Body Parts

The question of how the ancients conceptualised the body has been taken up by many scholars, yet analysis is often focused primarily on the textual evidence. Anatomical votives can offer a more tangible link to medical history, argues Stephanie Holton.

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

 After the workshop, I found myself reflecting on anatomical votives – specifically in the context of two co-existent parts of Wellcome Collection: the display case in the Medicine Man exhibit, and the catalogue descriptions recorded for the items in the case.

The case of anatomical votives in Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man exhibit is an intriguing example of imposing order on – and even creating semantic value for – a wide array of disparate objects. The glass case in which they are housed stands freely in the exhibition space; visitors can walk around all four sides and examine the contents within, peering down through the glass at the neat flatlay of body parts from the ancient world. At first glance the jumble of different anatomical parts, contrasting in textures, colours, and scale, separated by huge gulfs of time, seems dismembered and disjointed; a material realisation of the ancient poet-philosopher Empedocles’ wandering limbs:

From the earth blossomed many faces without necks

Naked arms wandered about, bereft of shoulders,

And eyes roamed about alone, deprived of brows.[1]

But looking more closely, the viewer will notice that the heads, arms, organs, genitals, legs, feet are all laid out in their proper corporeal ‘order’ – starting from the head at the top, and moving through each section of anatomy, directed by downward-pointing fingers, until reaching the feet at the bottom. The viewer thus finds instead that they are confronted with a singular, sprawling, articulated corpse. The move from separation to combination has taken place, as it does too in similarly monstrous form in the Empedoclean cycle (D156/B61).

The question of how the ancients themselves conceptualised and understood the body has been taken up by many scholars, yet analysis is often focused primarily on the textual evidence. Several ground-breaking works of scholarship in the study of the body in antiquity make little reference to the type of ‘lived’ material evidence we encounter with these votives. But peeling back the layers of theory, and looking beyond the literary comparatives, objects are our most tangible link to antiquity. These crafted limbs and organs are a way for us to experience and interact with the conceptualisations of the ancient body using our own bodily senses. As with most historical objects in collections, our interaction is restricted to the visual: we have to re-imagine the objects back into their contextualised space, imagine how the objects would feel in our own hands, recreate meaning through sight by simply viewing the object and reading the tiny placard.

In their ritual space, anatomical votives would have also relied heavily on the visual, through an inherent sense of spectacle. They decorated the temples where the sick and the suffering sought help from healing divinities: dangling across the inner walls of the temple, lining shelves, or simply gathered on the floor. Here they functioned as a visible and tangible testament to the divine power of the gods, while also presenting each visitor with a clear record of the many others who had sought healing there. Interactions with the divine in the ancient world were highly transactional, and inscriptions tell us that the god Asclepius always expected to be properly thanked for his curative work – if he wasn’t, he would re-inflict the disease, and the sufferer would return to be healed once more. A wealth of offerings would be an immediate proof to the latest visitor of the god’s abilities.

But drilling down into questions of meaning and function, the semantics of anatomical votives in their ritual context is difficult to establish with certainty. Traditional theories suggest that these objects directly represent the injured body part of the person who has sought healing from the divine. This view is reflected in Wellcome Collection’s supporting catalogue descriptions for their full votive collection, where imagined physiological pains and afflictions are attached to each individual object:

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Retrospective diagnosis is fraught with difficulty at the best of times, but it is interesting to question why – and how – we often try to make objects more recognisable, understandable – more ‘human’. By making the objects speak to us, suffer conditions we know about, do we relate to them better? The emphatic physicality of the imagined pain is worth considering, too: the Hippocratic Corpus has many examples of mental pains and afflictions which translate into physiological symptoms. Do we obstruct this ancient psychological awareness through what we, as a modern viewer, think the anatomical and the visceral represents?

Recent work has explored the wider semantic range of possibilities when dealing with the body and the bodily in this context. Some draw particular attention to fragmentation itself as a meaningful form: whether as a containment and localisation of the individual’s illness, a way for the individual to regain control of their sick body, or as a visible representation of and engagement with ancient ideas of health and wholeness (see esp. Hughes 2008, 2017). Others highlight the basic inaccessibility of symbols embedded in another culture, far removed in time; rather than symbolise pain in a specific body part, a foot could instead be representative of a long journey, an ear indicative of the god listening to petitions from mortals (Glinister 2006). These investigations all draw into focus the multiplicity of an object, both in meaning and purpose, and raise the question of how much of our own bodies we unintentionally put into making sense of what we see when confronted with the recognisably bodily.

Within the Medicine Man votives case, the semantics of these objects are shifted yet again by the way in which they are presented. Disparate limbs, organs, heads and genitals have been dissected once more through the act of removal from their contextual space. Transplanted, reconfigured, and labelled with a neat diagnosis they combine the monstrous and the imagined: sealed in a glass coffin-like box, their inherent spectacle is again transformed by their recontextualization.


Stephanie Holton is currently a Lecturer in Classics at Newcastle University. Her teaching and research explore the interactions between literature, philosophy, and medicine in the ancient world – particularly in Archaic and Classical Greece.


Glinister, Faye. 2006. ‘Reconsidering “Religious Romanization”’, in Religion in Republican Italy, edited by Celia. E. Schultz and Paul. B. Harvey, Jr., 10 – 33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hughes, Jessica. 2008. ‘Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary.’ Social History of Medicine 21:2, 217-36.

Hughes, Jessica. 2017. Votive Body Parts in Ancient Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laks, André, and Glenn Most. 2016. Early Greek Philosophy Volume V. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.


[1] D154 (B57); translation from Laks & Most (2016)

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