Votive Offerings

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Tamata (votive offerings) placed in front of an icon of the Theotokos in the Cathedral of Chania, Crete.
Wonderworking icon of the Theotokos, "The Three-handed". The third hand in silver is a votive offering given by St. John of Damascus in thanksgiving for a miracle.
Icon of the Virgin Mary in the Chapel of St. James in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with various votive offerings attached.

Votive Offerings (Greek: τάμα Tama , pl. τάματα Tamata ; Latin: Ex Voto Suscepto, "from the vow made") refers to those things that are vowed or dedicated to God, the Theotokos, or a saint, and are in consequence looked upon as being set apart by this act of consecration, and as an expression of reverence and thanksgiving. Traditionally the spiritual practice of making vows that are sealed by the votive offering has been common among the faithful in the Orthodox Church, particularly in the Greek Orthodox Church.


The making of vows is a pious spiritual expression that was a customary practice among the ancient Greeks[note 1] and Hebrews. The Holy Scriptures refer to the making of vows in several instances including: Genesis 28:20-22,[note 2] Numbers 6:1-21,[note 3] Deuteronomy 23:22-24,[note 4] Judges 11:29-39,[note 5]Ecclesiastes 5:4,[note 6]Acts 18:18,[note 7] and Acts 21:23-24.[note 8] It is for this reason why they have been preserved in Christianity.[1]


In general terms a votive offering or tama may be offered at the icon or shrine of a saint, as a reminder of a petitioner's particular need, and as a fulfillment of their intended vow or promise. They are also offered in gratitude for a prayer or vow that has already been answered.

"The vow usually takes the form of a commitment by the offerer to present some material gift to the supernatural benefactor if the benefactor grants the supplicant's particular request. Moreover, it is the making of the vow prior to the offering itself that, in the minds of [the faithful], distinguishes the votive offering from such other forms as the propitiatory or thank offering. While votive offerings are sometimes made in other situations of crisis or uncertain control such as the opening of a new business or the confrontation of one's son with the vagaries of the military draft, most frequently votives are employed in response to illnesses for which no other cure can be found. Promises and subsequent offerings are directed toward individual or local patrons, or toward saints believed to be especially powerful in dealing with certain maladies, such as the Panaghia (Virgin Mother) who is frequently called upon to aid in conception or childbirth, or Saint Paraskevi who is regarded as especially efficacious in treating afflictions of the eyes."[2]

Tamata usually take the form of small metal plaques, which may be of base or precious metal, usually with an embossed image symbolizing the subject of the prayer for which the plaque is offered. A wide variety of images may be found on tamata, which lend themselves to multiple interpretations. A heart may symbolize a prayer for love, or a heart problem. Eyes may indicate an eye affliction; hands or legs may indicate maladies of the limbs; a pair of wedding crowns may mean a prayer for a happy marriage; a torso, for afflictions of the body, and so forth.

The offerings themselves usually fall into one of three broad categories: (1) representations of the individual offerer, especially small gold- or silver-plated effigies of the bodily part to be cured...which are hung before the icon of the benefactor; candles the height or weight of the beneficiary; or personal valuables such as necklaces or rings; (2) adornments for the icon of the supernatural invoked, especially the gold or silver plating of parts of the icon such as the halo or hands; and (3) humbling acts taken up by votants in the service of the benefactor, especially crawling up the steps of a particular church, begging in behalf of the saint's church, or working for the church community in some self-effacing capacity.[2]

Tamata may be bought in shops selling Greek Orthodox religious items, and then hung near an icon or shrine of a saint, by using a ribbon tied on a pole, or on hooks, the act of which is usually accompanied with a prayer, and sometimes with the lighting of a votive candle.

As the contractual nature of the vow implies, most offerings are made only after fulfillment of the offerer's request by the saint, and the actual presentations are made almost secretively, with no ostentation. The presentations occasionally take place in the presence of the offerer's immediate family, and often without the knowledge of the local priest.[2] Pilgrimage sites often include shrines that are decorated with many tamata.

One of the most famous Orthodox votive offerings historically is that by Saint John of Damascus. According to tradition, while he was serving as Vizier to the Caliph, he was falsely accused of treachery and his hand was cut off. Upon praying in front of an icon of the Theotokos his hand was miraculously restored. In thanksgiving, he had a silver replica of his hand fashioned and attached it to the icon. This icon, now called "Tricherousa" or "Trojeručica" (The Three-handed) and is preserved at Chilandari Monastery on Mount Athos.

Tamata correspond almost exactly to the Milagros traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings in the Roman Catholic cultures of Mexico, the southern United States, Latin America, and parts of the Iberian peninsula.


According to Metropolitan Germanos II (Paraskevopoulos) of the Holy Metropolis of Ilias and Oleni in Greece, this is a subject however which is prone to much misinterpretation by Christians, who are thus removed from the true meaning of making vows, and therefore cause more harm to themselves than good.[1]

For example, several people are of the opinion that God and the Saints will grant their petition simply because they make a vow in an of itself. This is an error, because the Saints are not in need of our material goods, nor do they require a vow to be made before our prayers are heard by them. The Lord said "...when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:7-8). It is enough that we have a strong faith and a pure heart and live a Christian life, and that our requests should me made for our spiritual well being.[1]

Furthermore, the way that certain vows are made comes across as making a bargain with God. For example, "Saint Paraskevi, please heal me and I will bring you a gold candle", or "God please help me with my exams and I will bring you...". This denigrates God and lessens the personality of man at the same time, while also making manifest our lack of faith.[1]

This is why careful attention is required if one is making vows. They should be of a spiritual nature to help with the purity of the soul and the holiness of one's life, because "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24).[1]


The primary message that the votive contains and transmits would appear to be man's dependence upon and subservience to the will of God, and God's concern for man and occasional susceptibility to his influence. This notion is neatly packaged in the relation of the material or behavioral offering of the individual community member, to the symbolic locus of the offering's presentation, the Orthodox church. The Orthodox church building has long been recognized as a symbolic representation of the Divine Kingdom, and the pattern of its decoration "has the character of a clear and precise theological system." Within the context of such a large-scale, hierarchically arranged, symbolic representation of the Orthodox cosmology, votive offerings - especially those described above as being primarily representations of the individual - acquire a clear and precise significance. They constitute a means by which man is capable of inserting himself symbolically into an equally symbolic representation of the cosmos, a means by which man can express his place in the spiritual world and his relationship to other spiritual beings.[3]

See also



  1. See: W. H. D. Rouse. Greek Votive Offerings: An Essay in the History of Greek Religion. Cambridge: The University Press, 1902. 463pp.
  2. Genesis 28:20-22. "Then Jacob made a vow saying, "If the Lord God will be with me, and keep me in this way I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, and bring me back in safety to my father's house, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone I set as a pillar shall be God's house to me, and of all You give me I will surely give a tithe to You." "
  3. Numbers 6:1-21. Law Concerning Vows. "Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, 'When either a man or woman vows an extraordinary vow to sanctify himself as one of purity to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and intoxicants, and shall not drink any wine and vinegar made from wine, and any vinegar made from intoxicants; neither shall he drink anything made from grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or raisins. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, from seed to skin. All the days of his vow of purification no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled for which he vowed to the Lord; he shall be holy. Then he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. All the days of his vow to the Lord he shall not go near a dead body. He shall not defile himself even for his father or his mother, for his brother or his sister, when they die, because the vow of his God is on his head. All the days of his vow he shall be holy to the Lord. But if anyone dies very suddenly near him on the spot, the head of his vow shall be defiled; and he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. Then on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of testimony. The the priest shall make one a sin offering and the other a whole burnt offering and make atonement for him, concerning which he sinned in regard to the corpse; and he shall sanctify his head that day. He shall sanctify to the Lord the days of his vow, and bring a male lamb in its first year as a trespass offering; but the former days shall be null and void, because the head of his vow was defiled.
    Now this is the law of vowing: When the days of his vow are fulfilled, he shall be brought to the doors of the tabernacle of testimony. Then he shall offer his gift to the Lord: one male lamb in its first year without blemish as a whole burnt offering, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish as a sin offering, one ram without blemish as a peace offering, a basket of unleavened bread of fine flour, prepared with oil, and unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and their grain offering with their drink offering. Then the priest shall bring these things before the Lord and offer his sin offering and his whole burnt offering; and he shall offer the ram as a sacrifice of peace offering to the Lord, with the basket of unleavened bread; the priest shall also offer his grain offering and his drink offering. Then the one vowing shall shave the head of his vow at the doors of the tabernacle of testimony; and he shall put his hair on the fire, which is under the sacrifice of the peace offering. Then the priest shall take the boiled shoulder of the ram, one unleavened loaf from the basket, and one unleavened cake, and put these upon the hands of the one vowing, after he has shaved the head of his vow; and the priest shall bring these things as a deposit offering before the Lord; they are holy for the priest, together with the breast of the deposit offering and the thigh of the choice portion. After that, the one vowing may drink wine.' This is the law of the one vowing, who vows to the Lord his gift to the Lord concerning his vow; and the force of his vow is not limited to what he could afford regarding his vow, which he vows according to the law of purity." "
  4. Deuteronomy 23:22-24. " "If you should make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you. But if you should abstain from vowing, it is not a sin to you. That which proceeds from your lips you shall keep and do in the manner you vowed your gift to the Lord your God; that which you spoke with your mouth." "
  5. Judges 11:28-39. Jephthah's Vow. "Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed by the lookout of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced beyond the sons of Ammon. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, "If You deliver the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whoever first comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, he shall be the Lord's. I will offer him up for a whole burnt offering." So Jephthah advanced toward the sons of Ammon to fight against them, and the Lord delivered them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer until he came to Arnon, twenty cities in number, as far as Abel Keramim, with widespread destruction everywhere. Thus the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.
    When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold his daughter came out to meet him with drums and dances, and she was his only child. He had no other son or daughter. And when he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "Ah, ah, my daughter! You have troubled me greatly! It is you who are my trouble! For I have opened my mouth against you to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it." So she said to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me as it came from your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, the sons of Ammon."
    Then she said to her father, "Let my father do this one thing for me. Leave me alone for two months to wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity along with my companions." So he said, "Go." And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months she returned to her father, and he carried out the vow he vowed, and she knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite."
  6. Ecclesiastes 5:4. "Better not to vow than to vow and not pay."
  7. Acts 18:18. "So Paul remained a good while. There he took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and Priscilla and Aquila were with him. He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow."
    (The vow Paul makes is likely a form of the Nazirite vow (Nm 6:1-21) given in thanksgiving for deliverance from danger.)
  8. Acts 21:23-24. "Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law."


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Metr. Germanos II (Holy Metropolis of Ilias and Oleni, Greece). Errors and Truth: Various Errors and Superstitions. Apostoliki Diakonia, 01/01/1990. 142pp. (In Greek)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Robert T. Teske. Votive Offerings and the Belief System of Greek-Philadelphians. Western Folklore. Vol. 44, No. 3, Healing, Magic, and Religion (Jul., 1985), pp. 209.
  3. Robert T. Teske. Votive Offerings and the Belief System of Greek-Philadelphians. Western Folklore. Vol. 44, No. 3, Healing, Magic, and Religion (Jul., 1985), pp. 212-214.

Sources and further reading

  • Tama (votive) at Wikipedia.
  • Votive Offerings. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912.
  • Robert T. Teske. Votive Offerings and the Belief System of Greek-Philadelphians. Western Folklore. Vol. 44, No. 3, Healing, Magic, and Religion (Jul., 1985), pp. 208-224.
(Paper discussing the votive offering as employed by the members of the Greek-American community of Philadelphia, based on fieldwork conducted between 1972 and 1974)
(Dissertation in Folklore and Folklife. Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy)
  • Athanasios A. Diamandopoulos and Spyros G. Marketos. Votive offerings and other magicoreligious health practices in modern Greece. Humane Medicine 9.4 (1993): 296-302.
  • Martha Egan. Mílagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1991. ISBN 9780890132197

Ancient World

In Greek

Metr. Germanos II (Holy Meteropolis of Ilias and Oleni). Errors and Truth: Various Errors and Superstitions. Apostoliki Diakonia, 01/01/1990. 142pp.

External links