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Commune divination spell mentions "unholy water" as its material component:

Components: V, S, M (incense and a vial of holy or unholy water)

This is the only "unholy water" mentioning I've found in the PHB so far. All other chapters mention holy water only:

Holy Water. As an action, you can splash the contents of this flask onto a creature within 5 feet of you or throw it up to 20 feet, shattering it on impact. In either case, make a ranged attack against a target creature, treating the holy water as an improvised weapon. If the target is a fiend or undead, it takes 2d6 radiant damage. A cleric or paladin may create holy water by performing a special ritual. The ritual takes 1 hour to perform, uses 25 gp worth of powdered silver, and requires the caster to expend a 1st-level spell slot.

Is "unholy water" a vestige from the 3.5 edition that is supposed to be removed (or rewritten) in 5e? Is it just an "evil" equivalent of holy water that can be used interchangeably? Or does it have special meaning in 5e?

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This spell is the only official mention of "Unholy Water"

A quick search on D&D beyond, the official D&D 5e web toolset, reveals that the Commune spell is the only official mention of the term "unholy water".

That means we have to fall back on natural language

Since the term has no official game meaning (because it is only mentioned once as a spell component and nowhere else), we have to use the natural language definition of the terms.

Unholy water is, obviously, water; it's in the name.

Dictionary.com defines unholy as:

1. not holy; not sacred or hallowed.

2. impious; sinful; wicked.

By this definition, unholy water could just be water the isn't holy water. However, this would mean that something like tap water could be used as the material component of the spell. Since, Commune specifically allows you to talk to a deity or divine proxy, I would argue that this non-religious/non-divine definition isn't what is intended.

So, based on the second definition, unholy water is some way the opposite of holy water. Where holy water is water that is blessed and carries a positive religious connotation, unholy water is profane, wicked water with a negative religious connotation.

RAW however, that means unholy water doesn't do anything

As you have noted, there are no rules for creating "unholy water". There are no descriptions of any mechanical effect that it has, or any uses for it besides this one spell. RAW, it is simply used for the Commune spell and nothing else.

It has no other properties RAW, and any other mechanical effect given to unholy water would be a DM call.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As per the definition you linked, unholy water could also be read as simply "water that is not holy", rather than profane. \$\endgroup\$ – Baergren Oct 11 '17 at 14:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Baergren True. But considering the nature of the commune spell, I would argue that the material component isn't any old tap water :) I'll edit to clarify \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Oct 11 '17 at 14:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ While being absolutely correct, this answer doesn't help much.. I already know that it is the Commune spell that only mentions "unholy water". What am I curious about is how did it happen and why. It looks really weird that a spell mentions "holy or unholy water", but other materials describe only "holy" water, and not a word about "unholy" one. Perhaps I should rephrase the question. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Oct 11 '17 at 16:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor If what you are looking for is the "why" and not the "what", then the question will definitely need rephrasing. After all the question title itself is "What is unholy water?" and asks "what properties does unholy water have?" not, "why isn't unholy water defined in the book like holy water is?" If I may suggest, I might make that its own question and link the two together, since they are at their core related but different questions. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Oct 11 '17 at 16:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it not straightforward to assume that unholy water is just "holy" water produced from an evil or corrupt divine source? The term and the difference between it and holy water is clearly, from the answers and evidence already given, a vestige of previous versions, as suggested in the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Protonflux Oct 12 '17 at 23:44
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It is a hold over from earlier editions where they had holy (good) and unholy (evil).

Per prior editions: Unholy Water was water consecrated to evil deities using similar methods to the creation of Holy Water (though the rituals probably use more body fluids). Specifically, Holy Water is charged with Positive energy and Unholy Water is charged with Negative energy. That left the question open of what kind of water is created when consecrated to a neutral deity.

So, unholy water is any water that is consecrated in a manner that your deity would find pleasing using the rituals for crating Holy Water.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've removed the RAI term from this answer, since it's ambiguous (rules as interpreted vs intended), and the first case it's already clear as an interpretation, in the second we'd ask you to back that up & demonstrate it's the intention. I don't think either are necessary though. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 13 '17 at 23:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Neutral deities might prefer the 'any old tap water' from previous answers. It's glib, but frankly, naturally occurring water from a stream, collected at midnight or from the ocean wouldn't be 'consecrated' or 'profaned' by some rite, like Holy or Unholy water, but would still be 'significant' water. Such water could still be considered important by a deity of nature or other neutral god or their worshippers \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Dec 20 '18 at 15:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO, the trouble with the tap water is: what about tap water gives it a special property? Also in game terms does it have Positive or Negative energy. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadoCat Dec 21 '18 at 20:45

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