Throughout the ancient Mediterranean world—from Alexandria to Carthage, from the Roman port of Ostia to Corinth, and on to Palmyra in Asia Minor—in locations dotting the shores of the Black Sea and the riverbanks of what is now Hungary, we find a particular image of Isis.
She stands on the prow of a ship, holding a billowing sail in front of Her, wind filling it from behind. And yet Her own garments flow out behind Her, filled with the wind produced by Her forward momentum. Trying to be precise, if dull, in their description, archeologists simply call this image “Isis with a Sail.” But those who created these images, on gems, coins, lamps, carved reliefs, and statues, would have called Her by a different title. They might have named Her Isis Pelagia, Isis of the Seas. Or Isis Euploia, Isis of Good Sailing. Or, most commonly, Isis Pharia.
As Pharia, Isis is connected with the great lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a famous symbol of the city of Alexandria. The lighthouse was called the Pharos after the small island on which it stood. Due to the lighthouse’s fame, pharos eventually became a general term for “lighthouse.” (This persists even in modern languages; in Italian and Spanish, lighthouse is faro and in French, it is phare.) Isis Pharia is Isis the Lighthouse Goddess.
As you can probably deduce, all these epithets are Greek, the common language of the time. In the Illiad, Homer uses the word pharos for any large piece of fabric, including a ship’s sail. Which connects this most-common sea-related epithet for the Goddess both with Her illuminating lighthouse and Her billowing sail—as we see on the image of the Alexandrian coin above.
I’m writing about Pharia today because I have to return an interlibrary loan of Isis Pelagia: images, names, and cults of a goddess of the seas. So I have to take my notes before returning. The book isn’t quite as interesting as it sounds and I didn’t discover too much new about Our Lady in it. Nonetheless, I thought I’d share what I did find. You might find it of interest, too.
Since most of ancient Egypt was concerned with the Nile and not the sea, in Egypt, Isis is a Goddess of the Waters through Her connection with the Nile flood, the Inundation. As Iset-Sopdet, Isis-Sothis, She calls the life-giving waters to rise and fertilize the land of Egypt. She is also connected with the Nun, the Primordial Waters. An inscription on a 2nd century BCE temple calls Her “She at the Head of the Life in Nun.” At Philae She is the Lady of the Whole Nun for it is in the Nun that the Inundation has its source. At Hathor’s Ptolemaic-era temple of Denderah, we also find Isis connected with the sacred lake or isheru. At Denderah, She is specifically called Lady of the Seas. Isis is associated with boats and navigation in Her roles guiding the divine boats of the Deities in the otherworld. And in some tales, Her search for Osiris is taken by boat. She is also a Goddess of the winds, critical for travel by ship. Isis also picked up even stronger sea connections as She became more and more assimilated with Hathor and Aphrodite.
All this is to say that it wasn’t out of nowhere that the image of Isis Pharia came to some prominence throughout the Mediterranean world. We find Her in port cities, billowing cloak and full-bellied sail, protecting ports and sailors, a savior on rough seas. Further, it is no great stretch to find Her as a savior of souls, a harbor against the fear of death, as we discover Her in Apuleius’ tale of initiation into Her Mysteries and an account of Her famous festival the Navigium Isidis.
The most interesting new things I found in my borrowed book have to do with the cult for Isis of the Seas. Those of us who would want to honor Her in this form might find them of use.
Generally, services in the temples and shrines of Isis Pharia would have been similar to the regular services: praises, offerings, dressing the sacred image. But we do have an account of some specific offerings made to Isis of the Sea. A man named Damis believed She had saved him from drowning. In thanks, he offered Her a crumbly cake, a pair of white “water-dwelling geese,” figs, raisins, and frankincense.
A somewhat unusual offering seems to have been a votive painting, either in thanks or as a request for saving at sea. We know of the practice because the Roman satirical poet Juvenal mocked it, joking in effect, “who knew that Isis also nourishes painters?” Some scholars have suggested that those who had come safely through a sea voyage would dedicate their hair to Isis of the Sea, though this is not fully confirmed.
Before a sea journey, people might dedicate small images of Isis with a Sail in one of Her shrines or temples. We also have examples of small votive objects shaped like an anchor dedicated to Her. Some of these were small enough that they could be drilled at the top and worn as an amulet. We have one of these drilled amulets that includes an image of the Goddess as a serpent crowned with Her characteristic basileion headdress. People would also turn coins with Her image on them into amuletic jewelry—rings or pendants—to wear for protection at sea. There are many examples of boat-shaped oil lamps that were offered to both Isis and Serapis, Who had His own marine form.
Festivals of Pharia
You’re already familiar with the Navigium Isidis, the festival of the Navigation of Isis or the Ship of Isis, which marked the opening of the sailing season in the Mediterranean. So I’ll leave any additional details on that for another time. This next festival is one I hadn’t known about.
A Roman calendar known as the Chronology of 354 (CE) records the festival of the Sacrum Phariae on April 25th. The April 25th date would have corresponded to the Alexandrian Egyptian date of the day before 1 Pachon, when an important Egyptian harvest festival was celebrated. The evidence we have about this festival is pretty sketchy, but it may be that the Sacrum Phariae welcomed the all-important shipment of grain from Egypt to Rome under the protection of Isis Pharia.
If we were to create our own version of the Sacrum Phariae, we might have to go pretty far afield from the original to make a rite that would be meaningful to us now. Perhaps a Lammas rite?
We, of course, have no shipments of grain from Egypt to celebrate. And yet this ancient festival is not without relevance for people today. At this very moment, in the Black Sea, grain ships from Ukraine are bringing much-needed shipments of wheat, barley, sunflower oil, and other foods to ports in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Yes, this includes Egypt. For instead of being one of the bread baskets of the ancient world, modern Egypt is now the world’s number one importer of wheat.
So today, I offer prayers to Isis Pharia for the safe and swift delivery of the grain ships that are helping to feed the world. As these ships sail across the Black Sea, they will likely pass by the sites of ancient ports where images of Isis with a Sail have been found. Her presence is there as it is in our hearts. Amma, Iset.