The recent theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewellery and other votive items dedicated to the Panayia from the monastery of Panayia Kamariani has shocked members of the Greek community, not only for the apparent brazenness of the crime, but also the unlikely amount of air time it received in the local media.
Tάματα, or the dedication of votive offerings to icons, persist in the modern Orthodox tradition. Go to any local church and chances are, you will find attached to the icon of the church’s saint small metal plaques with ears, legs or eyes portrayed in bas relief, along with watches, crosses and various other items of jewellery – offerings to thank the saint for hearing the prayers of the faithful and interceding for the performance of a miracle.
The plaques in particular are interesting, for as can be seen on the left of the picture included herein, they appear to be almost identical in form to those on the right, which happen to predate them by approximately two thousand years.
Indeed the tradition of votive offerings predates Christianity. In ancient times, a votive offering was considered to be a gift to a god. It was believed that anything dedicated by a mortal became property of a god, which was retained within the god’s temenos, this being the sacred wall established around the perimeter of a sanctuary, and became a votive offering. This type of giving, particularly in ancient Greek society, was not based completely on private devotion, but was an extremely public act, one that in typically Greek fashion, required some form of public recognition.
In ancient Greece, τάματα were not necessarily small objects, though a plethora of these have been found. Archaeological and literary evidence suggest that even whole ships captured in battle from an enemy fleet were later dedicated by the victors as an offering of thanks to the gods. Treasuries such as the Siphnian treasury at Delphi abounded in such objects.
Since the Archaic period, votive offerings were usually inscribed with the dedicator’s name – a practice that persists among some Greek offerers of votive objects to the present day. The rationale behind the ancient Greek voting offering was that of a commercial transaction: one prayed to the god for assistance. The consideration for granting such assistance was the votive offering, whereupon, at the granting of the wish, the votive offering became due and payable.
From ancient Greece to Constantine the Great and the beginnings of formal Christianity, it is not difficult to see how the cultural tradition of the votive offering endured and persisted. According to the Sacred Tradition of the Orthodox Church, after Constantine’s conversion and subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he donated one of the crosses he carried into battle to the Church. This cross is reputed to be preserved on Mount Athos.
Another of the most famous Orthodox votive offerings is that by the great theologian Saint John of Damascus. According to tradition, while he was serving as doctor and prime minister to the Arab Caliph, he was falsely accused of treachery and his hand was cut off. He prayed before an icon of the Panayia and his hand was miraculously restored. In thanksgiving, he had a silver replica of his hand fashioned and attached it to the icon. This icon, which is called the ‘Three-handed’, is preserved at the Hilandarion Monastery on Mount Athos.
As is attested to by the robbery at Panayia Kamariani, Orthodox Christians continue to make votive offerings to this day, hoping to invoke the assistance and mercy of the Saints or Panayia, in order to assuage a multitude of fears and provide solace in a world that is still, despite our level of technological development, full of terror. Doctor Robert Teske, who studied the phenomenon of ‘tamata’ among the GreekAmericans of Philadelphia in 1985, considered that 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 behavioural 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 recognised 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.
Notwithstanding the fervour of the prayers of the devout, the apparent commercial nature of the transaction has caused some concern to Orthodox hierarchs, who decry the faithful’s attempts to purchase favours or merit.
Thus, Metropolitan Germanos of Ilias in Greece states:
“Several people are of the opinion that God and the Saints will grant their petition simply because they make a ‘tama’. 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 be made for our spiritual well being.
“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.”
No less a personage than Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, who is close to being declared a saint of the Orthodox Church, had this to say about the practice of ‘tamata’:
“I also see a new craftiness in the devil. He causes people to think that if they make a ‘tama’ to God and fulfil it, if they go on some pilgrimage, then they are alright spiritually. You see hordes of people going to monasteries and shrines with tall candles and extravagant offerings, ostentatiously making the Sign of the Cross, even weeping a little, and feeling content. They do not repent, do not confess, do not correct or change their way of life … and this is quite pleasing to the devil. 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.”
In Doctor Teske’s field study of the Greek American community of Philadelphia, he observed that:
“The clergymen of the community, who personally demonstrate varying degrees of appreciation for the practice, uniformly allowed that the Orthodox Church, while tolerating the persistence of the tama, does not encourage it, due primarily to the possibility of it being taken for a form of bribery. Such accusations and luke-warm tolerance have had an effect both upon the practice itself and upon the attitudes of those who favour it.”
The loss of votive offerings from a church owing to an act of vandalism and desecration offends all of our sensitivities. To consider that there exists a practice whereby hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of these can be amassed to no apparent spiritual (according to the church) or material benefit is just as disquieting. Perhaps it is time that the practice of traditions of this nature, while tolerated and respected, be tempered so that the faithful can be more fervently directed towards charity, community assistance and mutual support, all of which defy theft, and which are, after all, the noncontractual focus of the Orthodox faith in the first place.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.