Ex-Votos


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At holy sites around the world, it is traditional for many pilgrims, especially Roman Catholics, to leave behind various objects called “ex-votos.” These symbolize their visit and their reason for their journey. Fortean Picture Library.

Ex-Votos

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Ex-votos (literally, “according to the vow”) are objects left at holy sites that document in some way a petition made by a pilgrim. Among the most simple of ex-votos (also called votives or, in Spanish, milagros) are simple published notices ofthanks to a patron saint for help received, which in Catholic countries may be published in the newspaper as a classified ad. More involved exvotos, those of most interest to anthropologists, will include an illustration of the object of a prayer and some text describing what occurred or what the petitioner wishes to occur. These may be very simple or very elaborate and made out of a wide variety of materials. At healing shrines, exvotos associated with an individual’s illness (such as crutches, canes, or wheelchairs) or representations of body parts are often displayed to show the effectiveness of intercessions to the resident saint.

Today, ex-votos are most identified with Roman Catholicism, but they have been and continue to be used in a variety of religious traditions. Found in ancient religious sites, ex-votos have been a significant means of discerning the exact purposes to which worship at the site was directed. The ex-voto is activated after its construction by leaving it at the holy site and/or close to a representation or relic of the saint/deity to whom one is making a request.

Among the most famous of ex-votos are those painted on pieces of tin that may be seen as shrines throughout Latin America. These usually picture events of a healing along with words of thanks.

Sources:

Ackerman, Jane. “The Theme of Mary’s Power in the Milagros de Nuestra Senora.” Journal of Hispanic Philology 8 (1983): 17–31.
Coulter, Lane, and Maurice Dixon, Jr. New Mexican Tinwork: 1840–1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.
Egan, Martha. Milagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.
Mayes, Frances. Ex Voto. Barrington, RI: Lost Roads Publishers, 1995.
Salvatori, Mariolina. “Porque no puedo decir mi cuen-to: Mexican Ex-votos’ Iconographic Literacy.” In John Trimbur, ed. Popular Literacy: Studies in Cultural Practices and Poetics. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2001, 17–42.