Sunday, July 12, 2015

Votive Offerings (Tamata) in the Orthodox Church

Today we are looking into the votive offerings, known in Greek as Tamata. Tamata are a form of votive offering used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Tamata are usually small metal plaques, which may be of base or precious metal, usually with an imprinted image symbolizing the subject of prayer for which the plaque is offered. These offerings may be presented to an icon or shrine of a saint as a reminder of a petitioner’s particular need, or in gratitude for a prayer answered. Many Christians today perform this action in the same way a person would offer a gift to someone who did for them some significant work. In order to realise the offering, some people would travel along way. This is especially the case, when someone prays to a certain saint or icon, mainly famous pilgrim sites. Therefore, for example, the Holy island of Tinos, in the Aegean Sea, attracts thousands of people annually, who wish to give a tama to the Virgin Mary. If someone walks into this church on the island of Tinos, they would see countless tamata all around the interior of the Church, showing thus the devotion of the Orthodox Christians, who show their appreciation to the Mother of God.

A wide variety of images may be found on tamata, with the images capable of 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 chest for afflictions of the body, and so forth.
Indeed the tradition of votive offerings predates Christianity. It is to be found in the ancient Greeks and Jews. Therefore, we read in the Old Testament about the existence of offerings in a number of books. Such is the case in Genesis (28: 20-22) where we read: “20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, 21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. 22 And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”” In Deuteronomy (23: 22-23): “22 But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you. 23 That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth. Book of Judges (11: 30-40): “30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”32 So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the Lord delivered them into his hands. 33 And he defeated them from Aroer as far as Minnith—twenty cities—and to Abel Keramim,[a] with a very great slaughter. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it.”36 So she said to him, “My father, if you have given your word to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.” 37 Then she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.”38 So he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” Ecclesiastes (5:4-5): “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed—5 Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.” Therefore, we see that Jephthah’s story together with the words from the book of Ecclesiastes coincide. Jepthah wished to undertake his vow, which he vowed to God, since this is what pleases Him.
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, tamata 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.
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.
In the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians made a promise, i.e. a vow, to the Goddess Artemis that they would sacrifice as many goats as enemies they slaughtered. Due to the fact that they killed so many of the enemy, they were inevitably unable to fulfil their commitment. Therefore, they altered their vow to 500 animals annually. This practice, of sacrificing animals is also found as a Roman tradition.
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 Theotokos 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.
Additionally, in the New Testament we read: Book of Acts (18: 18): “18 So Paul still remained a good while. Then 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.” And Acts (21: 18-24): “18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; 21 but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will[c] hear that you have come. 23 Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. 24 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.” From these New Testament examples we can identify that the tradition of offerings, of tamata, continues in the new period of the Church, the period after the Law of Moses (meaning the Old Testament). So it is not an old tradition respected and practiced only by the ancient Greeks and Jews, but also by the Christians of our time.
Despite the above explanation, it is important to stress that the Church does not maintain the belief that when we give a material tama, that our faith is verified or that we are immediately saved and received into communion with God. On the contrary, what the Church asks from us is our spiritual vow to God, our faith and belief in Him. We need to live according to the principles of Christianity. It does, nevertheless, show a relationship with God and that we have Him in our minds, hearts and generally in our lives. However, when we wish to do a tama, to give an offering, we need to be careful that we are doing it for the right reasons and that we don’t reach any superstitious levels, which, for example, the pagans had in respect to their gods. 
I would like to take this further and explain what a healthy relationship between God and us is. Many have a blurred view of this, creating thus new and varied traditions within the Orthodox Church. We are not to understand our relationship between God and us as a master and a slave or in a manner of a commercial transaction. Let us expand on this. We are not to fear God blindly as a slave fears his master. If we were to have this relationship then Jesus would have come down from the Cross, imposing his Divine Power on all of mankind. This would dissolve any idea of Love, Freedom, Free Will and the true relationship which we have and should have with the Trinitarian God. On the other hand, if we see our relationship with God only on a transaction basis (meaning God do this for me and I will go to Church, or I will give you a dedication etc.) is absurd. God does not need us to do Him favours; He does not need the offerings or any objects that we can give Him. Blackmailing God should never be an option; seen, on the contrary as a bad and ill relationship between man and God. Elder Porfphyrios has stated that: ‘We shouldn’t blackmail God with our prayers. We shouldn’t ask God to release us from something, from an illness, for example, or to solve our problems, but we should ask for strength and support from Him to bear what we have to bear. Just as He knocks discretely at the door of our soul, so we should ask discretely for what we desire and if the Lord does not respond, we should cease to ask. When God does not give us something that we ask for insistently, then He has His reasons. God, too, has His ‘secrets.’ Since we believe in His good providence, since we believe that He knows everything about our lives and that He always desires what is good, why should we not trust Him? Let us pray naturally and gently, without forcing ourselves and without passion. We know that past present and future are all known, ‘open and laid bare’ before God. As Saint Paul says, ‘Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to His eyes.’ We should not insist; such persistence does harm instead of good. We shouldn’t continue relentlessly in order to acquire what we want; rather we should leave all things to the will of God. Because the more we pursue something, the more it runs away from us. So what is required is patience, faith and composure. And if we forget it, the Lord never forgets; and if it is for our good, He will give us what we require when we require it.’
Therefore, one may ask: what is the right relationship between God and us, between the Creator and His Creation? Our relationship should be based on Love and Free Will. Our true relationship with God is the relationship a Father has with His children. This is based on mutual love, on understanding, communion, dialogue, of life. Without this healthy relationship we are merely puppets in the game of life. However, this was never the understanding and the reality understood by God for His creation. We are to be free to love Him, or even hate Him; to believe in Him or disregard Him; nevertheless, we are free. Love and Freedom go hand in hand. That is why we read in 1 John (4: 8): “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Therefore, God is freedom, love, the truth, the way.
Coming back to the offerings, let us point out the fact that offerings, that the tamata, require care. We should give a greater significance to the spiritual offerings. Offerings that will assist us in the purification of our souls and in the sanctification of our lives.  St John Chrysostom had stated that: “For the Church is not a gold foundry nor a workshop for silver, but an assembly of angels. Wherefore it is souls which we require, since in fact God accepts these golden vessel for the souls’ sake… God has no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls.”

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