Fractured Narratives: Writing the Biography of a Votive Offering

Hughes, Jessica (2016). Fractured Narratives: Writing the Biography of a Votive Offering. In: Weinryb, Ittai ed. Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures. Bard Graduate Center - Cultural Histories of the Material World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 23–48.



For historians interested in the religious beliefs and practices of classical antiquity, votive offerings constitute a resource of almost immeasurable richness. Gifts to the gods—anathemata in Greek, dona in Latin—have been found at sites all over the ancient world, from the peak sanctuaries of Minoan Crete to the chilly streams of Roman Britain. Over the last few decades, scholars have become increasingly attentive to this form of material religion, and have adopted a wide range of approaches for studying it. Votives have been used, among other things, as documents for the study of social and gender history, as evidence for the development and transmission of religious beliefs, as sources for art historical analyses of ancient craft industries, and for the retrospective diagnosis of ancient illnesses. Although these studies differ widely in their aims and methods, they nevertheless share a common feature: they all consider the votives collectively, either in broader categories of form and/ or medium (e.g., votive heads from terracotta, marble votive reliefs), or in the context of larger votive assemblages from particular sanctuaries or geographical areas.

This chapter will adopt a different approach to the ancient votive offering by tracing the “biography” of a single votive through time and across space. Object biographies and life cycles have become very popular in material culture studies recently and have been applied to a wide range of artifacts including Neolithic ceramics, Roman sarcophagi, and Japanese netsuke. The object biography is a promising mode of analysis for votives, given that these are often small and inherently mobile items, which inevitably—at least in the case of ancient Greco-Roman offerings—move over time from a sacred to a secular context. The biographical approach also encourages us to shift our attention away from the moment of ritual dedication (which has tended to dominate most scholarly analyses of votives) and onto later, equally interesting stages of the offering’s history. For the function and meaning of a votive are not fixed at the moment of dedication; rather, these properties change as the object moves through time and space and as it becomes entangled in new associations with things and people. The process of compiling a votive’s biography also has the potential to enhance that object’s value and meaning for modern audiences, not only because it allows us to attach engaging stories to the material offering, but also because it enables us to measure change in beliefs and attitudes in later historical periods, including our own.

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