncretistic deity with the attributes and iconography of one or more of these goddesses.
Along with her consort Serapis (a composite Greco-Egyptian deity combining the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis with Greek deities such as Hades and Dionysus), Isis was accepted into the Roman pantheon and worshiped in her new “universal” form. Her cult, which overshadowed that of Serapis, was extraordinarily popular throughout the Roman Empire and at every level of society. She was viewed as a powerful, multifaceted goddess—the Queen of Heaven—who offered compassion and salvation to her followers.
The Navigium Isidis festival, which originated in the 1st century BC, was celebrated at ports, beaches, rivers, and canals throughout the Roman Empire. It marked the end of winter’s storms and the beginning of the sailing season, and it celebrated the goddess in her role as Isis-Pelagia, ruler of the waves and protector of sailors. In addition, it was a vibrant, cross-cultural festival that brought together Roman and Egyptian religious ideas and traditions.
Much of what we know about the details of the Navigium Isidis’ festivities comes from Apuleius’ description of it in his 2nd century AD novel Metamorphoses and from contemporary depictions of the festival in Roman visual art. It was similar in many respects to modern carnival: it was a boisterous, cacophonous celebration comprising colorful processions of costumed groups, white-clad women who bore flowers through the streets, worshipers who carried lamps and torches, singers and other musicians, priests, and ritual performers who dressed as deities. Statues of Isis and various gods were brought forth from temples and carried in procession to the water, where priests launched a small sacred boat that had been dedicated to Isis and filled with votive offerings for her.
This 2nd century AD Hymn to Nemesis (a goddess with whom Isis was sometimes associated), composed by Mesomedes of Crete, exemplifies the kind of religious music that might have been played at the festival. The videos below demonstrate two different arrangements of the same piece, one instrumental, the other with a female vocalist.
Though the spread of Christianity ultimately led to the Navigium Isidis’ demise, it was a resilient tradition that proved difficult to kill. The festival continued while anti-paganism policies were instituted during the late Roman Empire. It was celebrated until the 5th century AD in Italy, and it survived in Egypt, the place of Isis’ origin, until the 6th century, when the festival, and the goddess’ cult as a whole, finally came to a close. However, traces of Isis, the Navigium Isidis, and other ancient polytheistic traditions can still be detected in Christian festivals, religious iconography, and hymns.
Salve Regina Caeli