Maureen Carroll is Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. Her recent research has focused on infancy and earliest childhood in the Roman world, and she is currently working on a project entitled ‘Mater Matuta and Related Goddesses: Guaranteeing Maternal Fertility and Infant Survival in Early Roman Italy’. In this post she discusses her encounters with wax votives of babies, as well as with the craftsman who made them, in Cyprus this summer.
Twenty-five years ago, I visited the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Old Paphos (Kouklia) in Cyprus, a sanctuary to which pilgrims from the Bronze Age to the Roman period came to worship and seek assistance from the goddess, perhaps primarily in matters of reproduction, given Aphrodite’s association with fertility and fecundity. I also looked in on the nearby Byzantine church of Agia Paraskevi in the village of Yeroskipou where I noticed votive thank offerings made of wax hanging in the church. Those in the form of a naked baby especially caught my eye. I found them interesting in themselves, but also because of the close proximity of Yeroskipou to the ancient sanctuary ruins and the more recent Christian association of Aphrodite with Panagia Galaktariotissa (the milk-giving virgin Mary) who assists women in matters of pregnancy and child-rearing. The name of the village of Yeroskipou itself is derived from the ancient Greek ‘hieros kepos’ -sacred garden- that once was part of the sanctuary of Aphrodite. This blending of the divine, human fertility, and votive offerings over millennia was compelling, but my interest at that time was in the archaeology of ancient gardens, rather than votive religion.
Fast forwarding to the present, and my research interests now indeed relate to Roman religion and the votive phenomenon. My current project focuses on infancy, fertility, and religion, a key aspect of which is the role of women and families in petitioning the divine for help in conceiving and bearing children and the votive gifts given to the gods by the faithful for the fulfilment of these petitions (Carroll 2018; Carroll 2019-forthcoming). The most iconic votives in this context are the usually life-size terracotta swaddled infants which were deposited in many, but not all, early Roman sanctuaries throughout central Italy from the fourth to the second centuries B.C. (Glinister 2017). Emma-Jayne Graham has convincingly proposed that these baby votives were deposited as thank offerings for the (divinely assisted) successful negotiation of the first months of life of a baby, from birth to its release from the swaddling bands (Graham 2014). The wax babies in Cypriot churches presumably have a very similar meaning and purpose, although they might relate more to the birth and survival of the infant, rather than the termination of the period of swaddling, a custom not retained in present day in Cyprus. None of the modern wax babies are swaddled or clothed either.
Remembering the wax babies of Kouklia and Yeroskipou from 1993, I went in search of more such effigies when I made another trip to Cyprus in August 2018. I found wax baby votives (of recent manufacture) in the ninth-century church of St. Lazaros and again in the nearby village of Kiti in the Byzantine churches of Panagia Angeloktisti (the church of the Virgin built by the angels) and the Archangel Michael. In the Panagia Angeloktisti church, the votives were of two types. They either looked like dolls, and presumably had been made in moulds taken from casts of dolls, or were hand-made and took the form of a (seated?) infant with crudely incised hands and feet (they are quite creepy, in fact) (Figs. 1-2). The effigies hang from strings immediately next to an icon of the Virgin, as it was she, presumably, who had fulfilled the prayers of suppliants.
Only the hand-made wax babies are present in the other two churches (Figs.3-4). These are flat on the back and are placed lying down on shelves or tables in the church. All of the wax babies of both types had ‘eyes’ inserted that were simply made of a bean pushed into each eye socket. It appeared to me that these votives might have been left by women, as in St. Lazaros and in Panagia Angeloktisti they were accompanied by silver votive plaques, one of a female torso with prominent breasts (perhaps as a thank offering for curing problems with lactation) and one of a standing woman.
I was very keen to find out who makes the baby votives and where they might be available. On the off chance that I might find some for sale, I visited a couple shops in Larnaca that sold modern icons, silver votives, and other religious devotionals, but there were no wax votives here. Whilst strolling around some back streets in the old part of Larnaca, however, I came across a non-descript shop that had two very large bee’s wax candles wrapped in newspaper hanging from a rack in front of it. The hand-painted notice on the shop window indicated that these premises were those of a wax craftsman or candle-maker. The shop was open, and I walked in to find the man himself in the middle of numerous wax candles and votives (Fig. 5).
My eye went immediately to the numerous babies of various sizes (and prices) hanging from strings around the walls of the room. Some looked like dolls, others were variations on the cruder, flat-backed, hand-made babies I had seen in churches of the area. The strings were contained within the wax body of the babies to facilitate hanging them as votives (Figs. 6-7). All the figures had bean eyes. It was clear that this was the workshop that had supplied at least some of the wax babies I had seen in St. Lazaros and in the churches in Kiti. The candle-maker’s shop is very close to the St. Lazaros church, so it is not surprising that he services this main church of the town, and perhaps the location of his shop is determined by that of the church. Kiti, however, is located 11 km southwest of Larnaca, so people feeling the need to buy a candle or a votive offering obviously come from a bit further afield for their purchases. Of course, I have no way of knowing if there might be a specialist candle- and votive-maker in any village or town with active churches, although I did not actually see one in Kiti village. And my Greek is not good enough to ask many questions!
I bought one of the flat-backed babies for a mere 7 Euros (Figs. 8-9), and he/she now has a place in my study as a memento of my research on Roman infant votives and of the continuity in the practice in a different medium in Orthodox Cyprus. As I was told by a very serious custodian at the church of the Archangel Michael in Kiti, this medium –bee’s wax, as opposed to any other kind of wax– is particularly pleasing in the eyes of God. What surprised me was that the shop owner in Larnaca was not the least bit curious why I, as an obvious foreigner and tourist, wanted to buy a votive meant to be deposited by an adherent of the Orthodox faith in an Orthodox church.
In addition to the baby votives, the shop sold other anatomical votives in the shape of heads, legs, hands, hearts, and various other organs and body parts that were difficult to identify, including possible uteri and spinal cords (Fig. 10). In this sense, the range of votive figures in Cyprus today is an interesting modern reflection of the Classical Greek and early Roman votive practice of dedicating terracotta images of parts of the body that had been healed, cured, or helped in the minds of worshippers who frequented the shrines of various gods and goddesses (Comella and Mele 2005; Hughes 2017; Graham 2017).
My experience with the wax votives of Cyprus and the reciprocal relationship between the divine and the mortal has been utterly fascinating. They have made me think about ancient practices of display and deposition of terracotta votives (hanging, standing, lying), about the juxtaposition of ancient workshops producing votives and the sanctuaries where they were deposited, and about regional variety in the form and shape of votives which is attested also in antiquity. I am not offering answers to any of the complex issues in the study of ancient votive religion here, just presenting some interesting ethnographic parallels which might provide food for thought.
By Maureen Carroll
Carroll, M. (2018), Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World. ‘A Fragment of Time’. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Carroll, M. (2019), Mater Matuta, ‘fertility cults’, and the integration of women in religious life in Italy in the fourth to first centuries BC, Papers of the British School at Rome 87 (forthcoming)
Comella, A. and Mele, S. (eds.) (2005), Depositi votivi e culti dell’Italia antica dall’età arcaica a quella tardo-repubblicana: Atti del convegno di studi, Perugia, 1-4 giugno 2000. Bari: Edipuglia
Glinister, F. (2017), Ritual and meaning: contextualising votive terracotta infants in Hellenistic Italy, in J. Draycott and E.-J. Graham (eds.), Bodies of Evidence. Ancient anatomical votives past, present and future. London: Routledge, 131-146
Graham, E.-J. (2014), Infant Votives and swaddling in Hellenistic Italy, in M. Carroll and E.-J. Graham (eds.), Infant Health and Death in Roman Italy and Beyond (JRA Supplement 96). Portsmouth: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 34-46
Graham, E.-J. (2017), Partible humans and permeable gods: anatomical votives and personhood in the sanctuaries of central Italy, in J. Draycott and E.-J. Graham (eds.), Bodies of Evidence. Ancient anatomical votives past, present and future. London: Routledge, 45-62
Hughes, J. (2017), Votive Body Parts in Greek and Roman Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4 thoughts on “Wax infant votives in Cyprus: ancient and modern parallels”
Fascinating! I enjoyed reading about the connection between ancient and modern practices. I noticed that the beans used for the wax models are “black-eyed” beans (same word in modern Greek: mavrommatika)–how appropriate!
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I visited Panagia Chrysopiliotissa in Nicosia in 1996. The icon of the Virgin was surrounded by beautiful wax votives ranging in size up to that of a toddler, and related to prayers for fertility.