Votive Objects and Offerings
by Jimmy Dunn
Individual piety with regards to public worship in ancient Egypt, from the earliest of times, involved three types of activity, consisting of prayer, sacrifice and the dedication of votive offerings. Such activities were not limited to the piety of common people, but royalty and the priesthood's role were obviously expanded, including participation in ceremonies and other religious functions.
However, in the earliest periods of Egyptian history, there is very little if any actual textual information or depictions of religious activities. Hence, we know relatively little about prayer and sacrifice, but we are somewhat better off with regards to votive offerings since, at a number of sites, the objects themselves have survived. In fact, by the late period in Egyptian history, votive offerings make up a considerable percentage of the body of artifacts that have been unearthed in Egypt, though they may not demand much of the display space available in the worlds museums, which are usually reserved for more prominent royal items.
Actually, many royal items of statuary and other items could probably be considered as votive offerings themselves, considering that they were gifts to the gods and to the temples, but typically the term is used to describe smaller objects, frequently of a non-royal nature.
Yet, votive objects are very informative and revealing, perhaps on a level not understood by most lay students of ancient Egypt, because they represent some of the only evidence available to us regarding popular religion in ancient Egypt. They define the personal religious preferences of common Egyptians, and thus the vast majority of the Egyptian population. Hence, for example, though we find a few votive offerings to the Aten at Amarna, the ancient capital of the heretic King, Akhenaten who attempted to place the sun disk above all other deities, apparently offerings to Amun, Isis and Shed were more common, and other votive offerings were discovered with depictions of many other major Egyptian deities.
It is likely that visitors to shrines would have routinely made offerings of perishable commodities such as foodstuffs. However, more rarely at first, and later during Egyptian history, much more commonly, visitors would demonstrate a particular piety by donating an object usually made specifically as a votive offering. In the Early Dynastic period, as in later times, these votive offerings were most frequently made of a glazed composition, although stone and pottery examples are also known. In latter times, such offerings were more common, as an industry grew up to mass produce such items.
However, even in the Early Dynastic period, there were many such objects placed at sacred sites. Specifically, large numbers of votive objects have been found at four sites that, considering the archaeological context and their style, can be dated to the early years of Egyptian civilization. These sites include Abydos, Hierakonpolis, Elephantine and Tell Ibrahim Awad. A fifth site of unknown provenance was also illegally exploited during the mid 20th century, attested by various objects that found their way into the antiquities market. There are also problems with the material from Abydos and particularly Hierakonpolis, where excavations were carried out without modern, detailed record keeping, making it difficult to determine the precise archaeological context of the finds.
On the other hand, the excavations at the Satet temple at Elephantine and the shrine at Tell Ibrahim Awad were carried out during modern times, providing reliable evidence for the date of the votive material. Fortunately, this provides an important reference point against which the objects from Abydos and Hierakonpolis may be compared and dated. Specifically, the votive objects discovered at Elephantine consist of:
- Human figures, both adults and children, with the most numerous being children with fingers at their mouths,
- baboons and apes, a few of which also have fingers to their mouths,
- a small number of animals and birds, the former including frogs, crocodiles, lions, pigs, hippopotamus, cats and hedgehogs,
- oval faience plaques bearing at one end the head of an animal (the hedgehog),
- faience objects of various forms mainly large beads, necklace spacers and model pots,
- Natural flint pebbles of curious and bizarre shapes and
- flint knives.
Most of the objects that were unearthed from this early period are very similar. Made of glazed composition, many of these objects depict animal or human figures. However, there are also stone and ivory figurines at all four sites, and even natural pebbles and flint modules that apparently suggest human or animal figures in their shape. Yet, even though there is a general similarity in these objects, some regional deviations do occur.
For example, at Hierakonpolis we find a frequency of scorpions and scorpion tails, modeled in faience or stone, together with at least two stone vases decorated with scorpions in raised relief, which is distinctive to that area. Such objects were not found at any of the other Early Dynastic Sites. This is the same location from which the ceremonial macehead of the Predynastic King known as Scorpion was discovered, and all such objects are probably related to a local cult.
At Elephantine, on the other hand, a common type of votive offering is a small, oval faience plague, with the head of an animal (probably a hedgehog) carved on one end. Though forty one of these objects were unearthed at the Satet temple, such items are completely absent from Abydos or Hierakonpolis. Only a few examples of these "hedgehog" offerings have been discovered in very recent excavations at Tell Ibrahim Awad. Though the original purpose of such enigmatic objects is unknown (other than their use as a votive offering), they do provide clues to local or regional traditions of belief.
At Abydos, Petrie discovered several groups of votive figurines, including objects representing human figures, animal figurines, mostly of faience, limestone and ivory, as well as models of pots, boats, portable shrines, fruits and flowers, practically all of faience.
Throughout their history, the Egyptians' desire for progeny motivated many votive offerings to helpful deities. Pottery fertility figurines have been found in private houses of the Middle Kingdom and, by the New Kingdom, at shrines within many temples and at local community shrines. Excavations at the 18th Dynasty royal temples of Deir el-Bahri, which included a major chapels dedicated to Hathor, a promoter of sex and fertility, reveal votive items so uniform as to suggest mass production. There, votive items often consist of a form of pottery cow, miniature Hathor-mask pillar, jewelry, or a painted cloth showing the goddess and containing a brief text into which the donor's name could be inserted. Many of these items were probably left by women, but men also made appeals for progeny, dedicating wooden and stone phalli to ensure their virility and fertility.
However, even in earlier times, votive offerings frequently related to children. At the Satet temple at Elephantine, many of the votive offerings found within the shrine are figures of children and it has been suggested that mothers may have frequented the shrine either hoping to give birth or to bring thanksgiving offerings for a newly born child.
We know very little about who made such objects or how they were acquired by donors, though the objects were probably produced by skilled craftsmen working either independently or attached to the local shrine. It is also dangerous to attempt to link the quality of the object with the social status of the donor.
Votive offerings were, of course, a part of an act of worship. Hence, rituals were probably performed to link a votive object with its donor, which probably included prayer, sacrifice and perhaps other acts of which no traces have survived.
A question also arises as to what extent the general public had access to temples and shrines in order to make votive offerings. From the earliest times, most of the temple property was apparently not accessible by common people. To what extent smaller shrines were available to Egypt's population is relatively unknown, though certainly in later periods there were local sites and even "living ear" shrines built, usually into the outside back of larger temple walls, where they could visit and worship. Indeed, engravings of ears are found on many exterior temple walls where people could apparently come at will to worship and particularly pray to their gods.
Most of the votive offerings were discovered in caches and represent an accumulation of material that was gathered up and buried at periodic intervals by the priesthood. However, at Elephantine, votive offerings were found in situ, on the floor of the Satet shrine. Even there, it is unlikely that common worshipers were given access to the inner rooms. More likely, the offerings were carried there by priests, though we cannot rule out the possibility that even the lowest members of society had some access to these earliest of shrines. Even during the New Kingdom, there is evidence for the laity's access to temples then has been previously realized. The open courtyards of the Luxor Temple and even the hypostyle hall at Karnak both bear inscriptions which indicate that members of the general public were able to assemble and worship in these areas.
However, in later periods of Egyptian history, many votive objects are found in houses which probably contained shrines to favored gods, as well as in small private chapels.
In the final analysis, votive objects relay to us at least two important aspects concerning popular ancient Egyptian religion. They attest to the gods who were most favored by the common people, and they also give us some idea of common concerns, such as fertility, health and prosperity. Some of these concerns are directly evidenced by the type of object, such as fertility statues, while others are more indirect, revealing concerns through which god the offering was made. Hence, through votive offerings, we learn much about not only how the common people of Egypt worshipped, but also about the worries and tribulations of everyday life.
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