Making votives

Jen Grove is an ancient historian, researcher and workshop facilitator at makinglearning. In this blog post, she discusses recreating the ancient practice of votive-making with the public

big-red-1Hanging my Heart is a community project inspired by the ancient practice of votive-giving. Since their modern discovery across the ancient Greek and Roman world, hoards of little objects at shrines and temples have been read as visual representations of the concerns of the ancient people who left them. The many thousands of ‘anatomical votives’ – objects shaped as parts of the human body usually left to the ancient gods of wellbeing and health – have been thought to represent the particular ailment of the person leaving them. However, recently researchers have explored more conceptual interpretations. So a model foot, while representing the onset of, say, gout for one ancient person, may have been left in thanks for completing a successful journey by another. Modern parallels support this: today Mexican footballers are said to sometimes leave the Catholic Saints a votive foot before an important match, while such images are also connected with medical problems.

This rich tradition inspired us at makinglearning, a project which brings together academic theory, craft practice, and community engagement. We started to think about the idea of expressing life’s daily concerns in physical form. Historians have often focused on physical complaints when interpreting ancient objects; we wondered if, in re-creating the practice for today, we might explore the expression of psychological issues too – articulating internal feelings, thoughts, worries etc. in external ways. The workshop we devised combined learning about the practice of votive-giving, with making new objects through creative craft sessions. We used air-drying clay to replicate the terracottas produced in the Greco-Roman world and experimented with drawing on disposable baking tins to replicate those still left in Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. I ran the sessions with fellow Classicist and writer Alex Wardrop, and artist, Georgie Huntley, who is currently studying for an art therapy MA.

img_05631This project is part of a growing interest in looking to the (ancient) past as a way of understanding ourselves – and how to look after ourselves – better. Two projects from University of Exeter, Sex and History (which I also work on) and Stoicism Today, both attempt to do this in different ways. What strikes me about the practice of votive-giving as part of regular, daily practice is that it may encourage people to be more in touch with their bodies, their feelings, and aspects of their lives in need of change. If, as we think happened in ancient Rome, people were making scheduled and regular visits, probably as a family, to particular shrines in their area, everyone would have been expected to leave a gift for the gods during their visit. Each time they would have had to think about what they wanted to leave – what item best expressed their primary concern on the day they visited? As I asked our modern attendees: if you went to the shrine, what would you leave? If you had to identify something in your life you want to change, or that you are thankful for, what would it be? This piece of practice-led research was incredibly useful for thinking about the ancient practice: seeing it performed today really helped me to think in broader ways about what objects left 2,000 years ago might have meant to the ancient peoples that left them [1]. It should be said that ancient temple-goers, like Catholic and Greek Orthodox church-goers today, probably would not have created their own votives by hand, but rather brought them from stalls where mass-produced images were sold outside the temple. However, we know that ancient people would sometimes have objects specially made, customised or engraved, which gives us more of an idea of the individual concerns of ancient votive-givers. For everyone who was not able to afford special commissions, standing at the stall, they would have had to select something to best represent them at that moment in time.

Votive from Making and Learning workshopIn addition to the therapeutic aspect of our workshop, the feedback we received showed that simply giving adults the licence to create communally was incredibly enriching. And, gratifyingly, we also found people wanting to know more about the history of the practice. Talking about its ancient origins gave a cultural context to what we were asking people to do, connecting the participants with generations of people before them, lending an authenticity to their creative communications about themselves and their lives. Of course, the practices we used as inspiration were/are set within a faith context. Our work is not meant to be necessarily connected with any particular spirituality. We did not expect our participants to be speaking directly to Aesculapius or the other ancient gods of healing [2]. What happened at the workshops may have been a spiritual experience for some, but for others this was about expressing something to themselves, to others or the wider world (but only if they wanted: sharing was not compulsory). The communal experience was probably a very important aspect of the ancient practice: giving public offerings at a public shrine about one’s life’s problems and achievements. Thus we created a (secular) ‘shrine’ and asked participants to hang or place their creations on it. We were left with an amazing snapshot of the preoccupations of the people who attended the sessions, ranging from the mundane to the deeply emotive. This echoed the way in which hoards of ancient objects are seen as a snapshot of ancient thoughts at a particular period and place. The process of giving something up, which in a religious context is connected with honouring the deity, can also be a powerfully cathartic experience. The creation and dedication of a votive can demonstrate an intention, a wish to transform something. And that intention – lovingly brought to life in carefully crafted form – might direct our actions, even subconsciously, to make changes in our lives towards that goal.

For more information on the project see: http://makinglearning.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/hanging-my-heart/

[1] I had been working at the time on a project looking at ancient votive material from the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi – http://nemitonottingham.wordpress.com.

[2] The modern Stoic movement has also debated the impact of ‘secularisation’ on its effectiveness as a philosophy, some arguing that without the wider religious context (as we find in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which was inspired by aspects of Stoicism), it lacks substance and deeper significance.

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