A Ptolemaic queen with Isis Knot, brought up from the waters at Alexandria

You already know how important water and symbols related to water were in the ancient worship of Isis. As Iset-Sopdet, Her stellar rising signaled the rising waters of the all-important Inundation throughout Egypt. Her beloved Osiris could be considered to be the Waters that She called forth. And as we said a couple weeks ago, one of Isis’ many, many epithets is Mother of Waters.

Due to its importance in Egypt, water became an important symbol of the Goddess as Her worship spread outside of Egypt, too.

Serapis and Isis from Pompeii temple, note the Goddess in the boat between Them

We know of several Mediterranean temples that had what archeologists refer to as “water crypts,” though this was not a common feature. In fact, out of the 63 known Isis-Serapis temples in the region, only six of them have these water crypts. So they were special; and also somewhat mysterious since we don’t know exactly how they were used in the temple rituals. (Yet, I’m sure, both you and I could come up with some likely conjectures about that.) But first, let me tell you a little bit about some of the ones they’ve found, then we can let our imaginations run wild.

From temple of Isis Pompeii, priest carrying a sacred object with veiled hands

All of the water crypts are underground. They are in chambers either under the temple itself of under the courtyard of the temple and were accessible by descending stairways. There are no windows or light shafts, so they were in total darkness and must have been illuminated by torches or lamps. All of them contained a water basin, either larger or smaller, that was connected to a water source—a channel from a river, a canal, or piping for rain water. None have drains, so, if they were ever empty, they would have been emptied by hand. They found a jug that could have been used for such a purpose in the crypt at the Pompeii Isis temple.

The stolisterion at the Pompeii Isis temple; the water crypt is beneath this small structure.

Another feature is that these crypts were not open to the public. They were, instead, behind lockable doors, presumably accessible only to temple personnel.

At Pompeii, there is a small building over the crypt that is decorated with images of people in a procession and in prayer, so it seems clear that the water was considered sacred. It is most likely that the water was intended to be “Nile water” even though its source was not the Nile. Following in that tradition, Isis Magic includes a rite for making your own magical Nile water for use in your rites.

Natural Nile water was also, at times, imported for rites in Isis and Serapis temples outside of Egypt. The Roman satirist Juvenal makes fun of Roman matrons who he says would crawl on their knees to Egypt to fetch water with which to sprinkle Isis’ temple.

Fresco from Pompeii temple, making offerings before image of Osiris?

Some researchers have theorized that the crypts were related to Egyptian nilometers, structures in the temples used to measure the height of the Inundation, but no measuring marks have been found in the water crypts, so that is unlikely. Others have wondered whether the crypts might have been used to simulate a mini Nile flood in the temple, but they don’t seem to contain any kind of apparatus that would accommodate such a use. (On the other hand, the Egyptophile Roman Emperor Hadrian had just such a “Nile flood” built into his villa near Tivoli. The “flood” was water that poured out from beneath a huge bust of Isis-Sothis and filled a long canal in the villa that simulated a branch of the Nile called the Canopus.)

The monumental head of Isis-Sothis-Demeter from Hadians Villa, now in the Vatican Museum

It seems more likely that the water crypts were simply used to supply the sacred water used in the temple rites. The waters of the Nile/magical Nile might be used to purify the temple and the sacred images and other cult symbols and ritual tools.

We know that water was used as a sacred symbol in and of itself. Surely it was also used in offering rites. But I wonder if temple personnel were allowed to drink it under any circumstances? Clearly, it would have been a privilege.

An Egyptian situla or washeb

We do know that a vessel filled with such sacred water was presented by priests with veiled hands during some of the rites, such as the ceremonies to open the temple in the morning and in processions.

There were a number of types of vessels associated with Isis’ worship, which makes sense given the clear emphasis on the sacredness of water. Perhaps the most common was the situla, a word that comes from Latin for bucket or pail. The Egyptian situla, washeb in Egyptian, was a ceremonial vessel used to make offerings of (usually) water or milk. Situlae were usually made of metal—bronze, silver, or even gold.

Egyptian examples were often heavily decorated with hieroglyphs and scenes involving fertility, nourishment, or the cult of the Deity. Frequently, they appear to have been illustrated with scenes that involved either nurturing, such as images of the Cow Goddess, or fertility and sexuality, such as images of the plump Nile God, the Child God on a lotus, or the ithyphallic God Min.

Roman priestesses and priests of Isis, the urnula is carried by priestesses on left and right, situlae by priests in center

Some situlae were rounder and somewhat breast-shaped, some elongated and reminiscent of a closed lotus bud. Usually, they did not have flat bottoms and so would have had to hang from the handle on a hook or other support. Situlae evoked the magic of renewal and regeneration both through their decoration and the fluid that they contained.

From the Pompeii temple, sphinxes guarding an urnula

Apuleius’ tale of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis includes a description of a procession for Isis in which a vessel often known as an urnula was carried. Apuleius described it in detail in his account of the procession. He says it represented highest Deity, but was not in the form of any animal nor any human, yet that it inspired wonder in those who beheld it because of its strangeness.

Osiris Hydreios

This sacred Isian object was a small vase of gold with a rounded body, its base adorned with Egyptian figures (possibly hieroglyphs). It had a long spout on one side and on the other a graceful, curved handle. A rearing Egyptian cobra often decorated the handle. This type of vessel would seem ideal for pouring libations.

If we conceive of the combination of Isis and Osiris as highest Deity, we might see the vessel as Isis Who contains Osiris, the God Who is the sacred water itself. Apuleius doesn’t explain further, so we are left to speculate.

Isis and Serapis as serpents with Osiris Hydreios between Them

Another, rather strange, “vessel” associated with temples of Isis in the later period is known as the Osiris Hydreios, or Osiris of the Waters. These images seem to have originated around the first century BCE and are mainly associated with Isis sanctuaries in northern Egypt (Alexandria and its suburbs) and southern Italy (Rome and environs).

The images of Osiris Hydreios resemble Egyptian canopic jars, the jars that contained the internal organs of mummies. They are decorated with Egyptian motifs and crowned with the head of Osiris. Sometimes, however, the head of Isis or Anubis replaces that of Osiris. Earlier in this post, I put quotes around the word vessel because—though the images are shaped like vessels, and they relate to a watery aspect of Osiris—they were not hollowed out and therefore could not have actually contained water.

A priest of Isis carries an Osiris Hydreios in veiled hands

Isis and Her Beloved Osiris have long, long been associated with the life-giving Waters. Living as the ancient Egyptians did in that narrow strip of the Black Land that received the blessing of water, they knew in their bodies and souls the vital importance of water.

Here in the west, at the end of summer, with fires and smoke raging around us, we too can know—deep in our bodies and souls—the vital sacredness of water.