Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary

*** This is a pre-copy-editing version of an article accepted for publication in Social History of Medicine following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version ‘Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary’, Social History of Medicine, 21(2), pp. 217–236 is available online at


Fig. 1. Votives and processional banner at the sanctuary of the Madonna dell'Arco. Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Lucio Lazarese. 

Fig. 1. Votives and processional banner at the sanctuary of the Madonna dell'Arco. Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Lucio Lazarese. 

On Easter Monday in 1450, in the small town of Sant’Anastasia near Naples, a young boy lost a ball-game and, in a fit of pique, hurled the ball at an image of the Madonna that was painted into a nearby roadside shrine [1]. These events would hardly have gone down in history, had not the image —to the amazement and horror of those gathered—begun to bleed profusely down its left cheek. In the years that followed, a sanctuary was built on the spot, which became, and remains, one of the most important sites of pilgrimage in the whole of Catholic Europe [2]. The bleeding face was the first miracle of many. Over the centuries, countless numbers of the faithful have been saved from death and disaster by the Madonna dell’Arco: evidence of these miracles can be seen today in the huge accumulation of ex-votos displayed in the sanctuary and its adjoining museum, which was inaugurated in the Jubilee year 2000. While the dedications include many different kinds of objects (crutches, medical instruments, degree certificates, photographs, clothes, hair), two types of votive gift predominate: the painted wooden tablets, which depict the intercession of the Virgin in the varied disasters of life, and the metal body parts which represent the part of the body that has been (or hopefully will be) healed from illness [3]. These latter line the walls of the sanctuary’s corridors, elaborately arranged on panels for the visitor’s contem- plation (Figure 1). Almost every part of the body is represented, including eyes, ears, hands, mouths, hearts, hands, feet, legs and the ‘dissected’ torsos which plot the internal organs in relief on the surface of the chest and stomach.

These votive body parts are not unique to the Madonna dell’Arco sanctuary, nor even to the Catholic faith. They are found at sanctuaries of different creeds all over the world, from Orthodox churches in Greece to Hindu temples in Southern India [4]. Moreover, the practice has deep historical roots: ‘anatomical’ votives are found at least as far back as Classical antiquity, when model body parts in metal, marble and terracotta were dedicated in the sanctuaries of the pagan gods. For scholars of the ancient votive material, this longevity is a most remarkable feature, and the similarities between Classical and contemporary practice rarely pass without comment. For example, in his book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, Ralph Merrifield writes:

The use of anatomical votives has survived to the present day in both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, and is of great interest since it is deeply rooted in the pagan past, from which it has survived unchanged—a striking example of the greater longevity of ritual than of gods [5]. 

For archaeologists and historians trying to reconstruct the meanings of ancient rituals, this apparent continuity in iconography and ritual practice is extremely seductive. But can we really assume that the votive body parts from the Madonna dell’Arco and those from ancient Greek sanctuaries held the same meanings for their viewers? Is it not more likely that even the most consistent imagery would be read very differently by audiences separated by more than two millennia, who had dedicated their votives within radically dissimilar religious frameworks? In this article, I maintain that ritual imagery needs to be placed back into its historical and religious context in order to be properly understood, and I focus, as a case study, on the votive body parts that were dedicated in Greek sanctuaries in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. In trying to reconstruct some of the culturally- specific meanings that these objects held for their audiences, I call on contemporary images and texts from both within and beyond the ancient healing sanctuary. The picture that emerges suggests that these votive body parts worked rather uniquely in their Classical incarnation.

It was in the late fifth and fourth centuries BC that the dedication of votive body parts became widespread in mainland Greece [6]. By way of introduction to the evidence I will briefly describe the votive material from two sanctuaries of Asklepios, the Greek god of healing: the Asklepieion at Corinth in the Peloponnese, and the Asklepieion on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. In comparison with the major Asklepieia at Cos, Pergamon and Epidauros, these two sanctuaries are relatively small sites serving a primarily local clientele; nevertheless, it is at these sites that the greatest volume and variety of votive body parts from the Classical period have been found. For further, more detailed expositions of the Greek anatomical votive cult from the fourth century BC down to the third century AD, the reader is directed to the recent monograph by Bjorn Forsén, and to Van Straten’s comprehensive 1981 study of ‘Gifts for the Gods’ [7].

The temple of Asklepios in Corinth was first explored between 1929 and 1933 by Ferdinand Joseph de Waele on behalf of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens [8]. In the course of De Waele’s excavations, he found seven deposits inside the sacred area of the Asklepieion, which contained a variety of votive objects including coins, pottery, figurines and the objects for which the sanctuary is now famous: the model human body parts, made in terracotta and modelled in the round (Figure 2). It appears that during the reconstruction of the cult complex in c. 300 BC, the temple was emptied of the votive offerings that had accumulated over the previous century, which were subsequently buried nearby. In De Waele’s publication of the finds, he reports that:

From the huge heap of fragments, our able technician, D. Bakoulis, succeeded in restoring to their original shape some ten legs with thighs, nine feet to the knee, nine entire arms, three hands to the elbow, one upper arm, five feet with their original finished top, some twenty feet probably belonging to larger limbs, and some twenty hands. From the fragments which were not fitted together, the number of similar votives could easily have been doubled or tripled. We possess remains of some 125 hands. Besides we found the remains of some sixty-five female breasts, offered singly or in pairs, and thirty-five male genitals [9].



Fig. 2. Votive body parts from the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Corinth. Image courtesy of Alexandra L. Lesk.

These votive body parts from Corinth are the only examples in Greece which are made from terracotta. They are life-size, three-dimensional and heavy. Some bear traces of coloured paint, white for women and red for men, a schema which corresponds to the gendered Contrastcoloristik of contemporary vase painting [10]. The votive breasts were painted white with red nipples, a contrast which served to enforce the Classical idealisation of delicate, pale, soft female flesh, while simultaneously underlining the hyper- sexuality of the body-in-pieces [11]. One of the legs has prominent arteries, which some scholars have seen as indicating the nature of the illness suffered by its dedicant. Most of the limbs have pierced holes at their tops, suggesting that they were suspended by cords from the walls or ceiling of the temple. The heads and some of the legs have flattened bottoms, which may indicate that they originally stood on the floor of the temple, or on specially constructed shelves [12]. The realism of these objects is arresting, even in the context of the modern museum display. We can only imagine their effect on the ancient viewer who glimpsed them distributed around the temple’s dark interior.

The sanctuary of Asklepios in Athens was founded in 420 BC on the southern slope of the Acropolis, next to the theatre of Dionysus [13]. Our reconstruction of the cult practised at this site is greatly aided by the many inscriptions found there. These include several fragments of inventories, which record 1,347 votive offerings made at the temple in the third and fourth centuries BC [14]. Again, a wide variety of offerings are attested, including coins, jewellery, ceremonial and domestic vases, typoi (images of the dedicant, who is often depicted praying) and body parts made from precious metals. While the fragmentary nature of the inscriptions and the terse formula used for recording the dedications make it very difficult to perform any accurate statistical analysis on the inventories, we can at least infer that the anatomical votives were dedicated by both men and women throughout the period represented by the inventories, and that amongst those body parts recorded in the fourth century BC are eyes, knees and ears [15].

In addition, Sara Aleshire has used the information contained in one of the inventories to reconstruct both the route followed by its compiler and the precise arrangement of votive offerings within the temple: they were hung on the rafters and ridge beam of the roof, and in rows on the bottom half of the temple walls (the upper portion, she concludes, was probably occupied by frescoes or paintings on boards) [16]. A number of votives are described as laying in the hand of the cult statue itself: this image of the divinity ‘taking’ his offerings would have reassured viewers of the god’s receptivity to their own votive gift, and his participation in the contract that it marked. None of these pre- cious metal votives survive, and it is probable that they were melted down shortly after the compilation of the inventories. However, a number of marble votive body parts have been found at the site, and are collected in the aforementioned publications of Forsén and Van Straten [17].

The widely-accepted interpretation of all these Greek votive body parts (and indeed, of all votive body parts regardless of their date and provenance) sees them as either petitions or vows of thanks for divine healing [18]. Indeed, the majority of votives from the Greek Classical period were found in sanctuaries identified as belonging to Asklepios or other healing deities and heroes. Narrative scenes in relief sculpture and vase painting also situate the votives in the sphere of the healing sanctuary. A red-figure Boiotian vase from the fifth century BC depicts Asklepios with his serpent on one side, and Hygeia on the other: behind the goddess, we see a pair of votive legs hanging on the wall [19]. The body parts themselves are also frequently inscribed with dedications to Asklepios and/or Hygeia [20]. It is important to mention at the outset, however, that not all the body parts dedicated in ancient sanctuaries were necessarily connected to healing cults. Votive symbolism in antiquity was extremely elastic, and the mass-produced body parts might theoretically have been appropriated by individuals to communicate a variety of different messages to the god. Nonetheless, while some dedicants may have had alternative motivations for dedicating their votives in the healing sanctuary, these are generally as irretrievable for us as they would have been for other ancient viewers.

In most previous commentaries on this material, the form of the votive offering is explained as simply drawing attention to the specific locus of illness or incapacitation. In his publication of the votives from Corinth, Carl Roebuck typically notes that the votives ‘should probably ... be regarded as thank offerings for the cure of some ailment of which the general nature or location is indicated by the part represented’ [21]. Other publications acknowledge the fact that the votives may have been dedicated before healing, as a request for a miracle, but the underlying assumption is still the same: the form of the votive, which isolates the body part from the context of the whole body, serves (only) to illustrate the part of the body that was, or had recently been, ill or malfunctioning. At first sight, these readings seem entirely adequate explanations for why the votive takes the form of the ‘anatomical fragment’. After all, how else could the dedicant draw attention to the location of his or her illness and cure, other than by representing the afflicted part in isolation?

The objects shown at Figure 3 suggest that there was, in fact, an alternative. Here we see four small terracotta figurines that were found in a votive deposit at the site of Neapolis (modern Torre di Chia) in Sardinia [22]. They belong to a larger series of over 220 figurines, which all date from some point during the fourth century BC, and which are thus contemporary with the Classical Greek votives discussed here. Each of the figurines gestures with his or her hand/s to a particular part of the body, here the head, the eyes, the mouth and the lower back. The current interpretation of these figures as images of the sick dedicant seems very plausible: while they might alternatively be read as performing some kind of ritual gesture, the range of different hand positions (not to mention the distressed facial expressions) make this unlikely [23].

This comparative material from Neapolis demonstrates that the indication of a particular body part does not necessitate the fragmentation of the body. The Neapolis figurines, like the isolated votive body parts, successfully draw the viewer’s attention to one specific part in the body. However, unlike the anatomical votives, the figurines keep that specific point within the context of the worshipper’s whole, integral body, whose boundaries and proportions are respected and preserved. It appears that the form of the isolated body part that we see in Figure 2 was neither the single nor necessarily the most ‘natural’ way of visually indicating a particular part of the human body. Now, I would certainly not dispute the received idea that the individual anatomical votives represented the sick or recently healed part of the dedicant’s body. But I would strongly argue that their sig- nificance exceeds this function of ‘localisation’—and that this imagery of corporeal frag- mentation can be interrogated to reveal other, even more interesting ideas about the origin and meaning of ancient sickness.


Fig. 3. Votive figurines from Neapolis, Sardinia. Image courtesy of Bardi Editore, Rome.

Fig. 3. Votive figurines from Neapolis, Sardinia. Image courtesy of Bardi Editore, Rome.


The Body in Pieces

In the introduction to their 1997 edited volume The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe, David Hillman and Carla Mazzio emphasise the dual ontological status of the body part. Parts may stand synecdochally for the whole and may become ‘con- centrated sites where meaning is invested and often apparently stabilised’, but at the same time they always remain parts, set apart only in relation to the whole [24]. In other words, the detached corporeal fragment can never fully suppress the memory of the body to which it once belonged: as Gerhard Richter contends, all images of body parts by their very nature ‘presuppose the prior dismemberment of the self-identical, whole body’ [25].

Previous studies of votive body parts have always tended to disavow the act of fragmentation that is inherent in these objects. For example, in his landmark book The Power of Images, David Freedberg posits the ‘intactness’ of the votive body part as its most important feature:

We see the sound replica of the body, or of part of it; we respond to it as if it were real; and its soundness (or sometimes its sheer preciousness) reassures us of the fact of the healing and of deliverance into safety. This is the justification for the pursuit of verisimilitude that we see in these objects. Their operational effectiveness is perceived as deriving from the closest possible form of realism available to maker and consumer [26].

Only a handful of studies indicate an awareness of how the votive image affects the disassembly of the body that it represents [27]. Of these, only one engages theoretically with the fragmented form of the votive, exploring what this form of representation can tell us about ancient perceptions of the body and healing. In his 2003 article, ‘Constructing and Deconstructing the Body in the Cult of Asklepios’, Nicholas Rynearson argues that the form of the votive body part belies a view of sickness and cure as strictly localised phenomena—a view which he sees as contrasting with the more holistic approach to health that is found in the Hippocratic corpus. Moreover, Rynearson sees the fragmentary nature of the votive body part as contrasting with the integrity of the dedicant’s whole, healed body.

[The votive’s] correspondence with a healed body somewhere in the world outside the sanctuary means that it instantiates a species of synecdoche, in which the healthy whole is emphasized by contrast with the fragmentary trace that represents it. . . . The fragmentation in which the votive participates is crucial to the representation of the salvation of the whole, which exists as a healthy whole precisely because of the activity that is concretized in the trace of the votive. In other words, every anatomical votive represents, as it were, a kind of ‘nonamputation’ underscoring the integrity of the absent, cured dedicant [28].

Rynearson’s interpretation resonates with the conclusions of an earlier study of the anatomical votives by Adalberto Pazzini, the pioneering scholar who in 1938 founded the Museo di Storia della Medicina at La Sapienza university in Rome [29]. Like Rynearson, Pazzini also emphasised the role played by the (fragmentary) votive in maintaining the integrity of the body. He developed a theory based on the passage from the Old Testament Book of Samuel in which the Philistines were punished with a plague of haemorrhoids after they stole the Ark of the Covenant [30]. On the advice of their priests, the Philistines fashioned golden models of their anal regions as votive offerings to appease God’s anger: the plague was consequently lifted, and the bodies of the Philistines saved from corruption and decay. For Pazzini, this story illuminates the psychology behind the dedication of the anatomical votive: the ancient dedicant understood that a localised illness marked out a particular part of the body as destined for surrender to the gods; their gift of the anatomical votive thus served to ‘substitute’ the real body part, thereby ensuring the continued health and integrity of the (real) body.

Both Pazzini and Rynearson, then, see the fragmentary anatomical votive as contrasting with the real body of the dedicant, which remains whole and healthy on account of the dedication. Their arguments are compelling, and concord with other uses of substitution in ancient religions, as well as finding some support in written texts. But I would like to suggest an alternative way in which these images might have been read by their ancient viewers. I argue here that we should take the votives’ fragmentation of the body at face value—that this fragmentation can be read, not as an indication of what might have happened to the body, had the votive not been dedicated, but as a symbolic representation of what was perceived as actually happening to the body, both in the experience of disease, and in the process of healing.

The idea that the anatomical votives of antiquity could be seen to represent the disaggregation of the dedicant’s whole body (rather than the amputation of a single part of it) is confirmed by the relief sculpture illustrated at Figure 4. This relief was dedicated in the fourth century BC by a visitor to the Asklepieion at Athens [31]. The scene carved into the stone represents a female worshipper— probably the dedicant of the relief herself— kneeling in front of a male figure (or statue of a male figure) who wears an animal-skin tunic [32]. Behind the kneeling woman are suspended a number of body parts, which can be interpreted as votive body parts hanging on the wall of the temple. All except one of these votives are forms also found in the archaeological record: for instance, a second- century AD votive image of the abdomen and thigh area from the sanctuary of Zeus Hyp- sistos on the Pnyx in Athens is virtually identical to the version on the relief [33]. Arm and leg votives, represented both singly and in pairs, are also common finds in votive deposits. Only the head/upper torso votive to the left of the group has no exact parallels in the extant material, although this does not, of course, mean that such a shape never existed.

Viewed in the context of the whole narrative scene, both the choice of votives and their arrangement on the wall become deeply significant. The votive body parts have been displayed in approximately the ‘right’ order, with the result that they both mirror and frag- ment the body of the woman kneeling beside them. The visual similarities between the two bodies force the viewer to contemplate the relationship between them—the votive head turns to face in the same direction as the dedicant; likewise, the pair of disembodied arms mirror the dedicant’s ‘real’ arms in their gesture of supplication. In showing the votive body parts as corresponding strictly to the real parts of the dedicant’s body, this relief unambiguously depicts the body of the mortal dedicant as broken down into its constituent pieces [34]. The Asklepieion relief would almost certainly have been displayed amidst individual votive body parts made from marble or metal; anyone who looked at the relief would have been encouraged to read these other votives in the same light, as pieces of a disaggregated body or bodies.

This relief shows that the ancient dedicant recognised the power of the individual votives to dismantle the human body. But what might this bodily disaggregation have signified in fourth- century BC Greece? Of course, we should allow for a multiplicity of meanings: the way this imagery was read would have depended on a whole range of factors, including the richness of an individual viewer’s own visual lexicon, and the circumstances in which they visited the sanctuary—were they sick or cured, did they come on behalf of a relative? Another relevant factor would be the range of other images they saw in the votive assem- blage alongside the votive body parts. Nevertheless, some of these meanings are more accessible to the historian than others, and can be approached by looking at contemporary sources from both within and beyond the healing sanctuary.

Fig. 4. Votive relief from the Asklepieion at Athens. Image courtesy of the Acropolis Museum, Athens.

Fig. 4. Votive relief from the Asklepieion at Athens. Image courtesy of the Acropolis Museum, Athens.


Illness and its Metaphors

Somewhat surprisingly, scholars working on the votive body parts have never explored the possibility that the fragmentation of the body might be read as a metaphorical representation of the body in illness and pain [35]. In discourses on illness in our own society, the fragmentation metaphor looms large. Even a cursory glance through autobiographical accounts of suffering like those collected in Arthur Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives shows how frequently the metaphor is evoked. Patients often describe their bodies or their identities as ‘broken’ and ‘shattered’, as ‘split apart’ [36]. One of Kleinman’s patients says of his body that what he needs ‘is a kind of glue to hold the pieces together’ [37]. Similar vocabulary is used in theoretical writing about illness. Eric Cassell, for instance, explains that ‘Suffering occurs when an impending destruction of the person is perceived; it continues until the threat of disintegration has passed or until the integrity of the person can be restored in some other manner’ [38]. The imagery of fragmentation is also evoked in modern visual representations of illness. To give just one example, the 1989 Headache Art exhibition included a painting by George Dergalis in which the subject’s face is broken into three kaleidoscopic segments: this image reproduces something of the experience of migraine, including the sensation of violent splitting, the distortion of normal vision and the dissolution of individual identity [39].

Perhaps it is because the fragmentation metaphor is so prominent in modern accounts of illness that scholars have been reluctant to pursue its relevance to the ancient votive material, presuming it to be too banal and ahistorical an observation to make explicitly. But the more banal a metaphor appears, the more pressing the need for its interrogation: Susan Sontag’s work has amply shown that no matter how natural and appropriate they may seem, metaphorical representations of illness always distort the stark biological ‘facts’, and, more often than not, infuse disease with a moral or ideological component [40]. Moreover, the symbolic fragmentation of the body can also be perceived in texts about illness from the Classical period, a fact which serves to mitigate any fears that in reading the votives ‘metaphorically’ we are simply retrojecting aspects of modern discourse on to the ancient evidence. Let us turn to Thucydides’ famous description of the Athenian plague of 430 BC:

Suddenly and while in good health, men were seized at first with intense heat of the head, and redness and inflammation of the eyes and the parts inside the mouth, both the throat and the tongue immediately became blood-red and exhaled an unnatural and fetid breath. ... In a short time the disorder descended to the chest, attended by severe coughing. And when it settled in the stomach, that was upset, and vomits of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued. ... If they passed the crisis, the disease went into the bowels, producing there a violent ulcera- tion. . . . It attacked the privates and the fingers and toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, although some lost their eyes also [41].

In this passage, the description of the plague is formulated as a list of symptoms localised on the sufferer’s body. The same technique is used in the Hippocratic text Epidemics, a series of case studies which detail the progression of individual illnesses over a series of days [42]. We can cite as an example the case of the wife of Epicrates, who on the second day after the delivery of her baby daughter was ‘seized with a pain in the stomach and in the genitals. A pessary relieved these symptoms, but there was pain in the head, neck and loins’. On the tenth day, there were ‘severe pains in the legs; pain again at the stomach; heaviness in the head’ [43]. Another man lying sick in the garden of Delearces ‘had for a long time heaviness in the head and pain in the right temple’. On the fourth day, he suffered from ‘sweat about the head and collar-bones, spleen enlarged, pain in the direction of the thigh, and tension, soft underneath, of the right hypochondrium’. The ninth day brought ‘squinting of the right eye; tongue dry’; the 15th day ‘pain in the knees and legs’; the 27th day ‘pain in the right hip’; and the 29th day ‘pain in the right eye’ [44].

In these descriptions, the sufferers’ bodies are figuratively dismembered and re-distributed through the written text. This narrative technique serves to reflect the passivity of the patient in the hands of the physician, mirroring in words the physical breakdown of the ill body and the sensation of fractured identity and distributed per- sonhood experienced by the patient. It is interesting to note that similar anatomical lists are used to describe disturbed, disordered bodies in other genres of ancient text. Greek and Roman curse tablets, for instance, obsessively list the parts of the body that are to be tortured or bound: here, the verbal deconstruction of the body serves to emphasise and amplify the primary function of the tablet—to render the opponent’s body powerless and to inflict it with pain [45]. In turn, Page DuBois contrasts the dismemberment of the body in Renaissance lyric, which is designed to control and commodify the (female) beloved, with Sappho’s Poem 31, in which the lover herself ‘sees the disorder in the body in love, sees herself objectified as a body in pieces, dis- jointed, a broken set of organs, limbs, bodily functions’ [46]. The ‘emblasoning’ of the sick body in the texts of Thucydides and Hippocrates therefore provides just one more example of a widespread fashion for representing the dysfunctional, troubled body; this literary conceit would have been given visual form in the votive assemblage, where the normal proportions of the body were collapsed, and the order of its parts reconfigured.


Illness as Punishment

The explicit visual dissection of the human body that we see in the Asklepieion relief is unusual in Classical art, but not unique. From the beginning of the fifth century BC, Attic workshops produced a number of rather gruesome red-figure vases illustrating the dismemberment of the Theban king Pentheus, who was torn to pieces by the women of Thebes in their Dionysiac frenzy. These vases represent a striking departure from the normal iconography of death, where the whole, beautiful body is shown at the ‘pregnant moment’ just before suffering any irrevocable physical mutilation. A red- figure hydria dating to c. 500 BC shows three bacchants: the bacchant on the left holds an arm and a leg, the one in the centre holds an arm and a torso, while the one on the right waves a leg and a head (Figure 5) [47]. On a red-figure vase dated to c. 480 BC and attributed to the painter Douris, Dionysus is shown in the company of three bac- chants [48]. One waves a lower leg, while the other two each hold thick chunks of human thigh. On the opposite side of the vase, another bacchant waves Pentheus’ other lower leg, while her two companions prepare to rip his head and torso right down the middle.

Fig. 5 Attic red-figure vase showing the dismemberment of Pentheus. Image courtesy of bipk/Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (photo: Johannes Laurentius).

Fig. 5 Attic red-figure vase showing the dismemberment of Pentheus. Image courtesy of bipk/Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (photo: Johannes Laurentius).


There are a number of striking parallels between these scenes of Pentheus’ dismemberment and the votive relief from the Asklepieion depicted at Figure 4. Both the vases and the relief show a human body dismantled into parts. In appearance, these parts are very similar (in fact, the closest parallel we can find to the head/arm shape in the Asklepieion relief is the image of Pentheus’ torso shown on the Douris painter’s vase). Moreover, a careful scrutiny of the Pentheus vases shows that here, as in the votive relief, we have exactly the right number of body parts with which to completely re- assemble the protagonist. These vases incite their viewers to mentally reconstruct the shattered jigsaw of Pentheus’ body—in the case of the Douris painter’s vase this would have necessitated the viewer turning the vase over in his or her hands, since here the king’s body is distributed all over the vase’s surface. In a sense, our search for the pieces of Pentheus’ body re-enacts the process of his sparagmos, in reverse.

The marked iconographic and structural similarities between the Asklepieion relief and the scenes of Pentheus’ dismemberment provides further evidence that this relief encouraged its viewers to read the anatomical votives as dismembered human body parts: not only does the choice and arrangement of the votives within the relief conjure up the image of a fragmented ‘body-in-pieces’, but the representation also borrows the established visual language of the mythical sparagmos. More importantly, the parallels with the narrative of the sparagmos can give us insight into how the votives conceptualised illness for their ancient audiences. Pentheus was dismembered because he had offended Dionysus—while the sparagmos was undertaken by the women of Thebes, it was motivated by the god himself. Other sparagmos myths exhibit the same thematic structure, whereby the protagonist incites divine anger, and the god subsequently sets in motion a sequence of events which culminate in the mortal’s dismemberment. For instance, the hunter Actaeon angered Artemis, either because he boasted that he was a better hunter than she was or because he had gazed upon her naked body: the goddess turned him into a stag, and he was ripped to pieces by his own hounds. Hippolytus, likewise, offended Aphrodite by valuing his chastity over sexual love: he was eventually dashed to pieces through the agency of the goddess.

The institution of sparagmos thus represented a loaded manifestation of divine power over the mortal realm: as such, it constituted a highly appropriate mode of representation for the human body in the context of the sanctuary, where it served to confirm the powerlessness and frailty of the mortal body in the face of divine omnipotence. Even more importantly, the disarticulation of the body was framed in these myths as a punitive measure against a mortal’s contravention of divine will. It should not be too difficult to see how this form of rep- resentation ties into contemporary beliefs about the origin and meaning of sickness. Throughout antiquity, sickness and disease were rationalised as punishments sent by the gods [49]. One of the earliest and most famous examples is the plague at the start of Homer’s Iliad, dispatched by Apollo after the Greeks took his priestess hostage, but such beliefs persisted into and beyond the Classical period, where they coexisted with more ‘rational’ approaches to human illness [50]. At the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros, for instance, an inscription set up by the priests of the sanctuary in the second half of the fourth century BC records the story of a certain Echedorus, who took money from his friend Pandarus to make a dedication to the god. But instead of handing it over to Asklepios, Echedorus kept the money; the god subsequently punished him by transferring Pandarus’ facial marks on to Echedorus’ own face [51]. For the Classical Greek viewer, this belief that illness was a form of divine punishment would have been consolidated into the healing sanc- tuary, whose surfaces were scattered with ‘dismembered’ parts of the human body.


Fragmentation and Redemption

The tale of Echedorus cited above is one of more than 70 stories preserved on a series of large, now-fragmentary stele from the Asklepieion at Epidauros [52]. Most of the other tales record success stories: dreams or visions in which the supplicants witnessed the epiphany of the god and their own miraculous healing. While so far in this article I have focused on how fragmentation was used as a metaphor to give visual form and social meaning to the otherwise intensely personal experience of illness, a closer reading of these Epidaurian healing narratives (iamata) suggests that corporeal fragmentation may also have played a functional role in the curing of the sick body. In a number of the iamata, the process of healing is explicitly connected with the physical dismantling and re-assembly of a fragmented body. Here are two examples:

A man from Torone with leeches. In his sleep he saw a dream. It seemed to him that the god cut open his chest with a knife and took out the leeches, which he gave him into his hands, and then he stitched up his chest again. At daybreak he departed with the leeches in his hands and he had become well (hygie ̄s egeneto) [53].

Arata, a woman of Lacedaemon, dropsical. For her, while she remained in Lacedae- mon, her mother slept in the temple and sees a dream. It seemed to her the god cut off her daughter’s head and hung up her body in such a way that her throat was turned downwards. Out came a huge quantity of fluid matter. Then he took down the body and fitted the head back on to the neck. After she had seen this dream she went back to Lacedaemon, where she found her daughter in good health (hygiainousan); she had seen the same dream [54].

In these stories, the restitution of the pilgrim to health is explicitly equated with their physical reconstitution into whole bodies, which prefigures their departure from the sanctuary as healthy beings. Just like the metaphors which align the broken body with the ill body, these tales offer a normative representation of health as wholeness. But here the fragmented body is not simply equated with the ill body; rather, the act of dismemberment plays a vital role in the process of healing itself. On one level, the disarticulation of the body serves a practical purpose, facilitating the removal of some hostile agent (leeches, fluid). But I would argue that the significance of the operation goes above and beyond its immediate practical uses, and that this hyperbolic imagery of dismemberment and reintegration (the wholesale removal of the head does seem a rather drastic measure in this context!) also serves a symbolic purpose, underlining the transformation undergone by the individual during their visit to the healing sanctuary. This idea finds confirmation in another of the Epidaurian iamata, where the fragmentation and reintegration of the ‘body’ has no practical value as such:

The goblet. A porter, upon going to the Temple, fell when he was near the ten-stadia stone. When he had gotten up he opened his bag and looked at the broken vessels. When he saw that the goblet from which his master was accustomed to drink was also broken, he was in great distress and sat down to try to fit the pieces together again. But a passer-by saw him and said: ‘Foolish fellow, why do you put the goblet back together in vain? For this one not even Asclepius of Epidaurus could put to rights again.’ The boy, on hearing this, put the pieces back in the bag and went on to the Temple. When he got there he opened the bag and brought the goblet out of it, and it was entirely whole [hygie ̄]; and he related to his master what had happened and had been said; when he [the master] heard that, he dedicated the goblet to the god [55].

Fred Naiden has recently read the episode of the broken pot as a ‘morality tale’, whose purpose was to confound sceptics.56 This interpretation serves to rationalise the citation of such a miracle amongst all the other narratives of bodily illness and cure. However, when the broken pot is read alongside the stories which show healing as the reinte- gration of a previously broken body, the tale acquires an obvious structural significance. In Classical times, the image of the clay pot frequently served as a metaphor for the human body.57 The miraculous mending of the broken pot thus provides an analogy for the mending of the pilgrims’ bodies recorded in the same stele. The significance of the allegorical representation would not have been lost on other visitors to the sanctuary. The pot in its reconstituted state is described as hygie ̄ —'healthy'. The same word occurs at the climax of most other tales on the stele, including the three mentioned above. Moreover, the jeer of the anonymous passer-by, that ‘not even Asklepios’ could make the pot whole again, affirms that Asklepios’ acknowledged claim to fame was precisely that—making things whole again.

In the Epidaurian iamata, then, the process of healing was represented as the disassembly and subsequent remaking of the body. We might see a similar narrative laid out in the relief from the Asklepieion at Athens (Figure 4), where the juxtaposition of the two female bodies—one broken, one whole—can be read as visualising the transition from sickness to health that was being solicited or commemorated by the dedicant. In turn, the proximity of the relief’s viewers to the individual votive body parts displayed within the Asklepieion would have echoed its juxtaposition of whole and fragmented bodies, thus prefiguring, or re-enacting, their own personal transition from a state of illness to a state of health. The individual votive body part can thus be seen to play a functional role in the healing process, not by sympathetic magic or substitution as has previously been suggested, but because the bodily fragmentation that it symbolises sets the whole process of healing in motion.

This use of bodily dismemberment to enact the transformation of an individual’s status provides an interesting new perspective on an old theme in the scholarship of Greek myth and ritual; that is, the symbolic use of dismemberment in ancient passage rituals. One of the earliest and most notorious explorations of this theme is found in Jane Harrison’s 1912 study Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion [58]. In this book, Harrison drew attention to the structural similarities between the myths of Dionysus, Zagreus and the young Zeus, all of which involved the ‘theft’ of the young protagonist, their violent death and their subsequent resurrection in whole bodies. Like other scholars after her, Harrison argued that these stories reflect rituals of initiation into the Greek mystery cults which, she proposed, involved the simulation of the neophyte’s dismemberment followed by his reconstitution and ‘rebirth’ as a new, fully socialised adult being. While many scholars are reluctant to accept Harrison’s conclusions, others remain convinced that dismemberment played a major role in mystic initiation rituals [59]. Certainly, in this article we have met archaeological and epigraphic evidence which does explicitly connect the dismemberment and reintegration of the body with an individual’s transition between two existential states—that is, between the state of illness and the state of health. Any similar uses of fragmentation in contem- porary initiation rituals would only have underscored the transformative powers of human bodily dismemberment.



In this article, I have begun to explore some of the culturally-specific meanings that Classical Greek votive body parts held for their original audiences. At the heart of my reading is the notion that these images represented (and were understood by the ancient Greeks to represent) the disaggregation of the human body. In arguing this point, I have called on a range of material evidence, from the Neapolis figurines, which force us to acknowledge the peculiarity of the ‘fragmented’ body part, to the marble relief from the Asklepieion at Athens, which shows a series of votive body parts arranged to make the shape of a (whole) human body, to the Classical vases which show similar body parts at the heart of another divine–mortal relationship: the mythical sparagmos. Furthermore, I have con- tended that this representation of the body in pieces impinged both on the experience of illness and the process of healing. Of course, on one level the votives worked by representing—and thereby drawing the god’s attention to—the part of the dedicant’s body that was sick or had been healed. Nevertheless, as previous theoretical explorations of this material have demonstrated, the relationship between these ‘real’ and ‘represented’ body parts can be read in rather different ways. David Freedberg, for instance, sees a ‘fusion of image and prototype’; others prefer the substitution of image for prototype. Here I have proposed one further theory of how the votive image performed the healing of the sick body: through enacting its deconstruction, and thereby facilitating the reconstruction of a healthy, individual whole.

I have also argued that the image of corporeal fragmentation served as a metaphor that materialised certain aspects of the sufferer’s experience of illness. This metaphor was used in both textual and visual representations of the ill body, and provides yet another example of overlap between ‘rational’ medical texts and sacred temple healing. Finally, as the work of Susan Sontag has so powerfully demonstrated, metaphors for illness are rarely without a moral dimension. Here I have drawn attention to the formal and conceptual similarities between the votive body parts and the images of the sparagmos depicted on Attic red-figure vases, and I have indicated the ability of these visual parallels to reinforce the belief that illness was a deserved punishment for transgression of the social or religious order. The metaphor of fragmentation in the Classical sanctuary thus served a regulatory function, policing the behaviour of indi- viduals, and ensuring their obedience to higher powers. For what better way to enforce sacred law than to intimate that its transgression would lead, sooner or later, to physical suffering?



This article forms part of a wider study of the anatomical votives from antiquity and beyond, which is being prepared under the auspices of the Leverhulme project ‘Changing Beliefs of the Human Body’. Versions of this paper were delivered in February 2007 at the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge, and in April 2007 at the annual meeting of the Classical Association in Birmingham. I thank both those audiences for their comments and criticisms. I am particularly grateful to Robin Osborne, Helen King, and the two anonymous reviewers of this article for their insightful suggestions. Finally, I thank the Leverhulme Trust for funding my postdoctoral research.



1 Unless otherwise stated, all translations of Greek texts are taken from the Loeb Classical Library. 2 For an introduction to the history of the sanctuary and the miracles performed there, see Giardino and De Cristoforo 1996 and Miele 1995.
3 For the wooden tablets, see Toschi and Penna 1971.

4 See Dempsey 2001, pp. 102–3.
5 Merrifield 1987, p. 88. The emphasis is my own.
6 The conventional dates given to the Classical period are 510 – 323 BC. The practice of dedicating body parts does exist before this period. Clay body parts have been found in Minoan peak sanctuaries dating to the end of the third and the first half of the second millennium BC. See Myres 1902–3. Miniature body parts made in gold, silver and ivory have been found at Ephesus; they date from the end of the eighth or beginning of the seventh century BC. See Hogarth 1908, p. 107, no. vii, 21–4, and p. 196, no. xliii,10, 11.
7 Van Straten in Versnel (ed.) 1981; Forsén 1996.
8 De Waele 1933; Roebuck 1951; Melfi 2007, pp. 289–312.
9 De Waele 1933, pp. 442–3.
10 Roebuck 1951. For Contrastcoloristik and Greek vase painting, see Henderson in Porter (ed.) 2002, p. 34.
11 For the traces of paint found on the votives, as well as their dimensions, see the catalogue descriptions at Roebuck 1951, pp. 119–28. On fragmentation and eroticism, see Pacteau 1994.
12 Roebuck 1951, p. 116.
13 Aleshire 1989; Melfi 2007, pp. 313–433.
14 Inscriptiones Graecae II2 (Berlin: Reiner/De Gruyter, 1873–, hereafter IG) 1352–1353; Aleshire 1989, pp. 37–51; Van Straten in Versnel (ed.) 1981, pp. 108–13.
15 Aleshire 1989, p. 38 for the (often ignored) obstacles to statistical analysis.
16 IG II2 1534A; Aleshire 1991, pp. 41–6.
17 Van Straten in Versnel (ed.) 1981, pp. 105–13; Forsén 1996, pp. 31–54 and figs. 3–39.
18 Debate has centred around the question of whether votives given before or after a cure: the answer is almost certainly that they were given in both instances. As Angelos Chaniotis has recently pointed out, the different formula used in inscribed dedications attest that they were given as thank- offerings and ‘in expectation of divine help’, Chaniotis 1998, n. 1.
19 Athens National Museum 5840. This well-known scene is reproduced on the front cover of Forsen 1996.
20 Inscriptions are found in Forsén 1996. See, for example, cat. nos 1.1, 1.22, 1.49, 2.2.
21 Roebuck 1951, p. 117.
22 Moscati 1989.
23 Moscati notes how two of the Neapolis figurines (nos 210 and 211 in the catalogue) bear strong similarities to a moulded figurine found in Egypt, dated to the fifth or beginning of the fourth century BC; this statuette bears the Aramaic inscription Ohime`, which is an exclamation of pain. Moscati 1989, pp. 14–15. For the Egyptian statuette, see Bresciani 1971.
24 Hillman and Mazzio 1997, p. 2.
25 Richter 1995, p. 119.

26 Freedberg 1989, p. 157.
27 See, for example, Ferris in Hingley and Willis (eds) 2007. Joan Reilly calls her reading of votive torsos ‘Naked and Limbless’, although the violent undertones of her title are offset in the text, where she reverts to seeing the form of these truncated figures as ‘mechanisms for drawing attention to the stomach and womb’. Reilly in Koloski-Ostrow and Lyons (eds) 1997.
28 Rynearson 2003, pp. 9–10.
29 Pazzini 1935.
30 Samuel 1.5.9ff.
31 Athens, Acropolis Museum 7232. H. 16 cm. See Walter 1923, pp. 61–2, no. 108.
32 Walter suggested that this figure represents Herakles Menytes, or another healing hero or deity. Walter 1923, pp. 61–2.
33 Forsén 1996, p. 68, cat. no. 8.15. Dated between the first and third centuries AD.
34 Different interpretations of this scene might be offered. For instance, the dedicant might have had a succession of illnesses in different parts of her body; or the votives might represent parts of different bodies, dedicated by a succession of dedicants. But whatever the story behind the scene, the similarities between the individual votives and the body of the kneeling woman would not have escaped its viewers.
35 In my use of the term ‘metaphor’, I follow Sontag: ‘By metaphor I mean nothing more or less than the earlier and most succinct definition I know, which is Aristotle’s in his Poetics (1457b). ‘Metaphor’, Aristotle wrote, ‘consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else’. Sontag 1989, p. 5.
36 Kleinman 1988, pp. 37, 61. 37Kleinman 1988, p. 61. 38Cassell 1991, p. 33.
39 Reproduced in Morris 1991, p. 11, fig. 1.
40 Sontag 1978, 1989.
41 Thucydides 2.47–55. The emphases are my own.
42 For the relationship between Thucydides’ description of the plague and the Hippocratic texts, see Craik 2001, with bibliography at n. 1. Jouanna describes the Hippocratic principle of classifying diseases them- selves a capite ad calcem (from head to foot). The nosological treatises Diseases II and Internal Affections ‘begin with diseases of the head, moving on to diseases of the throat and nose; next come the disease of the breast and back’. Jouanna 1999, p. 145.
43 Epidemics Book 1, Case 5.
44 Epidemics Book 3, Case 3.
45 Versnel in Graf (ed.) 1998.
46 DuBois in Kampen (ed.) 1996, p. 60.
47 Berlin Staatliche Museen 1966.18. Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1981–99, hereafter LIMC) vol. VII.1 s.v. ‘Pentheus’, p. 312, no. 40. 48Toronto Slg. E. Borowski LIMC vol. VII.1 s.v. ‘Pentheus’, p. 312, no. 43.
49 Mattes 1970, pp. 36–49; Lloyd 2003, pp. 16ff.
50 Homer Iliad I.9ff. Parker 1983, pp. 235–56; Van der Eijk 2005, pp. 45–73.
51 IG IV2 1, 121. Edelstein and Edelstein 1945, p. 231, no. 7.
52 IG IV2 1, 121–22. Edelstein and Edelstein 1945, pp. 221–37; LiDonnici 1995. All translations here are taken from Edelstein and Edelstein 1945.
53 Edelstein and Edelstein 1945, p. 232, no. 13.
54 Edelstein and Edelstein 1945, p. 233, no. 21.
55 Edelstein and Edelstein 1945, p. 232, no. 10.
56 Naiden in Elsner and Rutherford (eds) 2005, p. 86.
57 DuBois 1988, pp. 46–9, 57–9, 132–6. Cf. Henderson in Porter (ed.) 2002, p. 22: ‘Amphorae, however, insist on their bodily existence in the round: if their “ears”, the handles, halve the expanse between neck and belly, nevertheless bands of belting and studding symbolically hoop the whole circumference and truss the girth into shape.’
58 Harrison 1927. See especially her opening discussion of the Dictaean hymn to the Kouros from Palaikastro.

59 This reluctance derives, in part, from a deep-running distrust of the comparative methodology that Harrison used in her work, and the evolutionary view of human development on which this methodology was founded. For a contextualisation and critique of the comparative and ritualist approaches to myth, see Csapo 2005, chs 2 and 4. For a compelling example of more recent reflections on initiatory dismemberment in the Greek mystery cults, see Seaford 1981, especially p. 267.



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