March 5 was the date of an annual, ancient Roman, nautical religious festival called Navigium Isidis, literally “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 was extraordinarily popular throughout the Roman Empire and at every level of society, and she was viewed as a powerful, multifaceted goddess, the Queen of Heaven, who offered compassion and salvation to her followers.
With this sumptuous celebration the search for Isis was recalled to find the pieces of her deceased husband Osiris, fiercely dismembered by her brother Seth, scattered across the Nile.
According to the myth, Isis found all his remains except his penis, so she was forced to model one with clay. At that point she put all the pieces together and used magic to bring him back to life. This is why Osiris is a deity linked to the Underworld.
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.
The festival itself 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 offerings.
Moreover, during the day a festive procession went towards the river carrying a sort of small boat, the carrum navalis, the one that over the centuries turned into our modern carnival floats.
During the parade the participants dressed up and threw flower petals….the same that today are made of paper and we call them “confetti”.
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. The festival outlived Christian persecution by Theodosius (391) and Arcadius’ persecution against the Roman religion (395).
In the Roman Empire, it was still celebrated in Italy at least until the year 416, but it survived in Egypt, the place of Isis’ origin, until the 6th century, when it was suppressed by Christian authorities. However, traces of Isis, the Navigium Isidis, and other ancient polytheistic traditions can still be detected in Christian festivals, in our modern Carnival, religious iconography, and hymns.