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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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3 Answers 3

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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:

not holy; not sacred or hallowed.

2. impious; sinful; wicked.

By this definition, unholy water could just be water that 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 in 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\$ 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, 2017 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, 2017 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, 2017 at 23:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would assume that since clerics of their faith are capable of creating holy water, that evil clerics of an evil faith would be capable of creating evil water. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sandwich
    Oct 13, 2017 at 19:13
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It is a holdover 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 creating Holy Water.

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    \$\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, 2018 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, 2018 at 20:45
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Unholy Water is not defined in the rules

There is only this single mention of "unholy water" in the rules, and there is only holy water in the game described with a mechanics effect, no unholy water. Smashing a flask of holy water has this functional effect in 5e:

If the target is a fiend or undead, it takes 2d6 radiant damage.

Earlier editions had unholy water that was created by evil clerics and did harm what now would be celestials. This "unholy water" functionality has been dropped in 5e -- mechnically, holy water created by a Death Domain evil cleric is just plain old holy water.

From a play perspective this not a big issue, as most published adventures have characters fight against evil creatures, anyways, and celestials are extremely rare to show up. So not having special unholy water simplifies and streamlines the rules.

Because there is no Unholy Water with game mechanics described in 5e, this is probably just an editing oversight from the text of earlier editions. As no gp value is given, this unholy water is not the expensive flask of holy water, and is not consumed by the spell. It has no separate cost if you use a component pouch, so in practical terms it is unlikely to come up, either. So I think for practical purposes, the simplest solution here is just to ignore the "or unholy water" text, assuming it is a leftover editing glitch.

Otherwise if you feel that you need some definition of unholy water that is distinct from holy water, as that is what the rules text here says, the DM must make up what it means. Unholy water is really not a thing outside of fantasy, so there is no dictionary entry for "unholy water".

Historical background

As this answer points out , earlier editions of the game, going back all the way to 1st Edition, made it explicit what unholy water is, how it gets created and what its effects are. The 1e DMG states (emphasis added):

CREATION OF HOLY/UNHOLY WATER
Only clerics, excluding druids, are able to prepare holy water - or unholy water in the case of evil clerics [p. 114]
Holy/Unholy Water: All forms of undead, as well as creatures from the lower planes (demons, devils, night hags, night mares, nycadaemons, etc.) are affected by HOLY WATER. Paladins, lammasu shedu, ki-rin, and similar creatures of good alignment (or from the upper planes) are affected by UNHOLY WATER [p. 65]

So unholy water was the analog of holy water, created by evil clerics (i.e. those clerics that venerate an evil deity and were evil themselves).

What could Unholy Water look like?

The word "unholy" is used a couple of times in other contexts as a parallel concept to holy. If you do not want a game mechanic effect, then it would just be some water imbued or blessed with "unholiness". I think because it is an alternative to holy water, the meaning here is not just plain, "not holy" water. It must be some water that was treated in some way to be unholy.

Having no unholy water with an effect may be simpler, but from a cosmology perspective, is maybe a bit unsatisfying: why is there some divine water that affects fiends and undead, but none that affects celestials, their opposing number in the planar hierarchy?

If the DM wants to introduce unholy water as holy water created by evil clerics with a distinct effect, most straightforward would be to use the description of holy water, changing the effect to:

If the target is a celestial, it takes 2d6 necrotic damage.

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