Success at Sea: Maritime Votive Offerings and Naval Dedications in Antiquity



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In ancient Greece and Rome, gods and goddesses were thought to have control over many aspects of the human world. In order to influence or appease the divine, Greeks and Romans regularly performed religious rituals. These rituals, which included prayer, sacrifice, and the offering of non-consumable votive objects, constituted an integral part of ancient Greco-Roman religion. Material remains of religious activity, as well as the testimonies of ancient writers, help elucidate the significance of ancient Greco-Roman religious ritual. While almost any occasion, such as birth, marriage, hunting, and harvest, was cause for invoking divine assistance, it was in times of anxiety and danger that religious ritual became a fundamental necessity. Seafaring, which is the focus of the present study, is one such example of a hazardous yet necessary activity that likely affected many individuals in the ancient world at one time or another.

Although it is impossible to observe ancient religious beliefs and practice directly, one can observe it indirectly through the excavation and interpretation of material remains. Since prayer and sacrifice generally are not visible in the archaeological record, the votive offering becomes the most informative component of ritual in the understanding of past religious behavior. Therefore, this thesis examines archaeological and literary evidence for votive offerings and dedications that are naval or maritime in nature. Maritime votive offerings encompass small, portable objects such as metal and terracotta ship models, as well as naval equipment, such as anchors. These objects likely represented thank-offerings given to the divine by seafarers after the fulfillment of a previous request for safe passage at sea, although offerings could have also been made by sailors seeking protection in anticipation of a future sea voyage. Naval dedications, on the other hand, include naval spoils, such as the detached ram or prow ornament taken from an enemy?s ship, and in some instances, a whole ship, to commemorate a naval victory. Upon examination of this evidence, it is possible to draw some preliminary conclusions about past religious practices and also gain insight into the actions and motivations of the people who performed them.