If you’re reading this, you are either looking for some information on female votive offerings or you are extremely lost and confused. Either way, buckle up and put on your learning pants because you are about to learn some fascinating information about an ancient alternative form of medicine!
Disclaimer: All of the information on this website has been compiled from external research and sources, both peer-reviewed and not. If after reading all of this you would still like to know more, then look at the reference list provided below and get to learning!
Background Information and Context
What are Anatomical Votive Offerings?
Before we get into the specific female offerings, we should start with the big question: What even is an anatomical votive offering? Well, these objects are realistic sculptures of a specific body part of an individual, often made of clay, that either needs to be healed or has been previously healed which were then presented at healing temples to the gods (Laios et al., 2013, 1). Seen as a reappearance of previous traditions in 500 BC but gaining much more popularity in 400-300BC, these offerings were used to represent ailments or injuries to the gods (Laios et al., 2013, pg 2). These offerings were either sculptures of a healthy body part, or less commonly, were actually body parts that showed the specific injury or illness by which the individual was affected (Laios et al., 2013, 1). There are a plethora of surviving anatomical structures depicting structures such as limbs, facial elements, genitals, and internal organs (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50).
COOL FACT ALERT: Clay, specifically terracotta clay, was most widely used to make these offerings because it was readily available and was low in cost (Harris, 2016, pg. 107)! Silver, bronze, and marble are a few examples of other substances that were used to make these offerings (Irby, 2016, pg. 543); however, the widespread use of terracotta clay has helped create the hypothesis that all classes, not just the upper class, used these offerings as a medical strategy (Harris, 2016, pg. 107).
Now you may be wondering how a generic clay sculpture from a mold of an injured or wounded part of the body is supposed to serve as an alternative to the modern medicine we know today, and understandably so. It is important to remember the time in which these offerings were used, the medical knowledge and the cultural relevance of deities in that period of time. In modern post-industrial society, we have hundreds of years of medical history, peer-reviewed research, and a deep understanding of the internal and external human anatomy to help form our medical strategies; however, in antiquity, the medical treatment decisions were much less informed. Therefore, ancient medicine had two main branches: formal medicine, which is the beginning of the medical treatments we use today, and deity-based practice, which was the use of healing temples and anatomical votive offerings (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 48).
If you would like to learn more about the religious healings of ancient medicine pertaining to women’s health, then check out our other page on this website:
Women’s Health and Religious Healing
So, basically either a sick or injured individual would bring these offerings to the healing temple of their choice as a way of asking the gods to help heal their body, or a healed person would bring these offerings to the healing temple as a way of thanking the gods for the healing they had already brought upon them (Laios et al., 2013, pg. 1).
For a little extra clarification, watch the short video below where Isabel Greenslade, Visitor Experience Assistant of the Wellcome Museum, gives a quick explanation of an anatomical votive offering.
How Do They Work?
Congratulations! Now you have the general (but really cool) knowledge of what an anatomical votive offering is! The next step is to figure out exactly how they were expected to work. Well…. that means you’re about to read about gods, temples, temple specialization, and some other funky information.
We will start off with the different types of temples where these offerings were presented. Each temple had a god of worship and, while the god was different depending on which temple you attended, all were worshiped for their healing abilities (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 48). A large number of healing sites have been discovered across Greece and Italy (with central Italy containing more than 130 sites alone), giving patients easy access to temples as they were vastly available (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 49). While there were many different temples many worshiping all different gods (like Apollo, Athena, Heracles, & Zeus just to name a few) (Irby, 2016, pg 541) the most popular healing temples were those of Asclepius/Aesculapius (AKA Asklepois in Greek, the Greek god of healing) (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 49). The sheer number of offerings that have been discovered from the Asclepieion temple in Corinth has been unmatched by other locations to date (Laios et al., 2013, pg. 3-4).
COOL FACT ALERT: The mythology of the gods and their stories are really interesting, so if you have some time on your hands, watch the video below to fill you in on the story of Asclepius. This is basically the Greek god version of a comic book character’s origin story, so enjoy!
ANYWAYS… now back to our regularly scheduled programming!
Patients would travel to the Corinth sanctuary and sleep in there with the hopes of being healed (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 49). The healing itself would come in one of two forms: Asclepius would visit the patient at night and either the healing would miraculously occur while they were sleeping, or the Asclepius would send them remedies to their illnesses/injuries in the forms of dreams (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 49).
Another cool aspect of the healing sanctuaries is that some of them specialized in specific areas of the body or specific maladies (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 47). It is important to note that while there were some centres that were specialized, many others were simply general healing temples open to any ailment (Graham, 2013). Below is a short, non-exhaustive list of some sanctuaries that specialized in specific body conditions as researched by Oberhelman in 2014:
- Sanctuary in Athens: Ocular Disease Specialization
- Sanctuary in Corinth: Limb & Urinary/Genital Issue Specialization
- Sanctuary in Ponte di Nona: Lower Extremity Injury & Headache/Migraine Specialization
Other cults specialized in gynaecological matters and female health related issues, while some centres remained general and open to any malady (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 47). This type of specialization is important to note in this context because the type of healing that occurs at each temple would determine the types of offerings that were presented.
The city or country the temples are located in are also important to note, as they give us clues as to the knowledge of the population at that time. For example, there are very few Greek votives discovered that represent internal organs; however, there are many more discovered in Rome and Eutria (Irby, 2016, pg. 542). In Greek culture, there were extremely harsh laws on human dissection, thus at that time, the Greeks did not have a comprehensive idea of the internal anatomy of an individual (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 59). Italian culture, while the dissection laws were still harsh, it was also illegal to bury a deceased pregnant woman until the fetus was removed from her body, so a small amount of internal anatomy, specifically that of the uteri, was learned(Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 59). In the context of female votive offerings, this explains why there are many more offerings of uteri in ancient Italian than Greek culture.
A really cool website called the Votive Project which is basically a blog filled with a ton of different information on votive offerings! If you want to learn more about internal votive offerings click HERE!
A really interesting and very important fact about the differentiation of sex between gender neutral objects is that some of the votives were painted white to represent females while male parts were painted red; however, not all offerings were like this, and there can be discolouration on the votives when they are discovered today (Laios et al., 2013, pg. 4)
Female Anatomical Votive Offerings
We’ve officially gotten to la pièce de résistance. You might be a little annoyed that it’s taken this long to get to the information you (hopefully) came here to see, but I promise there was a good reason for it! Many votive offerings that are discovered are of gender neutral structures such as arms, legs, feet and all those body parts, so unless there is an inscription specifically saying who the body part belongs to, we don’t know if the votive belonged to a man or a woman. Differentiation of information between gender-neutral body parts is limited, so any information on ‘un-gendered’ votive offerings is grouped together. Unless there is a reason to know an offering is female, like if it is of a uterus, or the inscription identifies the individual as one, it is generally discussed as a votive offering, ignoring the sex of the object. All the background information that was talked about above is important because it all pertains to female anatomical votives that are not of identifiably female body parts.
That being said, some votive offerings are specific to women. Most of the examples of female votive offerings will come from reproductive aspects of the female anatomy and they are largely found in Italian sanctuaries. As previously mentioned, there were many more internal organ votives created in ancient Italian culture and thus providing archeologists with the female votives of uteri (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 49). So without any more waiting around, let’s learn about the female side of this awesome medical part of antiquity!
While also still called sanctuaries and temples, some sanctuaries relating to female healing were referred to as fertility cults (Carroll, 2019, pg.3). It was very common for goddesses to have healing sanctuaries relating to female health in the last few centuries BC in Italy (Carroll, 2019, pg.3). These sanctuaries were places where these women could go and pray for their own health and the health of their baby during their delivery, as well as a place to go after to thank the goddesses for their protection during their birth (Carroll, 2019, pg.3). Like discussed above, women could sleep at the temple at night and either be healed or get dreams with methods of healing, or they could just come and worship the goddess for procession during birth (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 49). While many gods were used as deities of reproductive worship, Juno was a goddess of fertility and votive offerings in her healing temples in Lavinium are nearly all symbols of reproductive health and childbirth (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 57). Furthermore, the sanctuary of Zeus Hypistos (who was considered to be a God of fertility) (IOC, 2021) was a temple rich with reproductive votive offerings, with roughly 60% of the offerings discovered relating to female reproductive health (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 53).
Another famous goddess for women in antiquity was Mater Mutata who was the goddess of maternity and birth (Carroll, 2019, pg.3).On the photo on the left (figure 11) you see a statue of the goddess, seated and holding a baby. She was an indigenous Italian deity whose values and worship surrounded motherhood and the protection of children (Carroll, 2019, pg.4). The most famous sanctuary of Mater Mutata was in Satricum which was used between 640 and 535 BC (Carroll, 2019, pg.5). While there is not a lot of information available on the specific rituals that would occur within her temples, it was known that offerings relating to female healing would be brought (which isn’t a surprise considering this entire website revolves around this), BUT women would also bring yellow cake in clay pots to her temple as a sort of reward or price to pay (Carroll, 2019, pg.7). A weird (and slightly irritating) fact about her temple was that after a woman would deliver her child, she was considered polluted with the after-birth effects and was not allowed back in the temple for 40 days (Carroll, 2019, pg.7)! Imagine worshipping a goddess for the safe delivery of a child and good health for yourself, and once you deliver your baby, you get kicked out of the temple for 40 days because you are dirty with birth?! A lot of this stuff talked about on this site is cool and beautiful, but this? A little ridiculous if you ask me. Anyways, the main take away from this is that many goddesses aided in women’s health, were worshiped by fertility cults, and were ultimately a large provider of healthcare for ancient women.
Female anatomical votive offerings predominately surround the idea of fertility and childbirth shown through the sculptures of uteri, swaddling of children, and breasts (Graham, 2013, pg 218).
One of the most interesting and common female anatomical votive offerings are of uteri! These are most common in ancient Italian culture because, as discussed earlier, there were strict laws prohibiting any dissection on humans; however, in Italian culture if a pregnant woman dies, the fetus must be surgically removed before her burial, thus they learned a small amount about the anatomy of the uterus (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 59). Check out these cool pictures of these types of votives (be sure to click on the photo for a description and the link to the original image)!
These offerings are some of the most abundant female votive offerings that have been discovered to date (Graham, 2013, pg 219). When combining the number of votives from the sanctuaries in Gravisca and Ara della Regina, over 500 offerings of uteri were discovered (Graham, 2013, pg 219). When comparing the number of uteri offerings to some other categories, such as the swaddled baby offerings that will be discussed next, it is significantly higher (Graham, 2013, pg 222).
It is believed that the offerings of uteri are to represent the wish for fertile wombs (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 58). It has been hypothesized by archeologists that the display of wombs are less of a reflection of wishes of health for the child, and more of an offering on behalf of the health of the mother (Graham, 2013, pg 222). The uteri also give insight into the ideals and wishes of parents in antiquity (Graham, 2013, pg 222). The number of votives found have been hypothesized to demonstrate the strong hopes and prayers for a positive outcome in both marriage and pregnancy, and reflect the central positive ideals for fertility and childbirth (Graham, 2013, pg 222).
The offerings of the uteri also varied, as some contained spheres inside to represent a form of embryos, while others remained empty (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 48). There have even been accounts of uteri with two spheres inside which is believed to have represented twins (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 48). What is really cool about these spheres is that they are some of the earliest evidence demonstrating the understanding of intra-uterine life in this culture (Graham, 2013, pg 222). The balls within the uteri have also been hypothesized to be reflection of the combination of the male and female ‘seed’, and since the uteri have been filled with spheres and not small sculptures resembling human features, it represents the budding but limited knowledge of conception and reproduction (Graham, 2013, pg 222). Not only do the votive offerings of uteri represent a prayer for the mother’s health during childbirth, but they also give a direct insight into the amount of anatomical and reproductive knowledge that ancient Italian citizens contained to date (Graham, 2013).
Swaddling of Children
Another cool female votive offering are swaddled baby offerings! While there is not as much information on these offerings as for the uteri offerings, which could simply be based off of the sheer volume difference of uteri compared to swaddled babies, they do reflect the female ideals and birthing culture of the time. Check out some awesome pictures of some swaddled baby offerings below (and click on the picture for a description and the link to the original image)!
Votives of swaddling children are not viewed as symbols of sick or ailing children, but as a wish or thanks for safe delivery of a child (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 57). Primarily used from the third to the first century, there is a lack of these votives that have been discovered to date (Graham, 2013, pg 224). For example, there have been only 95 found spread across two major locations (Marica, Minturnae and Porta Nord, Vulci), which is much lower than the 500+ uteri votives found in Gravisca and Ara della Regina (Graham, 2013, pg 224).
These votives were also considered fertility offerings provided to the gods in hopes of becoming pregnant (Graham, 2013, pg 219-223). Some archeologists even believe that these offerings were provided in response to a high mortality rate during childbirth (Graham, 2013, pg 225). For reference, it is predicted that the infant mortality rate in the Roman Empire was 300 out of every 1000 babies (Todman, 2007, pg 84). The mothers were not in much better shape for mortality rates either with predicted mother mortality rates of 25 out of every 1000 mothers dying (Todman, 2007, pg 84). Due to these staggering odds against the baby and the mother, votive offerings were used as a way of praying for safety during this potentially medically fatal process (Graham, 2013, pg 225).The offerings are believed to also mark a milestone for the child’s life as they are able to start being unwrapped by bandages that are first placed around the baby after its birth (Graham, 2013, pg 224). Since the bandages are first applied to the baby directly after birth, it was seen as a big milestone in a baby’s life when these bandages were removed (Graham, 2013, pg 224). So, because the un-swaddling of a baby was a pretty big deal back in these ancient times, some mothers would bring these votives to the temple as an offering to the god/goddess to thank them for their safe birth, and also signified the baby’s religious devotion (Graham, 2013, pg 224). The offerings, while used to represent a safe and healthy birthing for the mother, can also be used to symbolize the baby’s place within their culture and society (Graham, 2013, pg 224).
If you want to learn some more information on pregnancy and childbirth in antiquity, click HERE!
While some of these offerings can look more adult-like in the facial features, many displayed more conventional baby characteristics such as rounded face and cheeks, larger eyes, chubby features with double chins and a smile (Graham, 2013, pg 224). Archeologists believe that these offerings display the child ageing roughly two months old (Graham, 2013, pg 224). This timeline is based on the appearance of the child in the sculpture and also the fact that it is believed the timeline coincides with the milestone of unwrapping the baby after it is born (Graham, 2013, pg 224). The sculptures often show a baby swaddled in cloth and bandages with the hands, arms, and legs wrapped in the blanket, with the bottom open with the feet out (Graham, 2013, pg 224).
COOL FACT (EXTRA INFORMATION) ALERT: Although they are not from ancient Greece or Italy, check out this cool branch off baby offerings made of wax from ancient Cyprus by clicking HERE!
T*tties, honkers, knockers, boobies or formally known as breasts. That’s what we’re going to talk about! There is some really fascinating information on the use of breast votives in ancient Greek and Rome and are some of the more popular votives relating to female anatomy. So let’s put our breast foot forward and jump right in! See what I did there 🙂 Check out these awesome pictures of breast votive offerings (click on the picture for a description and the link to the original picture).
Also, check out this cool video by Athar Jaber where he holds and discusses the use of breast votives throughout antiquity! While not all votives of breasts were spheres with multiple nipples, this allows you to have a full 360-degree view of an offering in very good condition!
This type of offering was common in both ancient Greek and Italian cultures (Fanthem et al., 1995). These votives can date as far back as far 400 BC (Goldman, 2020). Since these organs are external to the body, both Greek and Roman culture would have equal knowledge of their external anatomy (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 59). Since these offerings are associated with female health (obviously), on top of any sickness or injury to the breast itself, they were also widely believed to represent reproductive health and safe delivery of a child (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50). While they can represent injury, there is however, some argument whether or not a breast offering was used specifically to reflect breast cancer (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50). Unfortunately, the votives of breast that have been found to date do not have much mention as to the specific purpose behind the offering (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50). While it may be an easy assumption to believe that breast votives reflected the diagnoses of breast cancer, it is not generally believed that this was there main usage (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50). Around the same time, there was a lot of debate among the existence and treatment for what we now know as breast cancer, from the belief that breast cancer was associated to ailments of menstruation that may disappear on their own, to high survival rate for the women if these lesions were discovered early, to potential intervention which will most likely kill the women (Iavazzo, 2009, pg. 52). All of the uncertainty of this condition may explain why votives were not necessarily related to breast cancer, simply being because people did not understand it yet, and thus were not as concerned (Iavazzo, 2009, pg. 52). AGAIN, it is important to remember that the debate of if the breast offerings were used to depict cancer is still highly discussed due to the significant lack of information from antiquity on the subject (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50). The breasts were simply offered as an offering of gratitude for a safe and healthy delivery for both the mother and the child (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50).
Breast offerings are also used as a symbol of breastfeeding to once again symbolize the health of mother and baby, or healthy delivery (Oberhelman, 2014, pg. 50). It is important to note the difference in these votives between Greek and Etruscan culture (Fanthem et al., 1995). While votives or depictions of breasts and mothers were common in ancient Greek culture to symbolize breastfeeding, the votives in Etruscan culture contain the addition of the baby as well (Fanthem et al., 1995). Overall, breast offerings in both Greek and Etruscan culture were used as representations of birth and breastfeeding, as well as health of mother and child (Fanthem et al., 1995).
The offerings of breasts range more than that of the other votives discussed above. They can come as a single breast, as a pair, or sometimes as a mother figurine with the breasts out and potentially even breastfeeding a child. While they may look drastically different, they represent the health of the mother and child, as well as can act as a symbol of gratitude for the health that was brought upon a mother and child by a goddess (Fanthem et al., 1995).
COOL FACT ALERT: If you are interested in this aspect of ancient culture and want a nice pair of breast votives for yourself, click this link and get your credit card ready! Buy Some Breasts!
To sum it all up…
If you made it to here, you either had to read this for a project or assignment, you are truly interested in this content, or you are procrastinating something so hard that you read through a long website on something you apparently don’t care about. Either way, I hope this gave you a new perspective on this ancient religious medicine. As you read, these votives were largely used by people of all classes as a way of using divine healing. Men and women both used votives offerings for all different types of sicknesses and injuries on all different parts of the body; however, since it is very difficult to tell if an offering is of a male or female body part if there are no gender differentiating features, gender-neutral body parts are discussed the same for men and women. The only truly female anatomical votives we have are of gender-neutral body parts with inscriptions giving context as to who the offering refers to, or of gender specific body parts or structures such as uteri, breasts, and swaddling children. These offerings, mainly used by fertility cults represent the safety of the mother and the child as well as serve as a present to a goddess or as a milestone for the child as they advance to the next stage in their life! These small structures while seemingly simple, give lots of insight as to the injuries or sicknesses of the time, as well as the values and beliefs of the people. For example, the uteri give us context today in modern times as to the medical knowledge in antiquity by analyzing the spheres within the uterus. Overall, anatomical votive offerings and specifically female anatomical votive offerings are a really cool part of history, and if you would like to learn more then use the reference list below to start your research! Thanks for reading and I hope you have the brest day ever (sorry I had to do it one more time :)!
Carroll, M. (2019). Mater Mutata, ‘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. 1-45.
Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (1995).Excursus
Etruscan women. ProQuest Ebook Central. Women in the classical world: Image and text.
Goldman, R. (2020, December 30). History of breast cancer. Healthline.
Graham, E. J. (2013). The making of infants in Hellenistic and early Roman Italy: a
votive perspective. World Archeology, 45(2), 215-231.
Harris, W. V. (Ed.). (2016). Anatomical votives: Popular medicine in republican Italy?. ProQuest
Ebook Central. Popular medicine in graeco-roman antiquity: Explorations (pp.105-125).
Iavazzo, C. R. (2009). The breast: from Ancient Greek myths to Hippocrates and Galen.
Reproductive BioMedicine Online, 19(2), 51-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1472-
International Olympic Committee. (2021) Mythology. https://www.olympic.org/ancient-olympic-
Irby, G. L. (Ed.). (2016). Healing shrines. ProQuest Ebook Central. A companion to science,
technology, and medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. (pp.533-551) https://ebookcentral-
Laios, K., Tsoucalas, G., Karamanou, M., & Androutsos, G. (2013). The medical-
religious practice of votive offerings and the representation of a unique
pathognomonic one inside the Asclepieion of Corinth. Journal of Religion & Health,
54(2), 449-454. doi: 10.1007/s10943-013-9811-1
Oberhelman, S. M. (2014). Anatomical votive reliefs as evidence for specialization at
healing sanctuaries in the ancient Mediterranean world. Athens Journal of Health,
1(1), 47-62. https://doi.org/10.30958/ajh.1-1-4
Todman, D. (2007). Childbirth in ancient Rome: From traditional folklore to obstetrics.
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 47(2), 82-85.
Mater Mutata”Mother goddess seated in a wicker chair and nursing an infant sometimes identified as Mater Mutata“. User: AgTigress Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_terracotta_mother_goddess_1.JPG
All other pictures have reference under the picture
Hyperlinks to the pictures are below:
Figure 1. Clay-Baked Face
Figure 2. Ear Votive Offering
Figure 3. Clay-Baked Eye
Figure 4. Facial Votive Offering
Figure 5. Clay-Baked Foot
Figure 6. Arm and Hand Votive Offering
Figure 7. Hand and Forearm Votive Offering
Figure 8. Scalp Votive Offerings
Figure 9. Clay-Baked Stomach
Figure 10. Clay-Baked Teeth
Figure 11. Mater Mutata
Figure 12. Clay-Baked Uterus
Figure 13. Clay Baked Uterus
Figure 14. Clay-Baked Uterus
Figure 15. Clay-Baked Uterus
Figure 16. Clay-Baked Uterus
Figure 17. Clay-Baked Baby
Figure 18. Clay-Baked Baby
Figure 19. Mother and Child Offering
Figure 20. Clay-Baked Breast
Figure 21. Clay Baked-Breast
Figure 22. Terracotta Breasts
Figure 23. Clay-Baked Breast
Figure 24. Clay-Baked Breasts
Figure 25. Clay-Baked Breast
Jaber, A. (2020, December 13). Athar Jaber. ATHAR JABER|Marble Breast. [Video].
See U in History/Mythology. (2020, September 9). Apollo and Asclepius: The god of medicine and
healing-Greek mythology in comics-See U in History [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com
Wellcome Collection. (2020, April 30). Votive Offerings: how were they used to treat illness? [Video].