Religion and Death
Votives and Sacrifice


Votives were gifts offered to the gods by their worshippers. They were often given for benefits already conferred or in anticipation of future divine favors. Or they could be offered to propitiate the gods for crimes involving blood-guilt, impiety, or the breach of religious customs. They could be given either voluntarily or in response to demands by the cult's priesthood that the donor fulfill a religious vow or honor some religious custom.

Votives were kept on display in the god's sanctuary for a set period of time and then were usually ritually discarded. Bronze tripods, prize cauldrons and figurines, terracotta tablets and figurines, lamps, and vases are typical examples. Armor, weapons, jewelry and other more personalized items were dedicated in large numbers, along with marble statuettes and reliefs. Some of the healing sanctuaries housed replicas of body parts donated in thanks for or in hope of cures. Large sculptural monuments in bronze, marble and other costly materials were routinely dedicated by either private donors or individual city-states in the great Panhellenic sanctuaries like Olympia and Delphi.

Sacrifices were also thought of as gifts to the gods. They took the form of bloodless offerings such as grasses, roots, cereal grains, fruits, cheese, oil, honey, milk and incense, or were blood-offerings like wild and domesticated animals, birds and fish. The foodstuffs and liquids were either burnt on raised altars so that their aroma could rise heavenward or dropped or poured into wells, holes or tombs. What was left was usually consumed by the sacrificers. Click here for cult statues.

Attic Red Figure Kylix
ca. 480 BC
By the Foundry Painter and the potter Euphronios
31-19-2
A centauromachy or battle between two armed Greek warriors and an elderly centaur armed with the limb of a tree.
H. 9.7; L. 31.2; Dia. 23.8 cm. Photo by Maria Daniels for the Perseus Project.
South Italian Greek Terracotta Votive Figurine
ca. 450-425 BC
MS 1857
Either a Demeter or Persephone figurine or a priestess. The low polos headdress is associated with both, but the apron suggests a priestess. Carrying a piglet, she holds aloft a circular box or kanoun. Inexpensive terracottas depicting female subjects turn up in very large quantities in sanctuaries dedicated to female goddesses throughout the Greek world. Women were especially active in all aspects of Demeter's cult.
H. 32.5; W. 13.0; Th. 8.0 cm. UM neg. S8-55808. (99k)
Attic Red Figure Kylix
ca. 490-480 BC
By the Antiphon Painter and the potter Euphronios
Perhaps Chiusi, Italy
MS 2448
A youth walks along with a piglet and a sacrificial basket. The piglet was the favorite animal to sacrifice to Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, but could also be offered to other deities. In the autumn Demeter's Eleusinian initiates walked to the Saronic Gulf, each carrying a piglet. The animals were purified in the sea before being sacrificed. It may be a moment from this familiar annual event that is pictured here.
H. 10.0; L. 31.0; Dia. 24.0 cm. Photo by Maria Daniels for the Perseus Project. (99k)
Apulian Red Figure Krater
4th century BC
On loan, Philadelphia Museum of Art
L-64-42 detail
Scene of sacrifice, perhaps from a play. A grotesque bearded man, perhaps a slave, wearing a short chiton, high sandals and pointed straw hat, stands in front of an altar. He holds a libation pitcher and large knife. A second comic or bearded, mustachioed male, wearing a tall felt hat and short chiton, holds a sheep over an altar. A woman holds out a ritual winnowing basket, used in the rites of Demeter and Dionysus.
Photo courtesy Mediterranean Section, Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum.


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