March 4, 2013

Isidis Navigium

"The Ship of Isis" painting by Olivia Robertson
Isis addresses Apuleius: "The eternal laws of religion devote to my worship the day born of this night. Tomorrow my priests offer me the first-fruits of the new sailing season by dedicating a ship to me; for at this season the storms of winter lose their force, the leaping waves subside and the sea becomes navigable once more".  (Apuleius, Met. XI)

More text from Juno Covella by Lawrence Durdin-Robertson:  Egyptian: ISIS; The Ploiaphesia, Navigium Isidis, The Ship of Isis. (Seyffert, Diet.) "Isis . . the festival, held on the 5th of March [is] called the ship of Isis (Isidis Navigium), in recognition of her being the patron of navigation and inventress of the sail".
(Apuleius, Met. XI)  The author describes the ceremony, as it was observed at Corinth: "Soon a golden sun arose . . and at once the streets were filled with people walking along as if in a religious triumph. Not only I, but the whole world, seemed filled with delight. The animals, the houses, even the weather itself reflected the universal joy and serenity . . and the song birds, assured that spring had come, were chirping their welcome to the queen of the stars, the mother of the seasons, the mistress of the universe. . Presently the vanguard of the grand procession came in view. It was composed of a number of people in fancy dress of their own choosing . . a pretended magistrate with purple robe and rods of office; a philosopher . . a tame she-bear, dressed like a woman, carried in a sedan chair; and an ape in a straw hat and a saffron-coloured Phrygian cloak. . These fancy-dress comedians kept running in and out of the crowd, and behind them came the procession proper. At the head walked women crowned with flowers, who pulled more flowers out of the folds of their beautiful dresses and scattered them along the road; their joy in the Saviouress appeared in every gesture. Next came women with polished mirrors tied to the back of their heads, which gave all who followed them the illusion of coming to meet the Goddess, rather than marching before her. Next, a party of women with ivory combs in their hands who made a pantomime of combing the Goddess's royal hair, and another party with bottles of perfume who sprinkled the road with balsam and other precious perfumes; and behind these a mixed company of women and men who . . propitiated her by carrying every sort of light lamps, torches, wax candies and so forth.
"Next came musicians with pipes and flutes, followed by a party of carefully chosen choir-boys singing a hymn . . also a number of beadles and whifflers crying: 'Make way there, way for the Goddess!' Then followed a great crowd of the Goddess's initiates, men and women of all classes and every age, their pure white linen clothes shining brightly. The women wore their hair tied up in glossy coils under gauze head-dresses; the men's heads were completely shaven. . The leading priests . . carried the oracular emblems of the deity. The Chief Priest held a bright lamp . . it was a golden boat-shaped affair with a tall tongue of flame mounting from a hole in the centre. The second priest held an auxiliaria, or ritual pot, in each of his hands - the name refers to the Goddess's providence in helping her devotees. The third carried a miniature palm-tree. . The fourth carried a model of the left hand with the fingers stretched out, which is an emblem of justice. . He also held a golden vessel rounded in the shape of a woman's breast, from the nipple of which a thin stream of milk fell to the ground. The fifth carried a winnowing-fan woven with golden rods, not osiers. Then came a man, not one of the five, carrying a wine-jar.
"Next in the procession followed those deities that deigned to walk on human feet. . Anubis with a face black on one side, golden on the other, walking erect . . Behind, danced a man carrying on his shoulders, seated upright, the statue of a cow, representing the Goddess as the fruitful Mother of us all. Then came along a priest with a box containing the secret implements of her wonderful cult. Another fortunate priest had another emblem of her godhead hidden in the lap of his robe. . It was a symbol of the sublime and ineffable mysteries of the Goddess. . a small vessel of burnished gold, upon which Egyptian hieroglyphics were thickly crowded, with a rounded bottom, a long spout, and a generously curving handle along which sprawled an asp raising its head and displaying its scaly, wrinkled, puffed-out throat.
"Meanwhile the pageant moved slowly on and we reached the seashore. . There the divine emblems were arranged in due order and there with solemn prayers the chaste-lipped priest hallowed and dedicated to the Goddess a beautifully built ship, with Egyptian hieroglyphics painted over the entire hull, but first he carefully purified it with a lighted torch, an egg and sulphur. The sail was shining white linen, inscribed with large letters with a prayer for the Goddess's protection of shipping during the new sailing season. The long fir mast with its shining head was now stepped, and we admired the gilded prow shaped like the neck of Isis's holy goose, and the long brightly-polished keel cut from a solid trunk of citrus-wood. Then all present, both priesthood and laity, began zealously stowing aboard winnowing-fans heaped with aromatics and other votive offerings and poured an abundant stream of milk into the sea as a libation. When the ship was loaded with generous gifts and prayers for good fortune, they cut the anchor cables and she slipped across the bay with a serene breeze behind her that seemed to have sprung up for her sake alone. When she stood so far out to sea that we could no longer keep her in view, the priests took up the holy emblems and started happily back towards the temple, in the same orderly procession as before.
"On our arrival the Chief Priest and the priests who carried the oracular emblems were admitted into the Goddess's adytum with other initiates and restored them to their proper places. Then one of them known as the Doctor of Divinity . . went up into. a high pulpit and read out a Latin blessing upon 'our liege lord, the Emperor, and upon the Senate, and upon the Order of Knights and upon the Commons of Rome and upon all sailors and all ships . . ' Then he uttered the traditional Greek formula 'Ploeaphesia,' meaning that vessels were now permitted to sail, to which the people responded with a loud cheer and dispersed happily to their homes, taking all kinds of decorations with them: such as olive boughs, scented shrubs and garlands of flowers, but first kissing the feet of a silver statue of the Goddess that stood on the temple steps."

(Photo copyright Minette Quick, all rights reserved.)