Votives and Souvenirs

This is a pre-publication version of the following article: Hughes, J. (2017) 'Souvenirs of the Self: Personal Belongings as Votive Offerings in Ancient Religion' in Religion in the Roman Empire vol 3 no. 2 (Special Issue on 'Embodying Religion: Lived Ancient Religion and Medicine edited by Georgia Petridou) pp. 181-201.

The article was based on a paper given at the Lived Ancient Religion and Medicine conference in Erfurt. Follow this link to watch a short Classics Confidential film that we made at the conference, featuring project director Jörg Rüpke, and conference organiser & project member Georgia Petridou. 

1 Introduction

In classical antiquity, as in many parts of the world today, people often went to sanctuaries to give offerings to the gods in thanks or as a request for some divine favour or miracle. Millions of votive offerings survive from the Greco-Roman world and these objects provide us with some of our best evidence for individual experiences of ‘Lived Ancient Religion’. Even more than temple architecture or descriptions of religious practices given in literary texts, votive offerings can open a window onto how ancient people thought about and acted towards the gods who watched over them. By scrutinising the literary and archaeological evidence for votives, and by trying to reconstruct the choices made by dedicants in the purchase or selection of their gift, we can gain a deeper understanding of how material culture was used by ancient people to shape their relationship with the divine, as well as with other mortals and the broader religious frameworks within which they operated.

Many of the votives that survive from antiquity were purpose-made for dedication: these include things like anatomical votives, figurines, temple models, and sculpted reliefs bearing scenes of sacrifice or healing. Other types of votive offering were not purpose-made for dedication but had served other functions before being brought to the sanctuary, such as jewellery, tools, mirrors, cups, clothes and children’s toys [1]. Such ‘recycled’ (or, perhaps more accurately, ‘non-purpose-made’) votives arguably give us our most direct glimpses of individual agency in a religious context, insofar as they cut out the intermediary figure of the craftsman, and relate closely to the worshipper’s own body and biography. In this article, I look at the archaeological and literary evidence for such ‘non-purpose-made’ offerings, particularly those related to illness or healing. I consider how these ‘boundary-crossing’ objects differed conceptually from purpose-made votives like the anatomicals, for instance by entangling the different spaces (the house, workshop, sanctuary) in which ancient religion was experienced. Ultimately, I will argue that the appropriation and re-use of household objects or medical paraphernalia as votives enabled the individual to respond quickly and creatively to illness and other crises, creating deeply personal narratives of healing and transformation from the layered associations and memories that these objects embodied.

2 Rings and things: the ‘recycling’ of personal belongings as votive offerings

The dedication of personal belongings is a very common phenomenon in modern Catholic sanctuaries, where non-purpose-made objects sit alongside purpose-made votives like painted tavolette and metal models of parts of the human body. At the sanctuary of the Madonna of the Blessed Rosary at Pompeii, for instance, we find degree certificates displayed alongside spectacles-cases and children’s baptism outfits (fig. 1), as well as ‘medals and epaulets, helmets and swords, soldiers’ pistols and rifles, crutches and plaster casts of the sick, necklaces, rings, ladies’ brooches and ornaments, watches, paintings, Chinese vases, ceramic objects, small statues’ [2]. Writing about ‘The Language of the Ex-Voto’ at Pompeii, Michele Rak argues that the popularity of such dedications reflects the progressive industrialisation of Italian society and the ready availability of new materials and forms to the subaltern classes, and he comments that ‘the ex voto of the last twenty years register the growing use of this object language and the growth of the devotee’s personal labour, a proof of the search for an individual and irrepeatable contact’ [3].

Fig. 1: Baby’s baptismal outfit and other votives seen in the Sanctuary of the Blessed Madonna of the Rosary of Pompeii, April 2016. Photo by author.

Fig. 1: Baby’s baptismal outfit and other votives seen in the Sanctuary of the Blessed Madonna of the Rosary of Pompeii, April 2016. Photo by author.

Fig. 2: Marble relief to Artemis from Ekhinos in Phthiotis. From the sanctuary of Artemis Lochia, Archaeological Museum of Lamia, inv. no. BE 1041. 121 × 68cm. End of fourth – beginning of third century BCE.

Fig. 2: Marble relief to Artemis from Ekhinos in Phthiotis. From the sanctuary of Artemis Lochia, Archaeological Museum of Lamia, inv. no. BE 1041. 121 × 68cm. End of fourth – beginning of third century BCE.

A similarly wide range of personal artefacts were used as dedications in Greco-Roman antiquity. Loom-weights, clothes, hairpins, toys, tools, mirrors, weapons and fishing-nets are all attested in sanctuaries around the ancient world, and are often interpreted as objects of previous domestic or occupational use which have been re-purposed as votives. Figures 2 and 3 show two possible examples. Fig. 2 is a Hellenistic relief sculpture from Lamia depicting a scene within the sanctuary of Artemis [4]. In the foreground a woman hands over her new-born baby to the goddess, while in the background hang clothes and shoes which we might presume were left by previous worshippers. The object in fig. 3 is more problematic: it is a broken silver finger-ring with a cast snake-head terminal, part of the Backworth Hoard which is thought to be have been a votive deposit made at the shrine of the Mother Goddesses near the eastern edge of Hadrian’s Wall [5]. This ring embodies many of the ambiguities and difficulties involved with identify- ing personal offerings from the archaeological record. How can we be sure it was dedicated, rather than dropped, forgotten or deliberately discarded? And how can we know that this was in fact a personal belonging recycled as a votive rather than an object that was specially manufactured for the purposes of dedication? [6]. Further complexities involved in identifying non-purpose-made offerings have been discussed by scholars working on later historical periods, including Jennifer Lee, who has taken a fresh look at the pilgrim badges found in rivers in Northern Europe. These badges have conventionally been interpreted as thank-offerings made after pilgrims returned from their travels but Lee suggests that they might instead be taken as ‘tangible evidence of a development in image theory, specifically a de-veneration of images that first developed for this category of wearable images, which were more important as signs of a temporary social role (that of pilgrim) than as representations of the object of the pilgrim’s devotion’ [7].

Fig. 3: Silver snake finger-ring, possibly re-used as a votive offering. From the Backworth Hoard (Romano-British). British Museum, inv. no. 1850, 0601.11.

Fig. 3: Silver snake finger-ring, possibly re-used as a votive offering. From the Backworth Hoard (Romano-British). British Museum, inv. no. 1850, 0601.11.

Written texts about non-purpose-made votives put us on slightly safer ground, since some authors tell us explicitly that an object had a non-ritual life before its dedication in the sanctuary. So, when Herodotus records that Midas offered a throne at Delphi, he helpfully specifies that this was the throne that Midas used to sit on when he made judgements and he also notes that Croesus dedicated ‘his own wife’s necklaces and belts’ [8]. The first-century BCE temple inventory known as the Lindian Chronicle records fictional dedications made by famous figures from myth/history, amongst which were a pair of bracelets dedicated by Helen of Troy, and a caltrops and weapons from Pyrrhus which, the inscription tells us, ‘he himself used in dangerous situations’ [9]. In the Iphigenia in Tauris, Euripides has Athena say to Iphigenia that people dedicated to her ‘finely-woven robes which women who have died in childbirth leave in their homes’ [10]. And in Aristophanes’ Wealth we meet a man bringing his cloak as a thank-offering to the sanctuary of Asclepius – he confirms that ‘he shivered in it for thirteen years’ [11]. These literary descriptions of votives are obviously shaped by the ideology and aims of the individual author and, as such, cannot be taken as documentary representations of ‘real’ practice. Nevertheless, they can give us some useful insights into the plausible types of offerings made in ancient sanctuaries and have the added value of revealing parts of these objects’ pre-dedication biographies.

One particularly rich literary source for votives is the Greek Anthology, a collection of poems, mostly epigrams in the elegiac metre, which span the Classical and Hellenistic ages [12]. More than three hundred of these epigrams describe votive offerings, although scholars are divided about how far these poems are reflections of real objects rather than entirely fictional creations. Interestingly for our purposes, the majority of the votives recorded within the epigrams are personal belongings appropriated from other spheres of life. Many of the scenarios relate very clearly to rites of passage or ‘heightened experiences’ in which the act of relinquishing an object to the god mirrors or enacts the changed status of the individual to whom they once belonged. We might take the example of Lais, a famous Corinthian courtesan.

‘I, Lais, whose haughty beauty made mock of Greece, I who once had a swarm of young lovers at my doors, dedicate my mirror to Aphrodite, since I wish not to look on myself as I am, and cannot look on myself as I once was’ [13].

For Lais, the dedication of her mirror and its movement from a domestic environment into a religious space marks the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of her working life. In this case, the transition is emphasised in the language of the poem and particularly, as Maria Ypsilanti has shown, by the contrasts between the verb tenses and the temporal adverbs [14]. With her offering, Lais acknowledged the end of her life as a beautiful, desired courtesan; on exiting the sanctuary without her mirror, she would have been forced to confront her new identity as an older, de-sexualised woman. The non-purpose-made offering was the perfect symbol of such a change, for on entering the sanc- tuary the object also ended one phase of its life and embarked on another. Lais’ mirror ceased to be the instrument of a mortal woman’s beautification and became instead a ritual gift designed to honour a goddess. This change in function was paralleled in the physical re-location of the mirror from the courtesan’s private quarters to the public space of the sanctuary.

Many other epigrams describe older members of the community handing over the tools of their trade at the point when they are too old to carry on working. These ‘retirement offerings’ include tools dedicated by craftsmen to Athena, and nets dedicated by fishermen to Poseidon. Other epigrams describe the dedication of spoils of the hunt and tithes of the harvest, as well as weapons offered to a god after success in battle. And while we can never know whether the votives described in these poems were real or invented, the epigrams powerfully demonstrate how far the earlier life-history of such non-purpose-made offerings could add value and meaning to these dedications. Sometimes the earlier, pre-dedication stages of an object’s biography were physically ‘present’ in the object: votive weapons are described as ‘broken’ and ‘fragmented’, fishing-nets as ‘torn’, and pens as ‘blackened’ through their prior use [15]. Such signs of wear-and-tear appear to have made these votives more valuable in the eyes of the god: this, at least, is the implicit message of the epigram in which the god Mars scorns a dedication of shiny weapons because they showed no signs of having been used in battle – a reversal of our usual expectations about the relative values of ‘whole’ and ‘broken’ objects [16].

3 Medical votives: the crutch at the spring

What about the evidence for the dedication of objects of a medical nature? Patricia Baker has suggested that some surgical tools and collyrium stamps may have been dedicated as votives after having been used for more conventional medical purposes [17]. In her 2004 article on the possible ‘non-functional’ uses of medical instruments, she presents evidence from the Roman fortress of Vindonissa in Switzerland, where sixty-two such tools were found in a waterlogged deposit [18]. Twenty-seven of these tools were in good condition, raising questions about why they had stopped being used, especially given the rarity of some of the types. Baker suggests (amongst other possibilities) that these objects may been used as votive offerings, pointing out that they had been deposited in a liminal or boundary area beyond the walls of the fortress. Other finds of medical tools have been made in rivers across the Western Empire, including six sets of tools encased within cylindrical cases made of copper (fig. 4). Further evidence for possible non-purpose- made dedications is found at other sanctuaries with a connection to healing, mingled together with purpose-made offerings like anatomical votives. The statue shown at fig. 5, for example, was found at the sanctuary of Dea Sequana in Burgundy, which was also home to hundreds of wooden, bronze and stone anatomical votives. It shows a man dressed in a traditional pilgrim costume holding an animal, perhaps a dog; other similar statues show men and woman holding bags of money, instruments, and small circular objects, all of which may perhaps have been intended to represent offerings or sacrifices brought to the goddess [19].

Fig. 4: Roman surgical tools from the Saone, after Baker 2004, fig. 3. Drawing by Joshua Pollard. Used with the kind permission of Patricia Baker.

Fig. 4: Roman surgical tools from the Saone, after Baker 2004, fig. 3. Drawing by Joshua Pollard. Used with the kind permission of Patricia Baker.

Scattered mentions in literary texts prove that non-purpose-made objects were often dedicated in healing sanctuaries. Lucian describes a statue to which coins and silver plate had been attached with wax as thank-offerings from those whom the statue had cured from fever [20]. And Pausanias records that the statue of Hygeia at Titane was covered with offerings of women’s hair and ‘strips of Babylonian raiment’ (bandages?) [21]. One particularly fascinating episode is recounted by Aelius Aristides in his second-century CE Sacred Tales [22]. While Aristides is staying at the sanctuary of Asclepius in Pergamon, the god visits him in a dream, informing him that he is to die within three days, before revealing some ritual measures that Aristides might take to avoid this fate.

The god said that it was necessary to cut off part of the body itself on behalf of the safety of the whole. This however, would be too great a demand and from it he would exempt me. Instead, I should take off the ring that I was wearing and offer it to Telesphoros. For this would do the same as if I offered the finger itself. Furthermore, I should inscribe on the band of the ring ‘Son of Cronos’. After this there would be salvation [23].

This story serves as a useful warning for the archaeologist, for surely nobody who chanced upon this ring could ever correctly guess at the complex sequence of events that led up to its dedication in the sanctuary. Scholars have woven this passage into some equally complex theories about how votive offerings work, from Adalberto Pazzini’s argument about sacrificial substitution, to Walter Burkert’s proposal that votive offerings represent ‘a kind of ransom from the threat of death’ [24]. These earlier discussions do not highlight the ring’s status as one of Aristides’ existing personal belongings but I would argue that this status is quite significant – especially given the prevalence of purpose-made offerings at the Pergamon Asklepieion (the archaeological finds from this site include numerous anatomical votives in stone and bronze, which in many cases appear to be expensive, high-status offerings) [25]. Why did Asclepius insist on Aristides giving his finger-ring, rather than, say, a gold model of a finger? Had the ring simply caught the god’s eye and taken his fancy while he was observing Aristides? Did the god know that this object was particularly precious to Aristides and that handing it over would involve more of a ‘sacrifice’ than paying for a brand-new gold model? Is this a technique used to distinguish Aristides from all the other pilgrims who dedicated purpose-made anatomicals? Does the ring simply make for a better story? We can never know the answers to these questions but if we imagine replacing the ring in Aristides’ story with a purpose-made body part then the effect becomes rather different. Thus we can start to individuate some of the specific qualities of such personal offerings – which in this case include the construction of an observant, interested deity, who notes and even covets his worshipper’s belongings.

Fig. 5: ‘Pilgrim’ statue from Dea Sequana sanctuary. Height 60 cm. Dijon Archaeological Museum. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, François Perrodin.

Fig. 5: ‘Pilgrim’ statue from Dea Sequana sanctuary. Height 60 cm. Dijon Archaeological Museum. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, François Perrodin.

A poem in the Greek Anthology gives another vivid example of the dedication of a personal belonging in connection with healing.

The old servant-woman, the one lame in the feet, at the good news of the healing waters came crawling one day with her oak stick, which propped her maimed body up. Compassion seized the nymphs who dwell on the foothills of Etna in the watery home of their whirlpool sire Symaethus. Etna’s hot spring made strong her two lame legs, and she left the Nymphs her stick; so they consented to escort her on her way unsupported, as they rejoiced in her gift [26].

This story fits neatly alongside the story of Lais discussed earlier, insofar as it commemorates a transitional moment in life (here the transition between sickness and health, rather than work and retirement). While Lais’ mirror functioned as a symbol of her beauty, here the old woman’s walking-stick functions as a symbol of her infirmity. We are allowed to witness the moment when the dedicant walks away from the dedicated object – an action that showcases her newly-healed body but which also underlines the physical abandonment of illness and infirmity. In turn, the stick itself is transformed through the process of dedication: the nymphs are pleased by the woman’s gift and the stick is thus converted from a humble, ordinary, even degrading object, to a sacred article with the power to delight immortals.

The famous iamata inscriptions from the Asklepieion at Epidauros provide further examples of non-purpose-made objects being dedicated for healing. These stories of miraculous cures were inscribed on blocks of stones in the fourth century BCE and displayed within the sanctuary [27]. We read of healing events that took place while, or shortly after, the worshippers slept in the sacred abaton; these cures are often effected by Asclepius himself, who is described as cutting out eyes, removing spearheads from jaws, and evicting worms and leeches from the patients’ bodies. Several votive offerings are mentioned in the tales and, of these, a number are non-purpose- made offerings.

Pandaros of Thessaly, with tattoos/marks (stigmata) on his forehead. Sleeping here, he saw a vision. It seemed that the god bound a fillet/bandage (tainia) around his tattoos and told him that when he was outside of the Abaton, to take off the fillet and dedicate it in the temple. When day came he rose and took off the fillet, and he saw his face clear of the tattoos. He dedicated the fillet, which had the letters from his forehead, in the Temple [28].
Euphanes, a boy of Epidauros. Suffering from stone, he slept here. It seemed to him the god came to him and said, ‘What will you give me if I should make you well?’ The boy replied ‘Ten dice’. The god, laughing, said that he would make it stop. When day came he left well [29].

In the first of the tales cited here, Pandaros comes to the temple with marks on his forehead, which may have been tattoos indicating his own earlier dedication in a temple as a slave or a soldier. His thank-offering was the bandage or fillet which Asclepius had used to remove the marks, or perhaps the marks themselves, since these had been left on the fillet. This offering is different from those depicted in the Greek Anthology, since it is essentially a medical ‘tool’ rather than a treasured personal belonging. However, this offering did enjoy sustained physical contact with its dedicant (materialised in the marks on the bandage) and again we see the transformation of a humble or even abject item of material culture into a revered, miraculous relic. The case of Euphanes is again quite different, and provides an inter- esting contrast to the story of Pandaros. Here, the dedicated object is not connected to sickness but instead conjures up the image of a healthy boy at play, far from the sanctuary and ideas of illness. The boy’s active role in choosing the gift comes across very strongly here and contrasts sharply with the scenario of detailed instruction painted by Aristides in the passage cited earlier. At Epidauros, the god does ask for a gift but he fails to specify exactly what form this should take. The boy’s agency is underlined by the fact that the god responds with laughter – although the laughter itself is quite hard to interpret. Did Asclepius laugh in amusement, happiness, or surprise? Was his laughter connected in some way to the ludic nature of the gift itself, or even to the number of dice that were to be offered?

Other Epidaurian iamata present us with further non-purpose-made offerings, some of which have a clearly symbolic function. We hear of a cup which was dedicated to Asclepius after having been broken and then miraculously mended by the god while it was being brought to the sanctuary. This tale clearly serves as an analogy for the mending of the pilgrims’ bodies recorded in the same stele, for the pot in its reconstituted state is also described as hygie (healthy) [30]. Another example of a non-purpose-made votive (albeit not a ‘personal belonging’ as such) is the case of Hermodikos of Lampsacus, who was instructed to bring the biggest stone that he could find into the sanctuary as an offering [31]. In this case, the choice of votive is presumably motivated by the fact that the illness in question was paralysis (akrates tou somatos). In other words, the lifting of a heavy stone was the perfect way to advertise the success of the treatment and the power of the healing miracle.

4 Purpose-made vs non-purpose-made – some reflections on conceptual differences

The small selection of examples discussed in this article shows that there is no single reason why people would choose a non-purpose-made type of votive offering rather than a purpose-made one. Sometimes that choice might reflect the specific request of a god (as with the ring of Aristides or the stone of Hermodikos), or a practical situation connected to the act of healing (like leaving a crutch), which in turn might coexist with a desire to emphasise the fact that the thing is no longer needed. Other possible motives for selecting a non-purpose-made votive could be practical: easier avail- ability, lower cost, or simply that the dedicant felt too unwell to organise the purchase or commissioning of a purpose-made votive offering. However, despite this heterogeneity of motives and meanings, we might identify some very broad shared characteristics which distinguish these offerings of non-purpose-made votives from their purpose-made counterparts (table 1).


This division of votives into ‘purpose-made’ and ‘non-purpose-made’ is clearly imperfect in many ways. As with any classificatory system, these labels highlight and privilege certain aspects of an object while making it harder for us to see others; moreover, some votives will inevitably resist insertion into either category. For example, Emma-Jayne Graham has suggested that terracotta votive models of babies found in Hellenistic central Italy may sometimes have been wrapped with the fabric swaddling bands previously worn by a real infant [32]. In these cases, the resulting votive would be a ‘multi-media’ hybrid of the categories of purpose-made and non-purpose-made (and we may even want to argue that the swaddling bands were also originally fabricated with an eventual function of dedication in mind).

Despite these caveats, I would still maintain that a temporary organisation of votives into the purpose-made and non-purpose-made can help us to recognise some subtle differences in how these objects functioned and, in particular, in how they related to the bodies and lives of the people who dedicated them. Here a useful parallel might be drawn with souvenirs, a genre of material culture which has also been separated by scholars into ‘purpose-made’ and ‘non-purpose-made’ objects [33]. Purpose-made souvenirs include commercially-produced representations like postcards and fridge magnets; these objects are ‘more or less universally recognised’ [34] and generally do not demand to be supplemented with additional explanatory narratives. Meanwhile, ‘non-purpose-made’ souvenirs include ‘found’ objects like shells, stones, or pieces of architectural material. This second type of souvenir has been termed ‘piece of the rock’ by Beverley Gordon, and ‘sampled’ by Susan Stewart – terms which draw attention to the metonymic nature of these objects and their capacity to subtract from the total physical landscape from which they are collected. Souvenirs of this second type ‘would only be recognised by the people who save them’; they are ‘inherently insignificant’ in their original context but become ‘sacralized’ once they are moved into their new context (e. g., the living room), where they are ‘imbued with all the power of the associations made with its original environment’ [35].

It is not too difficult to see how many of the comments made about these two categories of souvenirs (and the way in which they relate to place) might also be applied to our two categories of votives (and the way in which these offerings relate to the people who dedicated them) [36]. For instance, as shown in table 1, purpose-made votives are often iconic, representational images, which physically replicate a (human) prototype in a familiar artistic genre. Purpose-made votives are not generally presumed to have been involved in the individual’s previous life, nor to have enjoyed a prolonged physical relationship with the person. In fact, the purpose-made votive may have been designed and manufactured without any reference to the specific individual (as is the case with the mass-produced anatomicals, which most scholars believe were mould-made and fired before being displayed to potential purchasers). The non-purpose-made dedications are, on the other hand, objects that have, in many cases, spent a significant period of time with the person who owned them, often forming a defining element of that person’s identity. Indeed, we might say that they formed an ‘extension of the self ’, which was metaphorically ‘sampled’ or even ‘amputated’ before being left in the sanctuary. These metonymic votive objects would have had rich biographies involving different people, places and events, and the act of leaving these objects behind in the sanctuary may have been an emotionally-charged experience – an experience which created a permanent link between the worshipper and the sanctuary, and which left the person materially lacking in some way, almost like a landscape or monument from which a piece of rock has been hewn away (fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Piece of Plymouth Rock, removed by Lewis Bradford in 1830. 10.8 × 6.4 × 2.5 cm. Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Accession Number 52309.

Fig. 6: Piece of Plymouth Rock, removed by Lewis Bradford in 1830. 10.8 × 6.4 × 2.5 cm. Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Accession Number 52309.

Further differences between ‘purpose-made’ and ‘non-purpose-made’ votives may have impinged specifically on the experience of sickness and healing. Purpose-made, mass-produced offerings like anatomicals allowed the individual to make a clear statement that they were experiencing sickness, using a widely-recognised image of the sick or healed body, somewhat akin to the modern hospital gown. The worshipper who offered an anatomical votive implicitly subscribed to (and perpetuated) broader cultural norms of representing and dividing the body, disavowing the uniqueness of their experience by moulding it to correspond with standard ways of perceiving the sick body. To put this a different way, although the purchase of an anatomical votive does involve some choice and agency on the part of the dedicant, it also necessitates some compromise: it is unlikely that any anatomical votive would have mapped perfectly onto the affected body area, so sufferers would simply have picked the representation that was the closest match. Such homogenisation of the illness experience does not just apply to mass-produced votives but also to those purpose-made votives that were customised or even commissioned from scratch. For instance, the so-called ‘confession stelae’ from Roman Lydia and Phrygia appear at first sight to be highly individualised objects adorned with unique narratives and images. Nevertheless, Richard Gordon has shown how far each stele exhibits a ‘tacit awareness’ of an overarching narrative structure, thereby echoing broader socio-religious expectations about the sequence of illness and cure [37].

In contrast, the non-purpose-made votives arguably allowed the individual to respond to their illness in a more creative, spontaneous way, and to use their dedication to reflect and advertise the irrepeatability of their own experience of illness. Non-purpose-made healing votives like bandages or crutches – objects of extensive touch and physical manipulation – could also enact the physical relinquishing of illness and infirmity (and perhaps also pollution) through being left behind in the sanctuary. Moreover, the absence of any mediating third party in the form of a craftsman may have had particular resonance in the case of offerings connected to sickness. While the role of patient is often connected with a feeling of powerlessness and loss of agency, the dedicant’s involvement in selecting a votive to take to the sanctuary may have allowed them to momentarily regain some degree of autonomy in the face of illness.

In this way, I would suggest that non-purpose-made votives might be seen as particular valuable sources for Lived Ancient Religion, as well as for the intersections between religion and medicine that lie at the heart of this Special Issue. This is not only because these objects give unique insights into the lives of the ancient individuals who originally possessed them but also because they permanently entangled the different spheres in which religion was practiced – whether this was the home, the workplace, the battlefield, the ocean, the military camp, or the sanctuary. Any votive offering had the potential to draw the worshipper back to the sanctuary where it had been left – mentally or even physically, as in the case of Theophrastus’ description of ‘The man who is proud of trifles’ [38]. However, the non-purpose-made votives discussed in this article would have left a conspicuous void in the dedicant’s home or workplace – thereby creating an empty space in which that individual could reflect on their request for divine help, and perhaps also give thanks for a miracle.

5 Conclusion

This article has examined the evidence for ‘non-purpose-made’ votives in classical antiquity – that is, votives that were not produced especially for ritual dedication but which had already been used as functional objects in other stages of the dedicant’s life. As we have seen, such non-purpose-made votives are harder to trace in the archaeological record than their purpose-made counterparts; however, they appear with greater frequency in the literary texts (perhaps because of their greater ability to reflect, or to construct, a dedicant’s unique story and experience). It is true that ‘purpose-made’ objects like statues or relief sculptures might initially appear to be more expensive and impressive gifts than the ‘re-used’ personal belongings studied here. However, I hope to have demonstrated that these non-purpose- made personal offerings were valuable in a different way, insofar as they embodied an intense, permanent entanglement between gift and giver, and represented, through their physical movement from one space to another, the dynamic personal transition that was often being commemorated by the votive offering.


1 Antony Snodgrass has dubbed these two types of votives the ‘raw’ (non-purpose-made) and the ‘converted’ (purpose-made). He explains how ‘converted’ offerings (which are so-called because they ‘convert’ the dedicant’s wealth into a brand new object) gained in popularity in the early Classical age, explaining this change by reference to an increasing subordination of the individual to the polis and the corresponding desire to move wealth into the shared space of the sanctuary. Snodgrass 1989–90.

2  Michele Rak in Caggiano, Rak and Turchini 1990, 79.

3  Rak in Caggiano, Rak and Turchini 1990, 79.

4  Dakoronia and Gounaropoulou 1992; Dillon 2003, 231–233.

5  Cool 2000.

6  Cool 2000, 35 notes that ‘[t]he Backworth snake-headed finger-rings were deposited in a hoard containing explicitly religious items’. Elsewhere, finger rings found in sanctuaries are sometimes inscribed with the name of the deity (see Parker 2004, 297); such inscriptions could of course be added later, as we see in the case of Aelius Aristides discussed below (Sacred Tales, 48.26–28).

7  Lee 2014.

8  Herodotus Histories 1.14, 1.50. On these Herodotean dedications see Kosmetatou 2013.

9  The next offering on the list – weapons dedicated by Hieron – also says ‘which he himself used’. Other offerings, like the bracelets and the linen corselet dedicated by Amasis, may have been interpreted as personal belongings – however, again there is also the possibil- ity that these were manufactured especially for dedication. On the Lindian Chronicle see Higbie 2003 and Shaya 2005.

10  Euripides Iph. Taur. 1464–1466.

11  Aristophanes Plut. 842–89.

12  Gutzwiller 1998, esp. 47–114.

13  Anth. Pal. VI. 1. This version of Lais’ story (which is retold at VI. 18–20 and 211) is attrib- uted to Plato but may have been written by an anonymous author in the Hellenistic age. See Ypsilanti 2006, 193 n. 1.

14  Ypsilanti 2006, 194.

15  Cf. epigrams 6.23, 6.24, 6.35, 6.64.

16  6.163: ‘What mortal hung here on the wall these spoils in which it were disgraceful for Ares to take delight? Here are set no jagged spears, no plumeless helmet, no shield stained with blood; but all are so polished, so undinted by the steel, as they were spoils of the dance and not of the battle’. For further discussion of the positive value of fragmentation in votives, see Hughes forthcoming.

17  Baker 2004 and Baker 2011.

18  Baker 1994, 9.

19  Deyts 1994.

20  Lucian Philopseudes 18.

21  Pausanias 9.19.5.

22  On Aristides and his Sacred Tales see Petsalis-Diomidis 2010; Petridou 2016.

23  Aelius Aristides Sacred Tales, 48.26–28.

24  Pazzini 1935, 118; Burkert 1996, 35–38. Burkert draws parallels between this passage and an episode recorded in medieval versions of Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus is forced to bite off his own finger to rid himself of a deadly finger-ring given to him by the cyclops Polyphemus: he says ‘by the loss of a member I saved the whole body from imminent death.’.

25  Petsalis-Diomidis 2005.

26  Palatine Anthology 6.203.

27  LiDonnici 1995. For all the offerings mentioned in the iamata see LiDonnici 1995, 44, table 1.

28  LiDonnici 1995, 91 [A6].

29  LiDonnici 1995, 93 [A8].

30  For further discussion of this tale, see Hughes 2017, 57–58.

31  LiDonnici 1995, 97 [A15].

32  Graham 2014, 41; Graham 2017.

33  Gordon 1986; Stewart 1984. Hume 2013 expands (and problematises) this dual classification.

34  Gordon 1986, 135.

35  Gordon 1986, 142.

36  I would add that the synergy between the two genres results in part from the fact that both souvenirs and votives are representations or even ‘fragments’ of larger entities – i. e., places (in the case of souvenirs) and persons (in the case of votives).

37 Gordon 2004a and Gordon 2004b.

38 Theophrastus Char. 21.10. This man dedicates a ring to Asclepius, then returns daily to polish, garland and anoint it.


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