Nadja Petersen is a Master’s student at the University of Copenhagen. She is currently writing her thesis on the anatomical votives from the Asclepieion in Corinth.
When I began the research for my Master’s thesis in Classical Archaeology, I gathered inspiration from several different sources. I eventually chose the anatomical votives from Asclepieion (fifth and fourth centuries BCE) in Corinth, Greece. It was a choice deeply rooted in my interest in how and why humans react to illness and disability; the anatomical votives showcase many personal concerns about these subjects. During my research, I quickly observed how questions about the material, production, and typology were placed in the background due to an overall focus on anatomical votives across boundaries, in space and time (Hughes, 2017: 3). In this short article, I will present my research, which draws both on older and newer ‘trends’.
Mass production or customization?
During the 1920s and ‘30s, excavations at Corinth revealed more than 900 fragments of anatomical votives, all made of terracotta. They resembled different human body parts such as legs, arms, feet, ears, eyes, breasts, and genitals. My thesis focusses on these anatomical votives, and how they relate to other sites such as the Potter’s Quarter and the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore in Corinth. One of the greatest issues regarding the production of these anatomical votives is the absence of ‘wasters’ (i.e.,a sculptor’s mold that cannot be removed from the cast without being destroyed). Wasters for other types of terracottas are present in the Potter’s Quarter, the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, and the Asclepieion – these types include standing and seating korai (young girls), temple boys, reclining men and women etc. Furthermore, the most likely production site – the Potter’s Quarter – lacks several important features such as drying floors, kilns, or facilities such as pits for the cleansing of the raw clay (Merker, 2000: 243). It might be argued that we should not understand the anatomical votives as mass-produced or even serial produced, especially since these definitions were coined and applied to production methods during the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. An analysis of the anatomical votives further supports this argument. General types are legs, arms, breasts etc., and subtypes of each of these types exist as well (see picture below). A fair amount of individuality can be observed in these subtypes, which support the wish for customization.
A good example of this is the genitals (i.e., the testicles and penis), which follow certain subtypes regarding the plaques which they usually are mounted on, and the rendition of pubic hair. However, the penises themselves are very individual, and I have yet to observe two penises alike.
Furthermore, anatomical votives such as the famous hand with a growth (perhaps an abscess?) or even the ears, which have pierced holes for removable earrings, also show a desire for customization. De Waele, leader of the excavations from 1929-1933, imagines that the patients of the Asclepieion had pre-selected assemblage of votives at hand in shops in Corinth (de Waele, 1933: 442). It might instead be argued that some processes in the production of these anatomical votives were ‘streamlined’ and produced according to certain standards of types and methods, but other, later processes in this production, could also include a customization decided by the buyer as we see with the objects mentioned above.
Why dedicate a customized anatomical votive?
What I have been very interested in, is to look ‘beyond’ and explore some of the more personal reasons for dedicating an anatomical votive. In the 1990s-2000s, the American anthropologist, Lindsey King, studied the worshippers of St. Francis of Wounds in the northeastern Brazilian town, Canindé, in the state of Ceará. King has one great advantage, which is absent in the case of the Corinthian anatomical votives, and that is the interviews of the worshippers, who dedicated and still dedicate anatomical votives to this day.
Northeastern Brazil is one of the poorest areas of South America, and the inhabitants often live in favelas (i.e., an unregulated neighborhood consisting of low- and middle-income families that has experienced governmental neglect). The average life expectancy is only 58.8 years and the inhabitants often suffer from malnutrition and related illnesses (King, 2014: 5). Brazil is officially a Catholic country, but the inhabitants have a much more colorful belief system, and King describes how the same people can go to Sunday mass and then visit an Afro-Brazilian shrine to worship a pantheon of gods and goddesses (King, 2014: 8). This very colorful and polytheistic belief system is, according to King, a result of an absent Catholic church during the colonization of Brazil in the eighteenth century. These conditions have paved the way for St. Francis of Wounds, a local and later national creation based on St. Francis of Assisi. He is, like the Greek god Asclepius, associated with healing and health, and he is a co-creator of communal identity through the many stories of the miracles he has bestowed upon worshippers. To experience one of these miracles, one must dedicate a milagre (i.e., a votive), preferably an anatomical votive, and then make a promessa (i.e., a promise of payment). The milagres are dedicated in a large bin in Casa dos Milagres, and the very best of them are displayed on a wall. The milagres can be made from many materials and come in many different shapes: they can be beautifully carved wooden anatomical parts, or just made from a cut-up plastic bottle. They can be home-made or bought. The worshipper often tries to depict the illness on the milagre, e.g., painted red spots to depict tropical rash etc. This pattern is, somewhat, present in the Corinthian anatomical votives as well, for example, the hand with a possible abscess mentioned above, or V148, a leg with possible gangrene.
It is clear from King’s many interviews that the milagre is the symbol of the promessa, which is considered by the dedicants to be the most meaningful of the two (King, 2014: 128). The pilgrimage to Canindé and Case dos Milagres is also very significant, especially because of the hardships that are involved. One man promised to carry a big, wooden cross all the way to Canindé as a thank-you-offering to St. Francis of Wounds; however,the cross was too heavy, so he installed some wheels on the bottom. Another man promised to walk to Canindé, but could not afford to miss three day’s work; therefore, he took the bus instead – but he did promise not to sit down. The dedication of the milagres and the telling of whimsical stories exemplifies how the contract between saint and worshippers is negotiated.
Lastly, King emphasizes how difficult it is to understand another culture. King observed that the milagres she deemed good (bom), in terms of aesthetics, were often deemed bad (feio) by the locals (King, 2014: 33). In the same way, the Corinthian anatomical votives have been judged according to material and aesthetic value, but these values depend on our culturally specific understanding of what is good and bad.
de Waele, F. J. 1933: The Sanctuary of Asklepios and Hygieia at Corinth,American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 37, No. 3. Archaeological Institute of America
Roebuck, C. A. 1951: Corinth XIV: The Asklepieion and Lerna,The American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Princeton
Hughes, J. 2017: Votive Body Parts in Greek and Roman Religion,Cambridge
King, L. 2014: Spiritual Currency in Northeast Brazil, University of New Mexico Press: New Mexico
Merker, G. S. 2003: Corinthian Terracotta Figurines: The Development of an Industry, i:Corinth, Vol. 20, Corinth, The Centenary: 1896-1996,The American School of Classical Studies at Athens