Isis and Verena: two holy women at Baden’s healing springs
At the thermal springs in Baden, the Romans worshipped a goddess with her roots in Egypt. After the Baden region converted to Christianity, a saint from Lower Egypt became the patroness of the spa town on the Limmat.
Andrea Schaer is a freelance archaeologist, cultural historian and author.
Mineral springs and thermal baths have always been places of magical energy, and because of the special characteristics of the water and the associated desires, hopes and expectations of the people who venerate these sites, they are also spiritually charged. In the ancient world, thermal baths were important religious centres, where the power of the gods was a tangible experience. A visit to these sites was a relaxing holiday and a pilgrimage in one. In particular, deities with a close connection to the energy of water and the art of healing were very popular at spa locations, but all-embracing deities of nature and mother goddesses were also widely worshipped at these places. Throughout the Christian world, too, mineral springs were considered a special gift from what was now the One True God. The role of patrons and patronesses of the mineral springs and thermal baths was now taken on by saints whose lives tell of specific healing work and caring for the sick.
The Roman goddess Isis was worshipped in Baden
There is ample evidence that a number of deities were worshipped in the Roman spa town of Aquae Helveticae, today’s Baden im Aargau. One of them is the Egyptian-Roman mother goddess Isis. A temple, its existence documented by an inscription, was dedicated to her. The stone slab bearing this inscription was found in the Middle Ages in the Eigital at the foot of the Lägern, west of Wettingen, and was installed in the tower of the Church of St Sebastian. Bailiff and chronicler Aegidius Tschudi (1505-1572) was the first to provide a record of this inscription, and he tried to pinpoint the location of the temple. Tschudi left his notes to Johannes Stumpf (1500-1577/78), another chronicler who was the first to provide an illustration of the inscription in his chronicle, printed by Froschauer in Zurich in 1547-1548.DEAE ISIDI TEMPLVM A SOLO / L(VCIVS) ANNVSIVS MAGIANVS / DE SVO POSVIT VIK(ANIS) AQVENSIB[VS] / AD CVIVS TEMPLI ORNAMENTA / ALPINIA ALPINVLA CONNIVNX ET PEREGRINA FIL(LA) X C DEDE/RVNT L(OCVS) D(ATVS) D(ECRETO) VICANORVM
To the goddess Isis, Lucius Annusius Magianus built a temple from the ground up from his fortune for the inhabitants [vicani] of Aquae [Baden]. His wife, Alpinia Alpinula, and his daughter, Peregrina, gave 100 denarii for the furnishing of this temple. The site was made available by decision of the residents.Today, the consensus among researchers is that the location of the inscription is unlikely to have been the site of the Temple of Isis; rather, the inscription was hidden here at this location. It’s believed that the temple was instead located in the area of the Roman settlement or the thermal baths of Aquae Helveticae, today’s Baden. According to the inscription, the residents of the settlement of Aquae provided the site for the shrine, which suggests that the temple was within the defined settlement area. Since the mythology and the cult of Isis is closely linked to the element of water and the life forces of the earth, it seems quite plausible that Baden’s Isis temple would be located near the Limmat – or even within the precincts of the thermal springs and baths. However, the Isis temple has not yet been found.
The inscription most likely dates to the later 1st or 2nd century. So the temple would have to have been built then. It is interesting to note that a number of major construction works can in fact be seen in the thermal baths of Aquae Helveticae during this period. Was the Temple of Isis part of this activity?
Patron saints in the Middle Ages
When the local inhabitants converted to Christianity, the ancient cults disappeared and new patron saints, to whom very similar powers were ascribed, took the place of the ancient deities.
In the baths at Baden, St Verena has been documented as the namesake of a spring and the poor bath, the St Verenabad, fed by it since the Middle Ages. The St Verena spring was said to be beneficial for female fertility. According to the life of St Verena, she was also from Egypt and came to what is now Switzerland with the legendary Christian Theban Legion. She first worked in Solothurn, and later on an island in the Rhine, where she cared for the sick and needy and taught Christianity. The saint is said to have died in Bad Zurzach and it is claimed she is buried in the town’s Verenamünster, the collégiale Sainte-Vérène. St Verena is one of the most beloved folk saints in German-speaking Switzerland and southern Germany. Among other things, she is considered the patron saint of nurses – and her intercession is said to help bring the blessing of abundant children. Her works, as per the legend, thus represented all the characteristics and powers that were attributed to the spring named after her and its associated spa.
A chance similarity?
From the 18th and 19th centuries onwards, scholars began to examine Baden’s ancient past more closely, and the question has arisen again and again as to whether the Roman cult of Isis might have metamorphosed into veneration of St Verena. The two female figures do in fact show a number of interesting parallels. Both come from the land of the Nile, according to legend, and both represent the healing arts and fertility in the broadest sense. But their attributes are also remarkably similar. The goddess Isis holds a bucket (situla) in her left hand and a sistrum, a rattle used in religious ceremonies, in her right hand. St Verena holds a handled jar in her left hand and a comb in her right. We can only speculate as to whether, over the centuries and as aspects were adapted to known forms and objects, the situla became the jar and the sistrum a comb in the iconography of the saints. Likewise, the possibility that the cult of Isis continued in veneration of Verena in Baden remains purely hypothetical.Even though Baden’s Temple of Isis may never be located and a metamorphosis of the cult of the Roman mother goddess into veneration of St Verena remains hypothetical, the apparent continuity of the image of strong, life-giving and healing female figures at the hot springs is worthy of note.
In Roman times, major urban centres such as Vitudurum (Oberwinterthur), Aquae Helveticae (Baden) and Vindonissa (Windisch) needed to be fed. Large farming estates in the region played a major role in meeting this need.
Long before Switzerland became a popular tourist destination, the hot mineral springs at Baden in Aargau were a magnet for people in search of rest and relaxation. The first souvenir of Switzerland: high-profile guests and numerous travel reports carried the spa town’s reputation into the wider world.