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Isis, goddess of the seas and the Navigium Isidis

On the morning of March 5th in an unspecified year in the middle of the second century CE, a donkey turned into a man on the streets of Corinth. This event caused some excitement, not least because a large crowd had gathered in the city for a major public festival, dedicated to the goddess Isis, celebrating the opening of the seas for long range travel. 

Corinth’s wealth came from the sea and so it is not surprising that the big event in the city’s calendar was a maritime festival. Located on the narrow Isthmus linking the Peloponnese with central Greece, the city had grown rich from both overland and maritime trade. Corinth had a checkered history. Destroyed in 146 BCE and then rebuilt by the Romans 100 years later. By the first century CE, it was again a boom town, perhaps the most important city in Greece, a cosmopolitan entrepot, visited by many important ancient figures including a donkey with a very peculiar tale.

Streets of Corinth (Public Domain, MM, via Wikimedia)

Who was this donkey and why was he turned into a man? 

To answer this question you will have to read the Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass by the Latin author Lucius Apuleius. He was an intellectual and worldly man. Born in 124 CE in Madauros, a city in North Africa (modern day Algeria), Apuleius was educated in Latin, perhaps attending the University of Carthage. 200 years later St Augustine studied at the same university and left a memorable description “To Carthage I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves”. Apuleius married a rich widow, whose family took him to court, claiming he had used magic to entice her. He defended himself successfully, publishing an edited version of the speech he gave in court. As part of his defense, he claimed to have taken part in numerous initiation ceremonies in Greece, which explained some of his more suspicious activities.

“What I say is nothing strange or secret”

(Apuleius, Apologia, 55).

The Golden Ass is a brilliant romp through the Roman World, one of the surviving examples of a once thriving literary genre called the ‘Milesian style’. It is an episodic narrative, a set of stories within a longer narrative. The book is the closest we get to an ancient novel. It begins when a young man, also called Lucius, drinks a magic potion to turn into a bird to sleep with his partner but accidentally turns himself into a donkey. 

It is full of the more humdrum details of ancient life. This is what makes it a valuable source, but it is important to remember that it is a fictional account and like all authors Apuleius could take some license as required by the restrictions of his narrative. 

Clearly there are fictional elements to the story. We must assume that a donkey was never actually turned back into a man, not least because we lack complementary evidence for this. However, the vivid description of the sea festival must have some truth to it. 

Isis and the Golden Ass

The Egyptian mysteries in the novel of Apuleius Parades and festivities were important parts of religious expression in the ancient world. The religion of Isis was no different.  Background The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses) is an ancient novel. It is from a genre commonly called Milesian Tales. These were overarching stories linking episodic events very […]

Apuleius’ account of the Navigium Isidis is easily the richest account not just of this specific festival but of any festival from the ancient Mediterranean basin. It takes up the first half of the eleventh and final book. This book, essentially a chapter, has a marked interest in the goddess Isis, seemingly lacking from earlier parts of the novel. It resolves the main narrative threads of the overarching story: the opening of the seas has a strong parallel to the protagonist’s own salvation. 

The chapter begins at night on the seashore. The donkey wakes from fitful sleep to see the moon emerging from the sea. Overcome with religious feeling he prays to Isis to turn him back into a man. He falls back to sleep, waking again to a vision of the goddess herself emerging from the seas. She tells him tomorrow there will be a festival “when the winter’s tempests are lulled and the ocean’s storm-blown waves are calmed, my priests dedicate an untried keel to the now navigable sea and consecrate it as the first fruits of voyaging”. Lucius is to seek the chief priest and eat one of the roses he will carry.

As she leaves him, Lucius looks about and notices the weather is warmer, the birds are singing, the trees are bearing fruit again.

The seasons have changed.

The optimism of spring has a specific role in setting the scene that is to follow and also metaphorically for Lucius’ rebirth.

Spring was clearly an important period for the return of sailing in mass. Pliny the Elder himself wrote “the spring opens the seas to voyagers” (Natural History 2 XLVII).

Alongside Apuleius’ account we have other evidence linking the goddess Isis with the opening of the sailing season. An inscription from Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) dated to the beginning of the first century mentions the Ploiapehsia, the “official opening of the seas” in an inscription dedicated to Isis and Serapis (RICIS 114/0703). Several Latin texts give the festival the name the Navigium Isidis.  The Byzantine historian John Lydus, in his calendar of pagan festivals (written in Greek but often called by its Latin title De Mensibus) and the Chronology of 354 both give the festival the date of March 5th (Bricault, 2021, 203-4).

Swan neck on ship (Relief of ship in Mainz taken by O Mustafin CC0 via Wikimedia)

The ship of Isis

Apuleius describes in vivid detail the rituals at the heart of the festival. 

The day begins with a procession. First people in fancy dress. This is followed by young women in white and the initiates of the religion, then the symbols of the gods, soon followed by the gods themselves and their sacred implements. As the procession proceeds past him, the participants get increasingly more holy. At the apex of the procession, the chief priest hands a crown of roses to the donkey. Lucius eagerly eats the flowers as instructed and is turned back into a man. He is quickly given a robe to cover his modesty and joins the procession as it winds through the streets of Kenchreai, the ancient port of Corinth and culminates on the seashore. 

The statues are placed down in a prominent position and the chief priest walks down to consecrate a ship constructed with fine craftsmanship and decorated all over with hieroglyphs. It is a gorgeous ship made of highly polished, pale citron-wood. A goose-neck, coated in gold-leaf, is carved into the stern. 

Scholars have debated whether this ship is meant to be real or a model. The book says the boat is offered to the sea. We are never told if it sails to another port, returns back to Corinth, or is ritually sunk. In a commentary of the book, the scholar J.G. Griffiths argues that it would be unlikely that a ship symbolically marking the beginning of the sailing season would be ritually sunk (Griffiths, 1979, pp. 46 – 7). This argument seems convincing. 

For me, this scene reads as if it is a small boat. 

Certainly it does not appear to be an unmanned model. Its mast is described as ‘visible from far off’. The priest dedicates it to, and names it after, the Goddess. There are strange ritual elements involving a lighted torch, an egg and sulfur which alongside prayers purify the ship which suggest it is intended for travel.

Some members of the crowd load the ship with baskets of offerings, while others pour libations of grain-mash into the sea. Lionel Casson in his study of ancient ships writes that the smallest tonnage for sailing ships was 70-80 tonnes: although there were many much bigger ships. The standard storage container was an amphora which could double the weight of its content: 20L of olive oil would weigh about 18 KG, an amphora might weigh the same( Casson, 1971, pp. 184). This is a substantial weight. Loading even a small ship would have been heavy, dirty work and not something you would do in your ‘Sunday best’. Unless the ship was already loaded and the baskets were a collection of small sacrifices or ‘boat treats’ for the goddess, which is possible, we must assume this was a small boat unsuited to the long range travel which the festival celebrated.

Although the crew is not mentioned in the Golden Ass, Laurent Bricault has identified the names of ‘Navarchs’ or crew members for a ship used in the festival on an inscription from the Isis Temple at Eretria. Dating from the first century BCE, the names go back over many years (Bricault, 2021, p. 207). Other inscriptions mentioning similar positions have been found across the Mediterranean. Bricault speculates the boats had experienced mariners on board (p. 220).The ‘navarchs’ had a religious function rather than actual working mariners. They were local worthies. Would such individuals undertake a lengthy sea journey? I personally doubt it.  

A ship named Isis (Isis Geminiana fresco, Ostia, Public Domain via Wikimedia)

Ultimately, we have to admit that local practices most likely varied across different locations and periods. The account in The Golden Ass is perhaps an ideal version. If I can be excused the anachronism, I would liken it to Christmas in a Hallmark movie. Everyone would understand it as the ‘real’ festival, but also instinctively know that real festivities would be very different.  

The problem is that the evidence for other regions is patchy. Bricault has analyzed the visual evidence for the festival. A destroyed mosaic from Antioch (2nd century CE) shows a sea scene with a Victory goddess. Frescos from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii depict war ships. Although they provide evidence of the goddess’ association with the seas, they do not depict the festival itself (Bricault, 2021, p. 224 – 6).

There is a slightly more convincing visual depiction on a fresco from Ostia which illustrates different festivals. In one panel, two young children pull a small boat on wheels behind a group of older men. Piganoil identified it as an image of the festival whereas Bricault rejects that arguing that the boat is too small, there are no obvious attributes of Isis and Apuleius never says a ship is part of the procession. Both scholars draw on Apuleius’ account to argue their points. This perhaps puts too much trust in the Golden Ass as the standard account.

Naval battle, fresco from Pompeii (Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Isis, Goddess of the seas

If the festival remains elusive then we still have a lot of evidence for Isis as a maritime goddess. Yet we must ask why Isis had become, by the Roman period, the predominant sea goddess to such an extent that her festival marked the official beginning of the sailing season across the empire. 

This is perhaps stranger when we consider the fact that Egypt was not known for its maritime prowess. River sailing was an important aspect of its society and economy for millennia. Indeed, the sail may have first emerged from Egypt, with south blowing winds powering ships up the Nile against the current (Casson, 1994, 14). Yet Egypt did not really have any sea gods for much of its early history. 

It was perhaps outside of Egypt that the association of Egyptian gods and the sea first began. Byblos was an important trade center with Egypt for centuries. A text from the Middle Kingdom calls Hathor “Mistress of Byblos [who] holds the rudders of barques”. (Bricault, 2021, 14). In this city, she became linked with Asherah, a Phoenician goddess of love and the open seas, honored in the latter’s sanctuary. During the New Kingdom Isis took over more and more functions of Hathor, ultimately becoming the predominant goddess in the Egyptian pantheon. About this time, she also became the Egyptian goddess in Byblos, ‘taking over’ Hathor’s role. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the city remained important within the conceptions of Isis, even if we lack archaeological evidence (Dunand, 1972, 132). Plutarch reports that an ancient tree trunk was revered in the city, believed to have held the coffin of Osiris. He also wrote that Isis sailed there from Egypt, searching for her husband (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 16).

It was during the Greek period, that the maritime form of the goddess first emerged. Bricault identifies the moment of “birth” when a royal cult developed around the Ptolemaic Queen Arsinoe II. After her death she was identified with the maritime form of Aphrodite, due to the regime’s focus on sea power. In Egypt, he suggests, this form of Aphrodite was associated with Isis Pelagia.

Mosaic identified as Arisnoe II by Katherine Blouin. Sometimes identified as Berenice II. From Thmuis in Egypt. (Public Domain via Wikimedia)

From Alexandria, worship of the maritime Isis spread around the Mediterranean. Indeed, maritime travel was crucial for the spread of worship towards the goddess. Many Isis temples are found in port cities. Images of Isis standing on a ship are found on the island of Delos. The first temple in Italy was founded in the major port in Puteoli (Tran, 1972, 25). There was even an Isis temple as far away as London. 

By the Roman period, not only had the maritime festival emerged but also many cities minted coins with images of the goddess on ship. Inscriptions also attest to the goddess’ role with the seas. Some call her Isis Savior (a word Lucius also used in the Golden Ass) as she saved sailors and passengers from shipwreck and drowning. Other inscriptions call her Isis Pharia. A name referencing both the Pharos lighthouse in Alexandria and the word sail in Greek. It also the epithet used in Latin poetry to emphasise her foreignness (Bricault, 2021, 160).

The association between the goddess and Alexandria was strengthened during the roman period, thanks in part to the fleet which brought grain to Rome. In the Roman port at Ostia, Isis-Pelagia was associated with Annona, the abstract goddess of the grain supply. The most specific reference linking the maritime and agricultural aspects of the goddess is the Christian writer Tertullian who calls Isis ‘Ceres Pharia’. Another maritime festival is identified as taking place on 25 April. This is the Sacrum Phariae which may have marked the role of Isis protecting the Annona, the grain supplies brought to Italy from over the seas (Bricault, 2020, 230).

The sea goddess transcended the seas. With time the image of her holding the steering oar became a common symbol of her power over fate and her ability to save and benefact her followers. Seven hymns dedicated to the goddess have been found across the Mediterranean, sharing some similarities. The most complete comes from Kyme, today on the Turkish coast. A first person speech, Isis says “I devised business in the sea”, “I stir up the sea and I calm it […] I am the Queen of seamanship”, amongst other powers. It ends with the claim “I overcome Fate”. Her power over the seas was understood as power over the uncontrollable and dangerous aspects of life, powers which were believed to benefit all her adherents- on sea or on land. It was perhaps this power which led to her popularity across much of the inner sea and beyond. From the seas, she emerged the predominant goddess of the Roman world.

Marble statue of the goddess Isis-Tyche-Pelagia. 1st-2nd century CE in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Athens, Greece (George E. Koronaios – Own work
CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia)

Further Reading

Apuleius, Apologia

Apuleius, Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass

Bricault, Laurent, 2020, Isis Pelagia : images, names and cults of a goddess of the seas, Leiden: Brill.

Casson, Lionel, 1995. Ships and seamanship in the ancient world, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Casson, Lionel, 1994. Ships and seafaring in ancient times, London : British Museum Press.

Dunand, Françoise, 1973, Le culte d’Isis dans le bassin oriental de la Méditerranée. Leiden : Brill.

Griffiths, J.G, 1975. The Isis-book : (Metamorphoses, book XI) Apuleius. Leiden : Brill.

Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris.

Tran, V. Tam Tinh, 1972. Le culte des divinités orientales en Campanie en dehors de Pompéi, de Stabies et d’Herculanum. Leiden : Brill.