At the risk of over-sharing, I’ve had a few health issues over the last year (I’m fine!) that have made me think in new ways about how we understand what ancient anatomical votives might tell us about how people understood their bodies and their relationship with divine healers.
In the ancient world it seems to have been a particularly Italic tradition to include representations of internal organs amongst the many votive offerings left at sanctuaries. A small number of uteri aside, it is rare to find specific organs depicted either in relief or in the round in the Greek world, whereas in Hellenistic central Italy (c. late 4th–early 1st century BC) and in Roman Gaul (c. 1st century BC–3rd century AD) a number of objects do make specific reference to the interior of the body. Amongst the most well-known are the uterus models that appear in particularly large quantities at some sites (e.g. Gravisca, Tarquinia and Vulci) but which can take quite radically different forms.
Also familiar are the so-called ‘open torso’ models which present either a truncated torso (sometimes without limbs or head) shown cut open to reveal a collection of internal organs, or a ‘visceral plaque’ showing the opened chest and abdominal area as an autonomous object. Sometimes internal organs are depicted as a rather undifferentiated pile of viscera. Other known internal organs include possible representations of hearts and bladders, with a wooden object from Gaul thought to represent the gallbladder. Models of the liver are surprisingly absent from a cultural context in which haruspicy – the reading of divine will using the liver of a sacrificed animal – played a key role in religious practice, as are other major organs familiar to us today, such as kidneys, lungs and the appendix. Other objects, sometimes labelled ‘cippetti’, remain difficult to identify. The majority of these individual models, and indeed the open torsos, are not anatomically accurate: wombs are often highly stylised, perhaps reflecting broader cultural ideas about the nature of the human body (Flemming, 2016) and hearts show little appreciation of (or perhaps just no desire to depict) the structure of this vital organ. Indeed it has been suggested that some models of internal organs were based on knowledge of animal anatomy derived from sacrifice and butchery, although this remains a matter for debate (Turfa, 1994).
I am certainly not about to advocate retrospective diagnosis (or ‘icono-diagnosis’ as it has been termed recently: Geroulanos 2014), nor am I suggesting that we should expect to identify the range of medical conditions experienced in the ancient world based on the presence or absence of particular organs in votive assemblages. We would be ill-advised to claim that ancient people did not suffer from kidney stones or stomach cancer simply because the material remains do not seem to reference such conditions. Instead, my own recent experiences have suggested to me that we might want to do precisely the opposite: that is, find ways of interpreting these enigmatic artefacts which address our own expectations much more openly and critically. It is my suspicion that existing interpretations unconsciously rely too much on modern knowledge and understandings of how the human body works – information that was unavailable to your average votive cult participant of the ancient world.
A couple of things related to how we think about illness, but also how we visualise the interior of the human body in such circumstances, struck me as particularly interesting. Whilst experiencing unexplained abdominal pain there have been times where I couldn’t pin down exactly what it was in my body that was hurting. Living in the early 21st century, however, I knew enough about human anatomy to be able to isolate in my mind a number of organs that might be responsible – my appendix was my first thought (it wasn’t!), followed by kidney, stomach, duodenum, gallbladder and pancreas. By being able to name these organs, and with a specialised doctor who could use them as a basis from which to pursue a diagnosis, my experience of ill-health was grounded firmly in my attempts to pin it down to something precise. I wanted to be able to say exactly what it was that was causing me a problem. To help with this, I could look things up on the internet (inadvisable!!), I could create a mental picture of what might be going on inside by reading about where particular organs are located and the symptoms they might produce, and have conversations with my doctor focused around individual organs. She took the same approach, investigating a series of conditions related to particular parts of my body, even using indirect methods such as blood tests to reveal how individual organs were behaving. A series of scans and the use of endoscopic technology also let us see directly inside. Weird as it sounds, in the process these organs became less abstract and more personal as I actually saw, rather than just imagined, what they looked like. In the ancient world that degree of specificity or way of thinking was simply not available, even to the most experienced of medical practitioners and, one assumes, certainly not to ordinary people.
Naturally(!), a little like Tabitha Moses’ interpretation of people’s stories of illness and suffering, I began to think about what sort of votive offering I might choose to make if I were an ancient person with the same symptoms. The knowledge I’d gained from medical professionals told me that the most effective thing to do would be to select the specific organ that was causing the problem. If it turned out that I had gallstones, I would give a gallbladder; if it was a problem with my pancreas, I would give a model of a pancreas. But then I remembered that even if I could do that, the symptoms themselves extended beyond that one organ, at times feeling like they were affecting my entire abdomen. It was that which was actually causing me discomfort and worry, so perhaps an open torso would be more representative of my actual bodily experience? In other words, my modern intellectual experience was pushing me in one direction, but my physical experience pointed in another.
Where am I going with this? My experiences made me think about what I do and don’t share with potential ancient dedicators of votive offerings associated with healing and the experience of being unwell. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect reference to be made to specific internal organs at all, or at least not in all cases. Open-torso models and visceral plaques could provide a much more appropriate way of dealing with an inability to be specific about the cause of a complaint as well as a much better representation of the symptoms a person experienced. After all, the deity being petitioned should be able to identify (diagnose?) what needed attention without the petitioner themselves needing to know. At the Bodies of Evidence conference in Rome in 2012, Matthias Recke’s paper raised some discussion of open torso models commemorating a symbolic opening up of the body to the intervention of the divine, even thanks for a sort of ‘divine surgery’. My own experiences in some ways confirmed why this might be so powerful: putting one’s trust in the divine (or in my case, a doctor) to be able to identify exactly what needed attention in this confused mass of pain, discomfort and not fully understood collection of fragile internal organs, really could be a significant moment in someone’s life. I’m not saying that open-torso models are the ancient equivalent of a gastroscopy or CT scan, but by considering more critically how prevailing knowledge affects how we think about our own bodies gives us some new perspectives on ancient anatomical votives. Rather than assuming that ancient people could identify (or even wanted to identify) what was wrong with them in the same way that we tend to do today, and that they made petitions and subsequent offerings accordingly, we might want to put some uncertainty back into that picture and move even further away from the temptations of retrospective diagnosis to think about broader experiences of illness and healing.
Flemming, R. (2016). Wombs for the gods. In J. Draycott and E-J. Graham (eds) Bodies of evidence: Ancient anatomical votives past, present and future. London and New York, Routledge, pp. 112–130.
Geroulanos, S. (2014) Ancient Greek votives, vases and stelae depicting medical diseases. In D. Michaelides (ed) Medicine and healing in the ancient Mediterranean. Oxford, Oxbow, pp. 24–29.
Turfa, J.M. (1994). Anatomical votives and Italian medical traditions. In R.D. De Puma and J.P. Small ( eds) Murlo and the Etruscans: Art and society in ancient Etruria. Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 224–240.