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the magic object protection prosperity in antiquity
The Magic Object: Protection & Prosperity in Antiquity

This virtual exhibition prepared and photographed by Ryan Plyler is a summary of an actual exhibition by the same name curated by his class, History of Art 392 at Johns Hopkins University. The project was the subject of the course, Creating a Museum Exhibition, in the spring semester of 2007. The dates of the exhibition, installed on the main level of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library are from April 12 through September. The students in the class, and the sections or objects they researched and presented under the joint direction of Eunice Dauterman Maguire and Henry Maguire are as follows:

Christopher Baia – General Assistance

Justin Batoff - Prosperity Motifs

Rachel Day - Protective Animals, Egypt

Theodore Drivas - Votives

Elena Fedyszyn - Crosses

Nicholas Kreston - Isis and Serapis

Ryan Plyler - Protective Animals, Greek and Roman

Hannah Siegelberg - Tyches

Jennifer Snodgrass - Pre-Columbian objects

Margaret Stevens - Gorgons

Joan Tkacs - Hermes

Barbie Wadley - Mirrors

the magic object protection prosperity in antiquity1
For ancient civilizations, magic was a pervasive and complex reality. In the ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Americas, everyday life revolved around the belief in an unseen world of spirits that paralleled the seen world. This belief in a spiritual world made magic as difficult to ignore then as it is difficult to comprehend today. Magic was the solution to the unexplained and the remedy for the unhealed. Accordingly, everyday objects were meant to function in the tangible, real world, but also, in many cases, to harness the forces of the unseen supernatural world. Abstract shapes, figural images, and texts were more than just decorations for everyday objects; they had magical powers and abilities. This exhibition features objects borrowed from the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Collection to explore various manifestations of magic in the ancient world and its functions in everyday life as well as in the afterlife.The Magic Object: Protection & Prosperity in Antiquity
groups of items click on the group picture to see the objects
Groups of Items(Click on the group picture to see the objects)

Crosses

Hermes

Isis

Prosperity Motifs

Protective Animals

Protective Sights & Sounds

Tyches

Votives

crosses
Crosses

The cross is found on all types of objects of daily life ranging from lamps to jewelry. The idea of the cross is manifested in both the traditional form that is easily recognizable to a modern viewer, but also in the form of a ChiRho monogram. The ChiRho is one of the earliest cruciform symbols used by Christians and comes from the first two Greek letters in the word “Christ.” These cross symbols were used for protection both in life and in the afterlife, for safety and salvation were the same word in Latin. All of the objects on display, jewelry, keys, and lamps, were used on a daily basis in the ancient world.

crosses1
Crosses

Mold for Making a Metal Cross Pendant

Byzantine, 400-600 C.E.

Steatite; carved & incised

2423

Censer on Tripod Legs with Figure of Eight Chain

Byzantine, 400-600 C.E.

Bronze; cast from a mold including ornamentation

The censer was used for burning incense to bring a blessing or carry a prayer. The underside of the censer is decorated with a lathe-turned series of concentric circles, similar to the apotropaic (evil diverting) symbol of mirrors, and the legs of the tripod are represented as lions’ paws.

HT414; gift of Helen Tanzer

crosses2
Crosses

Lamp with Faux Jewel Decorations

Byzantine, Palestine, c. 500 C.E.

Clay with traces of red slip; mold-made

The relief on this oil lamp looks like pearl and gold ornamentation. The underside of the lamp bears a design of concentric circles that evokes a mirror.

FM102; gift of Frank Mount

Christian Lamp with Victory Palms and Chi Rho monogram

Byzantine, North Africa, c. 400-600 C.E.

Clay with red slip; mold-made

A.5

Lamp with Circles and Cross

Byzantine, Egypt, c. 400-600 C.E.

Clay; mold-made

3941; Mendes Israel Cohen collection

crosses3
Crosses

Cross Pendant

Byzantine, c. 400-600 C.E.

Copper alloy; cast

This cross would have been worn around the neck, as is often done today. It serves as a protective sign. Small depressions on the front may have held silver inlay.

A.545

Cross Shaped Belt Buckle

Byzantine, c. 400-600 C.E.

Copper alloy; hand made

Wearing a cross as an accessory or on clothing was a popular way of reinforcing daily life with saving power.

FIC

Key with Cross Handle Open for Suspension

Byzantine, c. 400-600 C.E.

Copper alloy; cast

HT 376/ A.906; gift of Helen Tanzer

Lead Amulet in a Concave Shape with Chnoubis Design

Byzantine, c. 1200 C.E.

Lead; mold pressed

The center design shows the Egyptian rayed being, the Chnoubis, which had the power to protect the womb. Here, the eight rays radiating from the center form the arms of a light-giving cross, conflating the power of the magical device with that of the Christian sign.

A.593

hermes
Hermes

The Greek god Hermes, to whom the Roman counterpart was Mercury, was the patron god of merchants, and a typical emblem of prosperity. People often invoked Hermes with the aim of ensuring prosperity in business. Accordingly, craftsman decorated everyday objects such as clay banks with depictions of Hermes with his various attributes. Hermes was also a patron of children and of the gymnasium. Children’s toys were devoted to Hermes in coming of age rituals, to ensure the future prosperity of the child. Viewing him as a symbol of wealth, the ancient Greeks and Romans used the image of Hermes as a talisman of prosperity.

hermes1
Hermes

Kylix with Hermes Spinning a Whip Top

Greek, c. 480-470 B.C.E.

Clay

Hermes was accredited as the inventor of the whipped top. Here the god is shown instructing a young man on how to spin the top, perhaps as a magical initiation: spinning tops are part of the apparatus of magic.

AIA.B9

hermes2
Hermes

Top with Wreath-like Decoration

Unidentified origin

Copper alloy; cast (rod); pressed sheet metal (cone); wire (suspension loops)

The cone-end of this top is decorated with raised ridges and a wreath pattern. Originally, decorative strings or beads may have been tied to the four wire rings along the base. Pellets inside would make noise while the top was spun. Whirring and rattling sounds were part of magical rituals.

A.676

Top

Unidentified origin

Copper alloy; cast

Tops such as these were left as votive offerings to Hermes in coming of age rituals for young boys. This one’s heavy weight made it an expensive gift.

711

hermes3
Hermes

Caduceus

Imperial Roman

Copper alloy

This caduceus is pierced at the bottom indicating that it was once attached to a longer staff held by a cult statue of the god Hermes.

722

Savings Bank

Roman

Clay; Mold-made

Here the Roman god Mercury (who is the Greek Hermes) is portrayed with his common attributes of power and prosperity, the caduceus and a bag of coins. This caduceus has a tip shaped like a spinning top.

395; purchased by H. L. Wilson

isis serapis harpokrates
Isis, Serapis, & Harpokrates

In ancient mythologies, Isis, Serapis, and Harpokrates were a divine triad whose universal appeal proliferated during the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt. The worship of Isis can be traced back to the emergence of organized religion in Egypt. The much later Serapis cult also originated in Hellenistic Egypt from the god of the underworld Osiris and the sacred Apis bull – from which Serapis draws his name. Harpokrates, son of Isis and her consort Serapis (according to Ptolemaic tradition), was a Hellenistic representation of the Egyptian god Horus as a child.

In the Roman period, they were commonly represented as syncretic deities – a fusion of divinities from several cultures – and despite their apparent stylistic differences, their magical power stemmed from the belief in their protective qualities and association with prosperity.

The divinities were invoked for protection as well as good fortune. The Isis-Aphrodite statue, in addition to its symbolism highlighting life and its protective quality, holds in her left hand a figure of Harpokrates seated on a lotus and holding a cornucopia. An independent representation of Harpokrates carries an amphora, alluding to the riches of the Nile. The Serapis objects similarly embody ideas of fertility and abundance.

isis serapis harpokrates1
Isis, Serapis, & Harpokrates

Isis-Aphrodite Statuette with Harpokrates

Roman, believed to be from Egypt, c. 200–300 C.E

Hollow bronze cast (body), and solid cast bronze (lower arms); mold-made and originally inlaid with silver

The statuette, whose eyes were inlaid, was probably used in private worship in an Egyptian home. It combines Isis and Aphrodite, the Egyptian and Greek Goddesses of Love. The socketed hands hold removable amuletic attributes cast separately from the statuette, as were the lower arms. These strong and solid arms hold for devotional use a mirror, in her right hand, now partly missing, and fused by corrosion to the hand, and in her left a lotus wand supporting a removable figure of Harpokrates holding a cornucopia, also originally with silver inlay. On her head is astephane (diadem), a symbol of divine authority, and she wears a necklace with objects, possibly fruits, now indeterminable due to corrosion. Fruits are strong symbols of life. All her attributes guarantee the role of the statuette as a protector and strong bringer of good fortune.

K49; gift of Kemper Simpson

Isis with Horus as a Child

Late Dynastic Egyptian

Copper alloy; cast

The nurturing mother-son relationship of these deities made such depictions popular devotional or votive images, seen in our time as precursors to Mary with the baby Jesus.

3888

isis serapis harpokrates2
Isis, Serapis, & Harpokrates

Standing Harpokrates with Cornucopia

Roman, probably from Egypt, 3rd century

Copper alloy, cast

Harpokrates carries a cornucopia, representing the riches of the earth, in his left hand, while his right hand completes his signature gesture towards his mouth indicating his youth. The statuette is corroded and might have been additionally worn down through rubbing, a popular means of contact healing.

HT277; gift of Helen Tanzer

Necklace Fragment with Amulets

Roman, probably from Egypt, 1st–3rd century Copper alloy; cast (amulets and terminal bar) and twisted wire (chain)

Among the amulets are an Isis figure, a bell, a cup, and a mirror depicted on a charm shaped like a lamp, eye, or leaf, all powerful symbols. Isis shows by far the most wear from rubbing for protective use. Her cult spread throughout the Roman empire.

HT194; gift of Helen Tanzer

Sitting Harpokrates with Amphora

Ptolemaic or Roman Egyptian

Clay with red-brown slip; apparently burnished by rubbing

The rubbed front surface, and the worn detail of the mold from which it was made suggest this figure’s popularity. He carries an amphora, symbolizing the riches of the Nile, in his left hand and points to his mouth with his other hand.

K38; gift of Kemper Simpson

prosperity motifs
Prosperity Motifs

Objects invoking prosperity were common in ancient times. Magical powers were attributed to these objects, used during life as well as in the after life, to bring success in business dealings, good fortune in the home, and fertility in the harvest. Bronze stamps, such as the stamp used to seal wine vessels, would serve as marks of ownership and quality as well as evocations of plenty. Miniature domestic objects, such as the amphora, would be worn around the neck as charms that were both decorative and efficacious. Motifs of fertility included the frog and the “corn and palm” motif, seen here modeled on the tops of clay lamps. In the Americas, a frog motif painted in a Panamanian bowl symbolizes water, renewal and fertility.

prosperity motifs1
Prosperity Motifs

Wine Jar and Lamp Discus with Castor and Pollux

Roman, c. 200-300 C.E.

Clay; mold-made

This vessel is detailed with the images of the twin brothers Castor and Pollux (Gemini), the offspring of Leda and the Swan, under which disguise Jupiter had concealed himself. Castor was famous for taming and managing horses and Pollux for skill in boxing. Both were renowned for their heroic adventures, and upon their death, received divine honors under the name of Dioscuri (sons of Jove). Their images betokened good fortune.

228, Purchased by H.L. Wilson; HT 417, Gift of Helen Tanzer

prosperity motifs2
Prosperity Motifs

Boar Tusk Amulet

French, 400-700 C.E.

Tusk with traces of red and green paint; carved

On the front surface, grapevines are interspersed with animals and vessels. The suspension hole is a sign that the tusk would be worn around the neck as an amulet, perhaps to bring good fortune in the hunt.

103

Wine Stamp in the Shape of Amphora

Roman, 3rd-4th century

Copper alloy; cast

The seal made from this stamp marked a vessel of wine. The inscription names in Greek the wine god Dionysos, followed by a code, perhaps a reference to the quality of the wine much like the inscription on wine corks today. The shape of the stamp is that of an amphora, a vessel frequently filled with wine.

720

prosperity motifs3
Prosperity Motifs

Amphora

Roman, c. 4th century

From the large storage amphora for shipping, selling, or supplying wine or oil at home or in the temple, to the miniature metal vessels used as votives or amulets in Greek and Roman world, these containers signified material plenty.

FIC (collection number in process of inventory)

Ceiling Tile with a Drinking Stag

North Africa (Tunisia), c. 6th century C.E.

Clay; mold-made

Spiritual plenty, represented by the rivers of Paradise gushing out from beneath the cross, was signified for 4th – 6th century Christians by the image of two deer drinking from that heavenly source. The baptismal Psalm 42 likens the soul’s yearning for God to the deer’s thirst. This stag from the ceiling of a house, church, or tomb, recalls such images.

FIC (collection number in process of inventory)

prosperity motifs4
Prosperity Motifs

Lamps with Frog Variations

Late Roman Egypt

Clay; mold-made

This lamp provided light by burning oil stored in the center of the lamp. The frog motif is stylized to the extent that it is almost unrecognizable. The frog had been associated with Hekt, goddess of birth and fertility and in Christian times continued to be linked with the rising of the Nile.

3935

Polychrome Bowl Depicting a Composite Being

Cocl (Panama), c. 600-1200 C.E.

Fired and Painted Clay

This Pre-Columbian ceramic bowl portrays an amphibious creature, possibly a tadpole, frog, or crocodile. Its water-related symbols suggest the theme of prosperity and transformation.

2003.51; gift of Johns Stokes

protective animals
Protective Animals

Magic and religion were part of the same belief system in ancient Egypt. Animal forms represented divine powers. Gods and goddesses often took animal or part-animal, part-human forms. The divine power, not the animal itself, was important. These powers were both protective and aggressive. Most animals possessed powerful, negative attributes, and in amulet forms, the powers could be used for protection. Even after death, the divine power of an animal offered protection. Mummified animals were buried with people as votive offerings to gods and goddesses.

Similarly, in the ancient Americas, animal figures were considered to contain powers that transcended ordinary life. Ceramic figures often portrayed anthropomorphic animals that symbolized a connection between the animal and human worlds. In Colima, ceramic dogs were placed in tombs, often next to actual dogs, which were meant to protect their buried owners in death.

To the Greeks and Romans also, animal imagery served a protective role. Representations of the fierce Molossian hounds, an ancestor to today’s mastiff-type dogs, as well as lions, scorpions, sphinxes, leogriffs, and a myriad of other animals were popular images for protection during the Greek and Roman periods. Many of the objects on which these animals appeared served an everyday, functional role in addition to providing protection from supernatural evils. For example, dog-headed waterspouts both removed water from the roof of a house and protected the house from physical and demonic intruders.

protective animals1
Protective Animals

Canopic Jar Lid

Egyptian

Limestone; carved

Canopic jars were containers for the organs of mummified people. The lids of canopic jars are representations of the four sons of Horus, each of whom protects a different organ. This lid shows the jackal head of Duamutef, who protected the stomach.

3906; Mendes Israel Cohen collection

“False” Canopic Jar

Egyptian, probably after 1069 B.C.E.

Limestone

This is a dummy of a canopic jar. Earlier canopic jars are hollow containers for the organs of mummies; the jar lids represent the four protective sons of Horus. In the Twenty-First Dynasty, 1069 BC-945 BC, embalming practices change, and the organs that had been removed were wrapped and placed back inside the body. The canopic jars, no longer holding the organs, become not hollow, but solid, while keeping their place in the tomb to represent the guardianship of the deities. The baboon head of this jar represents Hapy, who protects the lungs of the mummified person in the tomb.

3977; Mendes Israel Cohen collection

protective animals2
Protective Animals

Pair of Molossian Hound Waterspouts

Italy, late Etruscan/ Roman, c. 1st century B.C.E.

Clay; mold-made

These waterspouts would have been affixed to the top of a building in order to remove water from the roof. The Molossian Hound, a common Greco-Roman dog breed, was used for hunting and herding, and its association with loyalty and fidelity makes it a popular protective image.

392, 454; purchased by H.L. Wilson

protective animals3
Protective Animals

Sphinx

Ptolemaic Egyptian

Clay; mold-made

The sphinx in ancient Egypt represented watchful guardianship. The image of the sphinx is composed of a lion’s recumbent body with the head of a ram, falcon, or human. This particular sphinx shows a lion’s body with a human head, and it might have been placed in a tomb to protect the deceased.

2446

Mexican Hairless Dog with a Duck’s Bill

West Mexico, Jalisco, c. 300 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.

Fired and Painted Clay

West Mexican dog figures, or composite figures, were placed in tombs, often next to actual dogs, and were meant to protect their buried owners in death. The duck’s bill, in the watery land of Jalisco, was probably a sign of well-being and survival.

2003.16

Double-bodied Sphinx

Roman, said to come from Italy, c. 1st century B.C.E. – 1st century C.E.

Copper Alloy; cast

The Roman sphinx is an imitation of the Greek sphinx, a she-monster with the head and breasts of a woman, body of a lion, and wings of an eagle that was said to have guarded the dead from intruders and grave robbers. This object would have possibly served as an ornament for a tripod table; sphinxes would have been connected to the tops of the table legs on all three sides.

1097; purchased by H.L. Wilson

protective animals4
Protective Animals

Lion Head Ornament

Roman, c. 1st – 2nd century C.E.

Copper Alloy Sheet Metal; formed over a mold

An ornament such as this one would have concealed the pipe for a fountain spout or adorned the exterior of a wooden chest or sarcophagus; the metal is too thin for a door handle. The image of the lion as a representation of bravery, courage, and strength would have offered its protection.

HT239; gift of Helen Tanzer

protective animals5
Protective Animals

Matrix for a Cuirass Pteryx

Roman, c. 1st – 2nd century C.E.

Copper Alloy; mold-made

This casting mold would have been used to create a bronze relief to decorate one of the pteryges, or flaps, on a Roman soldier’s cuirass. A lion-griffin, or leogriff, is a lion-like creature with the hind legs of a griffin, combining the attributes of the lion with the speed and wisdom of the griffin; an appropriate motif for a soldier’s armored attire.

9156; formerly Robinson Collection, acquired from Ritsos Collection

Seated Sakhmet Statuette

Dynastic Egyptian

Copper Alloy; cast

This statuette probably served as a votive in a tomb, representing the guardianship of Sakhmet. Sakhmet is a lioness goddess with fierce powers for protection. She may be represented either standing or seated, as here.

9261

protective sights sounds
Protective Sights & Sounds

Evils brought into human lives by demons could be prevented by magical protection designed to function in people’s daily lives. In Late Antiquity, mirrors and mirror signs deflected these harmful forces; shocking sights, like the Gorgon Medusa, frightened these evils away in the Roman world. The tinkling of bells was also used to ward off evil. But “Eyes of Horus” and coins with an emperor’s face meant regeneration and security.

protective sights sounds1
Protective Sights & Sounds

Wedjat eyes (“eyes of Horus”)

Dynastic Egyptian

Glazed composition ware

Prominent among Egyptian amulets, these Wedjat eyes have a deeper religious meaning than mere watchfulness. Signifying regeneration, wholeness, and good health, they refer to the restoration of the god’s missing eye, returned to him by Isis. All these examples are pierced end to end for stringing, to be used in life and in burial.

2641, 2027D

protective sights sounds2
Protective Sights & Sounds

Bells

Roman period, c. 1st – 3rd century C.E.

Copper alloy; cast

The sound of bells was believed to ward off evil spirits. Bells could therefore be worn as personal charms, or hung as wind chimes, tintinabula, for household entrances and gardens. One of the bells has been attached or reattached with modern wire to an ancient suspension chain.

HT404, HT405, HT406; Gifts of Helen Tanzer

protective sights sounds3
Protective Sights & Sounds

Gorgons

In Greek mythology, the young hero Perseus was able to defeat the fearsome Medusa with just a mirror. The snake-haired Gorgon could turn men into stone merely by looking into their eyes; by watching Medusa’s reflection in his shield, Perseus was able to avoid her gaze and behead her. The motifs of the Gorgon’s face and the mirror were placed on buildings and everyday objects as apotropaic designs, talismans that could ward off evil. Mirrors could figuratively be portrayed as concentric circles, found on several of the objects in this exhibition.

protective sights sounds4
Protective Sights & Sounds

Lamp with Horse Head (Pegasus) Handle and Gorgon Lid

Roman/ Byzantine, 5th – 6th century C.E.

Copper alloy; cast

The wing-like side handles as well as the Medusa relief identity the horse as Pegasus, the winged horse sprung from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa. The Medusa covers the central opening for fueling the lamp with oil. It served the apotropaic (protective) purpose of preventing spills and fires, or more simply, keeping mice out of the olive oil.

K53A, K53B

protective sights sounds5
Protective Sights & Sounds

Mirrors

During the Early Christian Period common household items, such as crosses, combs, lamps, and dice, as well as the entrances to public buildings and homes, were marked with a repeated motif of concentric circles. These circles were used for apotropaic (protective) purposes, since they were ciphers for mirrors, which also were commonly decorated with concentric circles. The mirrors and the circles had the power to deflect evil forces by turning their malevolence back on themselves.

protective sights sounds6
Protective Sights & Sounds

Mirror Plaque

Early Byzantine, 5th-6th century

Plaster with glass

The mirror was set in shrine-like plaques of plaster, and was placed in houses and also buried in tombs.

250, gift of Helen Tanzer

Lamp with Mirror-Like Decoration

Palestine/Arabia, c. 650 C.E.

Clay; mold-made

This "slipper" lamp features a motif that suggests shine or reflection: a hand mirror, when the lamp is seen as in this photo, or the other way up, a shining vase.

FM103; gift of Frank Mount

Mirror Lid with Concentric Circles

Roman, 1st-3rd century

Copper alloy; cast

This "box mirror" covered a cylindrical cosmetic box (pyx), with the polished reflecting surface of the mirror on the inside and the lathe-turned circles patterning the outside. Water, despite its circular ripples, was the original mirror.

9198

Shield-shaped fastener with concentric circles

Roman, c. 25-250 C.E.

Bone or ivory; carved and incised

Roman military shields of this shape make it appropriate for holding clothing that protects the body. Although the donor thought it was a buckle, it may have served, with a metal pin, as a fibula or brooch for holding a military cloak (chlamys) together at the shoulder.

HT274; gift of Helen Tanzer

tyches
Tyches

To the Greeks, Tyche, the goddess of luck, is fickle and often cruel. However to their successors, the Romans, Tyche, or Fortuna, becomes associated with a bountiful harvest and, almost exclusively with good luck. She is sometimes seen with a mural crown on her head, which displays the gates of the city on it, and thus she is connected to the idea of the city. Additionally, she is often seen holding a globe symbolizing the totality of her power, and a rudder to further her connection with great port cities in the Roman Empire, such as Antioch and Alexandria.

tyches1
Tyches

Heads of Tyche-Fortuna

Roman, c. 150-200 C.E. (the marble head), and Late Antique or Byzantine, c. 400-600 C.E.

Marble and steatite respectively; carved

Tyche’s hair is gathered back. The marble Tyche’s mural crown depicts five city gates and towers; on the later, smaller figure the towers are less detailed. Tyches, as city personifications, continued to wear this ancient symbol of urban protection into the seventh century. Both heads are now missing their bodies.

9176, 280

tyches2
Tyches

Tyche of Alexandria

Roman-Egyptian, c. 1-300 C.E.

Copper-alloy; mold-made

This figure appears to be an amalgam of Tyche and the Hellenistic God, Sarapis. While the image is of a woman, her face seems to be somewhat masculine. Additionally, Tyche wears the modius (tool used to measure grain) crown, which is usually worn by Sarapis. She is also holding a cornucopia; both the crown and the cornucopia emphasize her association with bounty. The ship's rudder she holds represents the prosperity of sea trade.

A.789

Pendant Tyche Bust

Roman, c. 1-300 C.E.

Copper-alloy; mold-made

This small Tyche with her mural crown is a pendant that could be suspended by the loop at the top of the head from a piece of personal jewelry, an earring or necklace, to give the wearer a share in her city's good fortune.

788

Female Seated Dignitary Holding Pineapples

Ecuadorian, Jama-Coaque, c. 300 B.C.E.-1000 C.E.

Clay

The portly comfort of this seated pose and the abundance of fruit clearly express themes of well-being and fertility.

2003.5; gift of John Stokes

votives
Votives

The practice of presenting the gods with durable, material gifts of clay, metal, or stone in exchange for favors and miracles, or as thank-offerings for answered, or even as-of-yet unanswered prayers was a widespread tradition in the ancient Mediterranean world – a tradition practiced even today. The gods wanted gifts – not because they needed them, but because they liked to have them; the more trinkets a god collected, the more tangible his power and greatness became. From the human perspective, presenting a deity with a physical representation of a prayer – a gift depicting the object of a prayer (a leg for the healing of sciatica, an eye for the healing of blindness, etc.) – the stronger the showing of devotion and the more likely the god would be to grant one’s request.

This is a collection of these gifts, known as votive offerings, most of them with anatomical motifs, probably presented as prayers for the healing of the depicted body parts. Most are from ancient cultures, but three are from modern Greece, illustrating how little this practice has changed in over 2,000 years.

votives1
Votives

Votive Foot

Etruscan/Early Roman c. 400-300 B.C.E.

Clay; mold-made

This votive foot is clearly not of the highest quality. It was probably dedicated by a poorer devotee as a prayer for the healing of a foot, but it is not unreasonable to think that it could have represented something more abstract, like the great journey by foot required to visit the god’s shrine.

356

Votive Profile Head

Etruscan/Early Roman, c. 300-250 B.C.E.

Clay; mold-made

This life-sized votive profile head is an excellent example of a particular style of votive offering found at a number of sites throughout the Italian peninsula. Like the one here displayed, this style of votive is typically male, with head draped for making sacrifice. Since these votives were mold-made, they were not heavily modified for different individuals, and thus were not portraits of the devotees. The profile format probably imitates marble carvings in relief. In representing only half the head it provides a flat back for mounting in a god’s cult center, to stand for a prayer by the devotee.

AIA.1805

Votive Hand

Etruscan/Early Roman c. 300-250 B.C.E.

Clay; mold-made

This hand is detailed only on one side, indicating how it was meant to be displayed in the god’s cult center. While it is easy to imagine a number of hand ailments that might have provoked the dedication of this votive, it is equally easy to imagine a number of other things a votive hand may have represented, like a fulfilled oath, or the freeing of a slave, for example.

FIC.07.25

votives2
Votives

Votive Eyes

Etruscan/Early Roman, c. 400-300 B.C.E.

Clay; mold-made

This is a collection of three clay votive eyes, coming, originally, from at least two different collections. Eyes represent a large percentage of the votives unearthed at shrines from the ancient world, implying one of two things – either that eyesight was an important, and highly at-risk asset in the ancient world, or that eyes could have been dedicated for other reasons, such as to request that the god constantly watch over the devotee.

370; K94A (alt. number NC152), K94B (alt. number NC153), gifts of Kemper Simpson

Votive Head of an Athlete

Roman, purchased in Rome or Naples in 1906-1909, c. 100-300 C.E.

Lead; mold-made

This curious lead votive illustrates an important aspect of the votive tradition – votives were affordable and available to people of all economic standings. This particular votive is made of lead, then an inexpensive material, and mass-produced. The particular hairstyle, with close-cropped hair and beard, except for a single long lock, suggests that it depicts an athlete or slave. It is possible that votives such as these could have been dedicated by athletes or gladiators to help ensure their victory in the arena.

A.729

Votive Box

Hellenistic/Early Roman Greek, c. 300-200 B.C.E.

Lead; cast

This votive, although not anatomical in nature, is very pertinent to this exhibit in that it is inscribed with the following phrase: “AGASTOS EDWRHSATO ARTEMIDI,”meaning “Agastos presented this to Artemis,” a phrase that illustrates the very personal relationship between the devotee and the god. The gift the box contained can not be said with certainty. Similar votive boxes may have contained oils and perfumes; at least one survived filled with an offering of coins.

9120

votives3
Votives

Contemporary Votive Eyes

Modern Greek, c. 1950, purchased in Athens in 2006

Aluminum; hammered

This is an example of a mass produced modern Greek votive offering. Although the votive itself is modern, the style and depiction of the eyes are based on models that go back at least as far as the Byzantine era, and probably as far as ancient Greece. Votives in this style can be found in churches throughout modern Greece, usually dedicated to St. Paraskevi, the patron saint of eyes and eyesight.

Lent by Stamatia Sourbis

Contemporary Votive Leg

Modern Greek, c. 1950, purchased in Athens in 2005

Silver; hammered

This is an example of a mass produced modern Greek votive offering. Comparing this modern offering to the ancient clay leg, it is easy to see how little the style has changed throughout the years. Today, votives can be purchased at jewelers and pawnbrokers throughout Athens, and even in churches themselves. It is not unlikely that the same was true in the ancient world – clay votives could have been purchased from the local potter, or at the god’s shrine.

Lent by Stamatia Sourbis

Contemporary Votive Face

Modern Greek, from Samos, c. 1890

Silver; hammered

This modern votive face was handmade, probably by a jeweler. It is uncertain whether the face is generic, or was made to resemble the devotee. This particular votive was dedicated at a private, domestic shrine, a practice for which there is little evidence from the ancient world.

Lent by Stamatia Sourbis