Votive offerings are a universal phenomenon that help define sacred space. In many ways, they are irreligious, focused within an emotional moment followed by supplication or remembrance. They are acts of promise or faith that maintain a connection to a person or an event. While they sometimes anticipatory in nature and offered in the hopes a request to be fulfilled, they are typically constructed and offered after the fact. Indeed, the word votive in English derives from the Latin votivus, meaning “vow.”
Votives are seen in Eastern faiths with diyas, the lamps often used in the Hindu festival of Diwali. But they are also found at temples and stupas dedicated to Buddhism. The Ayagapata homage tablets of Jainism often decorate sites dedicated to that faith.
Western religions feature similar practices, with votives often offered in Catholic churches, particularly in chapels near or to the side of the main altar. The act of votive fulfillment is one of faith; the votive – whether an act, a fetish, or a candle – is a recognition of vow, often personal but not necessarily religious. That ritual could be a pilgrimage or random visit. It could be a marker where a death has occurred – like those often spontaneously created after a traffic fatality or marking some tragedy. They honor victims, they comfort pilgrims, and they create a community bound together by that event, that loss or that promise.
They are not limited to fond moments, either. Curse tablets are also votive offerings. Defixios, as they were termed in in the Hellenic and Roman periods, were common supplications to liminal and underworld deities like Hecate, Pluto and Persephone. They were filled with invocations and requests that range from financial collapse to sexual dysfunction. A trove of these votives was found in the thermal springs of Bath, UK, the site of worship for the goddess Sulis, who would be later syncretize with Minvera when a Roman temple was built on the site.
Votives, regardless of origin, share one thing in common: they are left behind. They are physical remnants of a memory – the temporal side of spiritual activity, discarded when the ritual is completed. They are an echo of spiritual act.
Archaeologists and anthropologists have naturally been fascinated by the uncovering of votive objects. Not only do they underscore human activity and presence, but also emphasize the specialness of a location. It is the returning to a place – whether New York City’s Ground Zero, Gettysburg, the Lockerbie crash site of Pan Am Flight 103, or even the statue of Giordano Bruno at Campo di Fiori in Rome – the re-offering of votives continuously restores the sacredness of the location. The pilgrimage, the faith, and the offering – whether it be a curse, a wish or gratitude – refreshes the somber, holy, or magical nature of the location. The votives tell the scientists – and all of us, in a way – look here, this place is important.
The Agents of Faith exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City explores that very question: the echo of a spiritual act in a moment in time and space. The exhibition explores the common act of faith involved in the construction, use, and discarding of votive offerings. “Encompassing exquisite works of art as well as items of humble origin crafted from modest material,” the exhibition’s promotional materials explain, “more than 300 objects dating from 2000 BC to the twenty-first century are on display. Powerful works from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, representing the major world religions, exposes the global nature of votive practices and the profoundly personal nature behind their creation.” The exhibition offers insights into the fears and anxieties of those who crafted the votives and how their act of offering sought to still their worries or show their gratitude.
While the exhibition does not focus on one particular religion or expression of faith, it presents many objects and ideas that will resonate with Pagans and polytheists. Probably most interesting is the simplicity of many offerings. As the curation of objects demonstrates, the simplest of items can be transformed from mundane to sacred. The most modest of materials, like bits of wood or slivers of metal, can be combined and re-purposed for supplication. The humanity is present in the basic economics of the offering.
While the curators of the exhibition took care to include classical – and somewhat expected – votive objects such as an Etruscan bust of a young man and a painted wooden statue of the Holy Mother and Child, they do not distract from the sacredness of the common items.
What is most striking about the exhibition is how the tradition of votive offerings remains important and speaks to modernity as profoundly as such acts spoke to our ancestors. The supplications and invocations may have changed, but the basic human need to revere a moment and place remain. As the exhibition notes, votive offerings are an enduring tradition independent of faith and culture.
A private collection of items left by migrants at the US-Mexican border are on display, for example. So, too, are items that have been offered at the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial. These are “intensely personal objects preserved by the US National Park Service” that range from simple but meaningful toys to a “custom-built full-sized Harley-Davidson motorcycle left in 1995 on behalf of the people of Wisconsin.”
Like the orchestrations of Pagan ritual, each votive contains meaning to its creator: the divine, the place, the intent, and the memory. Each one is intended to heal across the temporal and across the spiritual.
Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place will be on exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City until January 6, 2019.