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A votive deposit or votive offering is an object left in a sacred place for ritual purposes. Such items are a feature of modern and ancient societies and are generally made in order to gain favor with supernatural forces. Votive offerings have been described in historical Roman era and Greek sources, although similar acts continue into the present day, for example the modern day practice of tossing coins into a wishing well or fountain. The modern construction practice called Topping out is an example of a votive practice that has very ancient roots.
In Europe votive deposits date to the Neolithic, with polished axe hoards, reaching a peak in the late Bronze Age. High status artifacts such as swords and spearheads were apparently buried or more commonly cast into bodies of water or peat bogs, whence they could not possibly have been recovered. Often all the objects in a ritual hoard are broken, 'killing' the objects to put them even further beyond utilitarian use before deposition. The purposeful discarding of valuable items such as swords and spearheads is thought to have therefore had ritual overtones. The items have since been found in rivers, lakes and former wet-places (now drained by modern agriculture) by metal-detectorists, members of the public and archaeologists.
Some archaeologists have recovered some votive offerings in ancient Sparta from the 5th century B.C.E. These votive offerings give evidence to the presence of literacy in Spartan culture. Placing greater emphasis on inscriptions which seem to have been made by the individual making the offering, archaeologists can interpret that, of the early dedicators, there were very few in number and that most, if not all, were from the upper classes. One piece of pottery was found that may have had measurement signs on it. This would indicate an everyday literacy among the Spartans if this is true. Unfortunately, scholars have not recovered any other piece of pottery with a similar inscription to support that single find.
A curse tablet or defixio is a small sheet of tin or lead on which a message wishing misfortune upon someone else was inscribed. Usually found rolled up and deliberatly deposited, there are five main reasons for dedicating a curse-tablet:
1 - Litigation, 2 - Competition, 3 - Trade, 4 - Erotic Ambition, 5 - Theft
Of those in Britain the vast majority are of type 5. The two largest concentrations are from the sacred springs at Aquae Sulis , where 130 examples are recorded, and at Uley , where over 140 examples are visible. The use of the curse-tablet in seeking restoration of stolen property is strong evdience of invoking divine power through a non-traditional religious ceremony, often involving some form of water-deposition. The usual form of divine invocation was through prayer, sacrifice and altar dedication so access to this information provides useful insights into Roman provincial culture.
The Torah makes provision for "free-will offerings" which may be made by any individual. When Solomon built the first temple he provided a number of furnishings above and beyond what had been commanded to Moses on Mount Sinai (see Temple of Solomon).
The tradition of votive offerings has been carried into Christianity in both the East and the West.
According to Sacred Tradition, after Constantine the Great's conversion and subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he donated one of the crosses he carried in battle to the Church. This cross is reputed to be preserved on Mount Athos.
One of the most famous Orthodox votive offerings is that by Saint John of Damascus. According to tradition, while he was serving as Vizier to the Caliph, he was falsely accused of treachery and his hand was cut off. Upon praying in front of an icon of the Theotokos his hand was miraculously restored. In thanksgiving, he had a silver replica of his hand fashioned and attached it to the icon (see image at left). This icon, now called "Trojeručica" (The Three-handed) is preserved at Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos.
Orthodox Christians continue to make votive offerings to this day, often in the form of tamata, metal plaques symbolizing the subject of their prayers. Other offerings include, candles, prosphora, wine, oil, or incense. In addition, many will leave something of personal value, such as jewelry, a pectoral cross or military decoration as a sign of devotion.
In the Roman Catholic Church offerings were made either to fulfill a vow made to God for deliverance, or a thing left to a Church in gratitude for some favor that was granted. Today votives can be lit votive candles, offered flowers, statues, vestments, and, monetary donations.
Ancient examples include:
- Henry III of England had a golden statue of his queen made and placed on the shrine of St. Edward at Westminster
- A falcon in wax at the shrine of St. Wulstan by Edward I
- A diamond and a ruby, adorning the tomb of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury
- Numerous crutches, left in the grotto at Lourdes
- The song "O Wilhelme, pastor bone" composed by John Taverner is a Votive Antiphon dedicated to Cardinal Wolsey
- Alan Dundes' The Walled-up Wife. U.of Wisconsin Press (1996).
- John V. Robinson (2001). "The 'topping out' traditions of the high-steel ironworkers". Western Folklore, Fall 2001.
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