Cyprus, wax, votives, ethnography, orthodox, christian, aarhus2017, moesgaard

The Valley of the Dolls: Cypriot wax votives

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Europe

Warming up to the exhibition The Presence of Absence: Art, anthropology and archaeology about the life of the dead in Cyprus and Denmark, opening on the 23rd of September at Moesgaard Museum, we are presenting you with a few stories about the artefacts which will be displayed in the exhibition. Our guest blogger, Catriona Hodge, is a Heritage Management student, and assistant curator on the exhibition.

 

Before you run away in horror at the sight of these dolls, at least give them a chance to explain themselves. “But they are creepy!” you may exclaim, “what are they made of?” you may query, “are they alive?” might even cross your mind.

Well, the question of whether or not these fascinating (and in my opinion, beautiful) objects are alive, is actually quite a relevant one. Recently added to Moesgaard’s ethnographic collection, for the purpose of displaying them in the upcoming exhibition The Presence of Absence, one can see why these objects might be endowed with life.

Cyprus, wax, votives, ethnography, orthodox, christian, aarhus2017, moesgaard

Wax baby hanging in a church in Cyprus

Although they may look like toy dolls, their real use is as wax votive offerings. These particular ones are from Cyprus, but they can be also found throughout Greece, and Orthodox communities. They come in all shapes and sizes – not just child form, but so too as ears, eyes, noses, legs, teeth, even bones! The wax figurines are created as stand-ins for the body-part they are representing; so if your child has an eye infection, you may pick a wax eye; or a broken arm would warrant a wax limb. They are then offered to various Saints, hung at shrines or within churches, in order to ask for the inflicted to be made better again – or in the case of the dolls, to ask for good health for a child.

Cyprus, wax, votives, ethnography, orthodox, christian, aarhus2017, moesgaard

The wax votives, as they arrived to Moesgaard Museum. Aside from the dolls, you also see a spine, two eyes and a heart.

But in what sense are they alive, therefore? Although the objects themselves are not considered to be animated – as some offerings are in other cultures – they do still act as a bond between the world of the living and the world of the dead. They are able to reach the Saints in a way that a human voice alone would not.

So in order to gain help from the Saints, the speaker also needs help from the votive. They cannot approach the Saint empty handed after all! To play on the words of the Old Testament itself; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Cyprus, wax, votives, ethnography, orthodox, christian, aarhus2017, moesgaard

Wax child hanging in a church.

To see these wonderful dolls for yourselves, visit The Presence of Absence, opening at the museum on the 23rd September. From here you can explore how else people try to speak to the world of the dead, and how this world is represented in ‘mortal’ life.

//Catriona Hodge

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