I’m posting this late because I don’t have internet on the homestead yet. March 5th was the usually considered the date of the Roman festival of Isidis Navigium, celebrating the Egyptian Isis as the patron of sailors (although some sources seem to say that it fell on March 6th, so hey, maybe I’m not late!). Just as March 1st celebrated Mars and the opening of the war season, this festival celebrates the beginning of the sailing season. To understand what this really means, we have to try to think about what hard weather would have done to us and our lifestyle in the ancient world. Winter truly put most of public life on hold. When the snows covered mountain passes and caused dangerous storms on the sea, trade, and all travel, would have to temporally stop. So when spring comes again, it means that life can start up again. Sailors can go back to work, to earn a living to support their families. Which also meant that rarer and hard-to-find goods would soon come flowing into the city. At the same time that the crops begin to grow, other human activities and endeavors can begin or speed up.
Ididis Navigium, or alternatively Navigium Isidis, means Vessel of Isis. The festival gets its name from the main offering to Isis. In Apuleius’ Metamorphosis he describes the grand procession of worshippers from the temple of Isis to the harbor. After the opening priests, in the procession, there were women throwing followers, people dressed in their finest clothes, even tame bears with their trainers and an ape in a straw hat and saffron-colored cloak. Many processioners elaborate costumes, gladiators in full armor, dressed as figures from myth, such as shaggy satyrs in heavy-horned masks.
There was a group of women spraying the road with sweet-smelling perfumes and sprinkling precious oils of frankincense and myrrh, going before the cart which carried the statue of the Goddess, surrounded by men and women who carried all kinds of lamps, candles, torches, and light-bearing implements. Some of the processioners were appointed to play the sacred parts of dressing as other important Gods. Among them was Anubis, the dog-headed nephew of Isis, holding a palm branch and a wand in his hands.
Scores of musicians followed behind lines of initiates, drummers and flute-players and men with panpipes, women shaking the sistrum. The officiating priests came next, caring holy relics and symbols of Isis. The first priest cradled a golden lamp, the second carried a beautiful pot. The third held a palm branch in one hand and a caduceus in the other, the rod of Mercury entwined by two snakes. The fourth bore an amulet of a hand with the palm open, and he carried a vessel in the shape of a woman’s breast, from which he occasionally spilled droplets of milk onto the ground. A fifth priest carried a winnowing fan, another a krator of wine, and the last a garland of roses.
There a beautifully-built ship decorated with colorful Egyptian hieroglyphs vvaited for them. The linen sail was inscribed with a prayer to the Goddess for good sailing and protection of the ships that would soon fill the seas. The High Priest purified the ship by breaking an egg on the hull, a lighted torch thrown into the sea, and the prow smeared with sulfur. Milk was poured into the sea as a libation, and the procession of worshippers loaded the ship with various offerings to the Goddess. Then the rope to the anchor was cut, and the ship was allowed to drift away into sea.
I wrote this ritual (first published on the Neos Alexandria website here) several years ago, when I was still living in northern Indiana, hence why it is shorter than most of my rituals. It is meant to be performed outside, beside whatever river or natural body of water exists in your area, and in the climate I was living at the time it still pretty cold to be outside for too long. One nice addition that I remember reading about somewhere on the internet (can’t remember who first came up with it, sorry) is to fashion a small boat of some kind from paper or bark or something, set it in the water during the ritual, and either let it float away with a small offering of frankincense or herbs, or to set the boat on fire Viking-style. I love the idea. I plan on having a pond dug on my homestead eventually. I look forward to being able to do something along these lines in my own waters on day.
the lines in italics are specific to my area and should be changed to fit your landmarks.
Hail, Mighty Isis of the Many Names!
Though Your birth was in sandy Aiegyptos,
Your worship spread to great Roma and beyond
And today in modern South Bend, Indiana we offer homage to Your name.
We greet You as patroness of ships and sailors
By the small waters of own town, the St. Joseph River.
As You protected ancient sailors on the tumultuous seas,
Protect us also as we sail through the rocky waters of fate
Great Lady, clad in magic, we gather in awe of Your power
And pray You will accept our humble offerings.
Pour libation of wine, saying:
We offer You sweet wine, in the hopes that You will remember us favorably, and sweeten our lives with your presence. As spring approaches, our hearts fill with joy to see Your green plants growing again.
Pour libation of milk, saying:
We offer you milk, in acknowledgment that You are the Mother of All, and pray that You will look after us and our nation with the love of all mothers. May our leaders be wise and healthy, and all opposition fall before us.
With these words the rite is ended. But we invite you to stay with us, for as long as you like.