Votives and Vows - Requests for Supernatural Aid Through Dedicated Offerings and Ritual Deposits
Sarah Bellisario | University of Hertfordshire
On the windswept and darkening evening of the 21 August 1879, in a downpour of rain that had been growing steadily worse all day, fifteen local people stood soaked to the skin in the South gable of St. John the Baptist Church at Knock (Ireland). The gathered awed locals were bearing witness to the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, angels, and Jesus Christ. The majority of the onlookers stayed and prayed for over two hours in the glow of the bright white light of the vision and when it was over the news of this miraculous visitation spread not only across Mayo but all the way to the Vatican. Vatican officials in an 1879 commission found the Knock apparition itself to be “trustworthy and satisfactory” and since then the Shrine at Knock has become a renowned destination for Pilgrims from all over the world.
On 9 June 2023, I travelled to Mayo on a pilgrimage of my own. For me, this was a journey in search of articles of faith and ritual deposits in the landscape. It was also an exploration into how leaving a charm or a dedicated offering in a sacred place can be seen as a way of connecting with the supernatural, or of seeking good luck, healing, or protection. It followed on from a trip at Spring Solstice to the Rollright stones in the UK, to explore altogether more esoteric forms of ritual deposits in the form of magical ephemera, coins, and seasonal offerings. What would I discover from these different sites and the deposits left there? And would there be any similarities to the reasons why people chose to visit them and what they gained personally from these experiences?
Historically, ritual deposits have been left in a variety of different places for a multitude of different reasons. From bent weapons in ditches – to prevent the enemy from using them in the afterlife—to shoes deposited up chimneys or dead cats in spiritual middens, possibly for luck or protection. Wherever the deposit and whatever the intention, these sorts of offerings have been seen as a means of ritual exchange with a higher power. Votives, also known as ex-votos are a type of ritual deposit given as a form of vow, promise, gratitude, or devotion to a chosen deity. Most commonly used as a means of offering and exchange between humans and the transcendent, they are engaged with in many countries and across different historical and contemporary cultural practices. Votives can be used as offerings to deities, saints, ancestors, or nature and can be made of a variety of materials from wax, textiles, clay, paper, and metal, or might come in the form of a meaningful personal item. Votives with a healing symbolism or intention commonly come in the form of individual body parts or as human figures; although they also appear in the form of animals, religious medals, or personal possessions that may have material value or be explicitly symbolic of an ailment (such as a toothbrush or inhaler). Those fashioned in the shape of body parts are most commonly made out of wax or pressed into metal such as tin, silver, or gold, small enough to be sewn into clothing or carried on your person and usually bought with a particular personal purpose in mind.
Votives are traditionally promised in advance to a particular saint or deity with a vow that it will be gifted to them at the time of their recovery. When the saint or deity is seen to have granted the individual healing or recuperation, the votive is then given to the chosen transcendent being as a fulfilment of that vow. When associated with health and wellbeing ex-votos can be seen to work in a similar way to that of sympathetic healing magic. Sympathetic magic is the assumption that a person can be connected magically or spiritually to an object representing them. Based roughly on the idea of ‘like produces like’, i.e. whatever happens to the magical object happens to the person or that a magical object can take on or help release a person’s problem or illness. In one example of sympathetic folk magic customs, a person’s illness or disease is symbolically transferred onto an object such as a piece of cloth and tied to a tree known as a rag tree near a holy healing clootie well (clootie meaning a strip/piece of cloth), so that as the cloth decays so the illness recedes. Similarly, the ex-voto represents the body part of the individual making the vow and can be seen as a gift of the self. In both cases the illness or health issue is literally or figuratively transferred onto the votive object, imbuing it with the person’s wish for healing.
During my trip to Mayo, I visited not only the shrine at Knock but also some of the sites along the Pilgrim trail that follows the stunning Wild Atlantic Way. It is no surprise that this beautiful landscape would have inspired a sense of wonder from those who followed the various Pilgrim routes here, and a want to leave a votive token at one of the sites as they passed through. There are five churches at Knock Shrine, and inside its largest, ‘The Basilica’ were votive candles and coins left as offerings around the statues of Mary and other saints. Outside I encountered religious medals, many of which would have been bought and blessed at the site secreted in gaps and holes in the stone around a statue of Our Lady (the focus of the holy apparition). Here slips of paper containing written prayers for individual petitions and intercessory requests were accompanied by rosaries, personal jewellery, flowers, and red and white thread bracelets. Not all of these deposits pertain to the particular religious views or traditions practiced at the shrine, and it is not uncommon to see items left amongst the rocky walls that reflect the more personal beliefs or cultural heritage of the many international visitors. The fountain at the front of the Basilica is full of pennies, possibly thrown in for luck or a healing wish, and at the front of the Apparition chapel, where the vision is said to have appeared, there is a small section of the original wall that visitors can touch. Some choose to briefly touch the wall as they pass, but others prefer to rest their face against the stone or press their hands against the wall for longer, desiring to purposely connect with the space where the miracle occurred and simultaneously hope their prayers might be channelled through that physical touch.
Further along the Pilgrim way, I stopped off at Croagh Patrick, the stunning rocky peak which according to legend was climbed by St Patrick in 441AD. Thousands of pilgrims now climb to its peak every year and a common tradition is to carry a pebble from its base up to the top of the mountain. The pebble is meant to represent all your worries or something in your life that you want to let go of or change, leaving this votive or talismanic stone at the top signifies you’re asking for God’s help to do this. Father Nigel Woollen who worked at Knock Shrine for fifteen years told me, ‘There are different ways of doing the walk, but I think it's the same principle really. We all have stuff in our lives that we'd like to be different, and we believe that God can help us to change things in our lives, and If we make that sort of gesture of saying, I need some help with this or I want to change, then God will bless us.’ At the bottom of the mountain sits a statue of St Patrick himself, and on the day I visit, I find him surrounded by a few neatly bundled piles of shoes left by the hardiest of visiting pilgrims while they walk barefoot up the mountain, and entwined around his iconic staff with which he used to banish snakes and baptise Ireland are rosaries and red roses.
Croagh Patrick has not always had its roots in the Catholic religion and it was considered a sacred site of worship as far back as 3000 BC when ancient Pagans were said to gather to celebrate the beginning of the harvest season at the ‘Cairn of stones’ which lies at the base of the mountain’s summit. In fact, the Mayo Pilgrim route has many important stone sites once populated by ancient peoples, just down the road on the coastal path lies the bronze age megalithic complex of ‘Annagh Killdangan’ and a few miles away inland, nestled in the back garden of a dilapidated and long since abandoned home, sits the Boheh stone also known as ‘St Patricks Chair’. The ivy-covered ruins feel like a very strange place to find one of the finest examples of Neolithic rock art and its large surface is covered with around 250 engravings of cup and ring marks and keyhole motifs. Twice a year on April 18th and August 24th the setting sun, from the vantage of the Boheh stone, appears to magically roll down the northwest side of Croagh Patrick. It is believed that the carving left in the stone may have been inspired by this ‘Rolling sun’ phenomenon and would have made a wonderful viewpoint for whomever once occupied the home where it sits.
My visit to the Boheh Stone and learning about the ancient significance of the Cairn of Stones on St Patrick made me reflect on my visit to the Rollright Stones just after the spring equinox earlier in the year. The Rollright Stones are at an ancient site bordering Oxfordshire and Warwickshire and are steeped in folklore and ancient history. The site itself contains three different stone arrangements, The Kings Men, The King Stone, and the Whispering Knights, making up a complex of megalithic monuments that span from 3800BC to 1500BC. When I visited the site around Easter, I found, similarly to the petitions and prayers placed in the knotted stone holes at Knock, small tokens, flowers, coins, and notes pushed into the burrows in the standing stones around the sites. There were coins left strewn across the Whispering Knights Stones and in a tree to the side of the main stone circle reminiscent of a traditional Rag tree, were tied an abundance of ribbons, spell bags, and other assorted offerings. Underneath the tree itself were spell jars and a batch of eggs illustrated with blessings to a goddess attached in modern times to the Neo-Pagan Spring Equinox celebration of ‘Ostara’.
The ritual deposits left in and around the Rollright stones struck me initially as being contrasting to the votive deposits in Ireland not only for the obvious religious differences but also by the fact that they seemed more connected to solitary and individual practice. The deposits left at the sites I visited in Ireland, although all deeply personal, seemed to be a way of taking part in a wider shared experience with a common belief system where people went to experience a direct connection to a place of holy or divine significance. Whereas the ritual deposits at the Rollright stones seemed to be attached to a wider variety of different belief systems and had been left for varied and differing layered reasons. Many different visitors engage with the Rollright Stones from local dog walkers and tourists to Pagans, Wiccans, Animists, and believers in other esoteric systems. Although there for different reasons, these visitors interact with the stones as a shared space and their visits intersect through a desire to connect or interact in some way with the sacred landscape and nature of the place. Regarding more esoteric minded visitors, although their beliefs may vary and their ritual deposits differ, their experiences often diverge through a wish to connect in some way to Pagan ancestors or actively with the stones, as a means to be part of something older and bigger than themselves. This begs the question, are visitors to the stones enjoying a similar human collective experience to those at Knock? Where instead of a connection to a Catholic God, they look for connection and symbolic engagement with the landscape and their own personal Gods or Goddesses.
I’m sure that the people who visit both different sites would have very distinct answers to that question but on a basic human level it seems that you could suggest there are similarities regardless of religion or belief. Whether gifted to a Pagan deity, saint, or god of a major religion; or seen through a magical, faith, or spiritual lens the sentiment is the same. Humans continue to seek meaningful personal connections that they believe may have the ability to effect real healing, personal wellbeing, or connection. Whether this is with a higher or supernatural power, a form of magical consciousness, spirit or nature depends on the person and their personal beliefs. But the need for connection and healing it appears is universal.
Sarah Bellisario is a DFA research student at the University of Hertfordshire. She is also a freelance and published illustrator, art teacher, and lecturer. Sarah’s research explores how symbolic objects are understood and used in magical, spiritual, and faith healing practices. It asks how contemporary British practitioners are reimagining and reinterpreting healing and ritual through syncretic assemblages and intercultural processes, as well as exploring the materiality and potency of the objects and artifacts used in these practices and the part they play in transformation and healing through symbolic engagement.
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