Petitions to the Divine: Communication Through Votive Offerings at Egyptian Shrines

By Gabrielle Heffernan

The Ancient Egyptians saw continual divine involvement in the world around them. In particular they believed that the gods would grant petitions and answer requests that were brought to them by individuals. But how did the Egyptian people communicate these petitions to the gods, and what responses did they expect?

Votive offerings have been found at shrines and religious sites representing all periods of ancient Egyptian history.1 These offerings, which have been left by visitors to the shrine, represent a distinct form of communication – that of the sacred with the profane.2 This essay will look at the importance of these objects in the lives of those who used them and their intended purpose in the context of state-run shrines.

By looking at different aspects of votive offerings with reference to four objects found in the Eton Myers collection this paper will discuss the value of the objects as tools of communication. Before continuing it is important to note that without exact provenances it is difficult to ascertain for certain whether these objects were used as votives in shrines. However, the objects that have been chosen have counterparts which have been found in other shrines and so may be seen as examples of possible votive objects even if they, themselves, were not.

Why did the Egyptians visit shrines?

1-KarnakEgyptian temples were not usually accessible to those outside of the priestly classes,3 and cult complexes were designed so that the central, sacred areas were enclosed and access to them was restricted. Certain parts of the temple were, however, accessible to members of the public which ensured that communication with the divine was achievable by a far wider spread of people.4 These areas usually took the form of small public shrines which were attached to state temples, such as the ‘gegentempel’ of Amun who hears prayer at Karnak (see fig. 1).5 This shrine was built in the New Kingdom and added to by kings such as Ramesses II and is found on the outer eastern wall of the enclosure of Amun.6 Gegentempels were usually attached to an outer wall of the temple that was close to, or aligned with, the shrine of the god or goddess within the main temple.7 This was to ensure that visitors to the shrine were able to be as close as possible to the deity. But these public shrines were not simply places for private people to show their devotion to the divine; they were sites where petitions were offered and requests made of the gods. It should be noted that votive offerings are not only found in the context of public shrines but were also left by the gates or causeways of temples or close to specific inaccessible areas (see fig. 2). As in the case of public shrines the intention here was to achieve physical proximity to the divine.


The context of votive offerings

The exact reasons that caused Egyptian people to leave votive offerings are not always clear, and it is probable that individuals each had their own specific motivations. But regardless of specific intentions, these objects were generally intended to represent an aspect of a spoken request from the supplicant to a deity. The focus of individual requests and of specific votives, however, is less certain - as has been noted, the request was oral and so there is no surviving evidence apart from the votive itself which might help to explain its meaning. Different types of votive may, however, have been intended to emphasise a specific part of the petition; some may have focused on the deity himself (or herself) as suggested by votive representations of divine figures; others may have been intended to serve as a reminder of the petition (perhaps a symbol linked to protection or fertility); a third group of items directed attention towards the act of communication itself.  

1. The deity

3-ECM1031Certain objects focussed on the attributes of the deity to whom they were addressed, thus demonstrating the devotion of the offering bringer as well as encouraging the good favour of the divine. Amulets and images representing a large variety of gods have been found in Egyptian shrines; an example of this is a blue faience Hathor mask (ECM1031, see fig. 3). This example originally had a suspension loop at the top and so may have also functioned as an amulet, but this does not preclude it having been used as a votive offering as amulets were also left as votives at many sites.8 It is unifrontal (i.e. it only includes a design on one side) and the use of faience could further emphasise its intention as an object of devotion to Hathor, who was sometimes referred to as the ‘Lady of faience’.9 Hathor masks were commonly used as amulets10 and have been found at several sites such as the Hathor shrine at Deir el-Bahri.11 As well as being linked with Hathor these masks may have had symbolism relating to the concept of rebirth,12 and examples of bi-frontal Hathor masks may have been intended to allude to the dual nature of the goddess who was seen as both gentle and destructive.13 Objects representing specific deities may, therefore, have been intended to ‘catch the attention’ of the god or goddess and to demonstrate the devotion of the petitioner which would, in turn, encourage a favourable response to a request.

2. The petition


Some votive objects were intended to focus on the petition itself thus acting as a continuous reminder to the divine of the request that had been put before them. An example of this can be found in the baboon votive shown at fig. 4 (ECM723 © IAA University of Birmingham). This example of a squatting baboon is made of blue-green faience with details applied in black manganese paint. Baboons have a connection with Thoth and so may have been intended to represent him14 but this was not their only symbolism. Baboons have been linked to fertility as well as the protection of mother and child – pottery decorated with baboon images has been found in houses at Deir el-Medina and Bruyère suggested that they were linked to fertility,15 while images of baboons as protective animals have also been found on apotropaic objects16 from the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period17 and so it is possible that ECM723 was intended to support a plea either for success in conceiving a child or in protection of the mother and child in the future. A second object that may have had a connection with a request is the cobra amulet (ECM824, see fig. 5); this amulet is made of pale green faience and has a loop in the top, suggesting that this particular example may have originally been worn. Similarly to baboons, snakes may have had a connection to fertility and protection and both also appeared on wands and knives.18 Objects, therefore, linked with fertility and childbirth as well as protective charms may have been left at shrines as a continuation of the petition.


3. The communication

A final category of votives focussed not on the deity or the petition but on the act of communication itself. Ear votives have been found at several sites such as the Temple of Ptah at Memphis19 and Deir el-Bahri20 and were probably intended to represent the ears of the deity, thus ensuring that they listened to the request that was being put to them. Another example of this category are eye votives which could take the form of wedjat eyes (ECM127, fig. 6) made of carnelian. Wedjat eyes have been primarily linked with Horus21 and may have been left at sites as an offering to him. Wilkinson has suggested that eyes were left as votives by people who had been cured of blindness.22 This, however, seems highly unlikely especially as this would imply that ear votives were left by people who had been cured of deafness and there is no evidence of this.23 Ears and eyes, therefore, appear to have been intended to ask the deity to hear petitions and to ‘watch over the safety of the devotee’.24 State-run temples, such as that at Memphis, were sometimes decorated with ears25 which can be seen as an attempt by the state to encourage the belief that the gods would hear the prayers of those that approached them. Such objects may, therefore, be understood as an attempt to ‘amplify’ the petition so that it would be properly heard and responded to. Of course, it is possible that the intended emphasis may have been on the power of the gods and the state as all seeing and all hearing, although whether this would have been recognised by the majority of visitors to the sites is debatable.


Votive offerings as a part of Egyptian culture

Votives can be seen in the context of a system whereby the living and other beings were in constant communication – assistance was sought in all aspects of life from protection to success, from dreams to fertility. Amulets were the most common medium – although often thought of simply as ’magical’ these objects requested a response from the divine and were often used as votives. Intermediary statues26 also helped people to gain access to the divine or to deceased ancestors – for example, the statues of Amenhotep son of Hapu were erected at Karnak27 so that people who may not be able to gain access to the inner parts of the temple may still have a way of communicating with the gods. Letters to the dead can be seen as another form of communication with those in the afterlife – these letters usually asked for protection by the spirit, or for a malevolent spirit to stop causing harm. Again, the people writing these letters clearly hoped that they would be received by the addressee and acted upon. Ancestor busts and stelae may also be seen in a similar vein – these commemorated the dead but also retained for them a place in this world; the living communicated with them and in return the ancestor could respond. Votive offerings may, therefore, be seen as a part of a society which put a great amount of effort into communicating with both the divine and the dead and which saw this communication as vital to its welfare.

Votives as a symbol of communication with the divine

Votives were not merely art and neither were they simply symbols of devotion. They were a representation of a spoken petition and the expectation was that the petition would be answered. The state encouraged this form of communication by building gegentempels although it is possible that the fact that the shrines were state-run and connected to larger state temples limited the freedom of expression at these sites. Pinch has argued that the similarity between votive faience and comparable items found in royal tombs suggests that many of the votives were made in an official context, which implies a high level of state control of the manufacture of votive activity.28 In this sense votives may be seen not as representation of a personal and private communication with the divine but as an adherence to accepted norms and social behaviours within a religious setting – the concept of ‘decorum’ postulated by Baines may not be entirely applicable in this context but it is likely that a level of control was practiced within state-run shrines although this may be more applicable to the restricted areas of the temples rather than to the public gegentempels.29 Votives that were not left in state-run public shrines but outside of temple gateways or next to causeways does suggest a genuine desire by the petitioner to communicate with the divine and the inclusion of offerings such as flint nodules (which were probably offered by those who could not afford to purchase objects to use as votives) at shrines does suggest, however, that state involvement was not the only reason for votive activity. It is, unfortunately, difficult to know what words or actions may have accompanied the dedication of offerings – perhaps there were accepted forms of offering ‘ritual’ to accompany the presentation of objects, or perhaps each visitor had his or her own personal routine. Either way each votive object is ‘not simply an artefact, it is the surviving part of an act of worship’30 and the predominant part of that worship was a two-way communication with the divine.


  1. Early examples have been found from sites such as Hierakonpolis (Quibell et al. 1900: pls. xviii, xx-xxii although it is probable that a large proportion of these items were royal votives) and Elephantine (Dreyer 1986: taf. 11-42 show a range of objects and votives found at Elephantine) while New Kingdom votives were left a shrines at Deir el-Bahri, Gebel Zeit and Mirgissa Pinch 1993:
  2. See Georganteli et al. 2010.
  3. Spencer 1984: 81 suggests that some areas of the temple may have been accessible to selected members of the public at specific times (in this case the wsx.t Hby.t). Griffin 2007: 81 disagrees, concluding that the common people (rḫyt) ‘were present in the temple[s] metaphysically and not physically’.
  4.  Divine festivals, which were a common feature of Egyptian life, also ensured that gods were accessible to the people.
  5.  See Arnold 1994: 91 for discussion of ‘gegenkapelles’ (gegentempels).
  6.  Blyth 2006: 89
  7.  Further examples can be found at Deir el-Medina, the temple of Ptah at Memphis, Kalabsha and Dendara (Arnold 1994: 91).
  8.  Pinch 1993: 282-300.
  9.  Shaw et al. 2002: 119.
  10.  Pinch 1993: 154.
  11.  Pinch 1993: pl. 2, includes an example of a similarly designed Hathor mask, although there was a great variety of styles of this object including moulded shapes, painted images and plaques (Pinch 1993: pls. 6c, 27c-d, 28, 31).
  12.  Pinch 1993: 159.
  13.  Bleeker 1973: 61-62.
  14.  Petrie and Currelly, 1906 note an image of a baboon at Serabit el-Khadim which suggests that Thoth was worshipped in baboon form at a shrine at the site, for example.
  15.  Bruyère 1939: 102.
  16.  These are objects that are intended to ward off evil. Bourriau 1988: 116-117 includes an image of an apotropaic statuette of a baboon but notes that baboons are also depicted on similarly intended wands and knives.
  17.  Bourriau et al. 1988: 116-117.
  18.  Bourriau et al. 1988: 117.
  19.  Petrie and Walker 1909: 7.
  20.  Naville and Hall 1913: 16.
  21.  Shaw et al. 2002: 133.
  22.  Wilkinson 1878: 357.
  23.  Pinch 1993: 257.
  24.  Naville and Hall 1913: 16.
  25.  Kemp 1989: 189.
  26.  These statues were set up by individuals who promised to pass on the petitions of those who visited them and left offerings for them to the intended deity (Otto 1948).
  27.  Galán 2003
  28.  Pinch 1993: 329.
  29.  Baines 1990: 20 emphasises that importance of ‘decorum’ which he refers to as ‘a set of rules defining what may be represented ... in which context and in what form’. He notes that decorum is focused on ‘enacting and representing the proper order of the world’ (Baines 2007: 16).
  30.  Pinch 1993: 339


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