We can thank the Romans for a great deal of what we know about the gods of Britain, continental Gaul and Germania. Partly this has to do with surviving writings such as those of Tacitus or Caesar, but partly it has to do with the nature of their devotional practices and the way they were adopted by the people of the regions they occupied with respect to their own deities.
We don’t know a lot, archaeologically or otherwise, about the religious practices of pre-Roman Celtic and Germanic tribes. Even with regard to god names we only have what the Roman writers happened to record. However, once the Romans were there, we start to see Roman-style altars, inscriptions, even temples dedicated to Celtic and Germanic deities.
I’ve had a long-standing interest in votive offerings in general. A votive offering is one made to a deity or other spirit as a demonstration of reciprocity–it can be made in gratitude for blessings received or for the answering of a particular prayer. In some cases the offering to come is specified when the prayer is made (for example, “if I survive this battle, I will set up an altar in your honor”)–when the prayer is answered, the offering is made.
Votive offerings were an extremely common expression of devotion in ancient times; typically they were placed in temples or somewhere else they would be seen. The rich might make offerings of precious metals while the less fortunate multitudes most often left offerings made with clay; in either case these could represent the nature of the deity or of the prayer request–someone who prayed for a child might leave a votive figure in the shape of the mother goddess who granted that prayer, while someone who prayed for healing might leave a votive in the shape of the body part that was healed (temples of the healer god Asklepios were often filled with models of legs, hands, eyes, and so forth). The votive offering was not only an expression of gratitude, it was evidence of the god’s power, their ability and willingness to help those in need.
The concept of the votive offering is still with us. Probably the example we are most familiar with is the votive candle, lit in a church for a loved one who has died; in Central and South America a more direct descendant of the ancient practices exists in the milagro, a small charm which may be offered to a saint–there are milagros in the shape of arms, legs and other body parts which can be used as a part of prayers for healing.
Often the inscriptions and dedications are fairly simple, and a common element included in many is ex voto, short for ex voto suscepto or “from the vow made”; in fact these sorts of offerings are sometimes referred to as ex-votos. Some examples of such offering inscriptions follow:
Deo Apollini Borvoni et Damonae, Caius Daminius Ferox, civis Lingonus, ex voto.
“To the god Apollo Borvo and to Damona, Caius Daminius Ferox, Lingones citizen, from the vow made.”
Marti Cicollui et Litavi L. Mattius Aeternus Ex voto
“To Mars Cicolluis and to Litavis, L. Mattius Aeternus, from the vow made.”
The somewhat more specific votive formula votum solvit libens merito, sometimes abbreviated as V.S.L.M., was commonly used on altars and inscriptions in Roman-held territories. It translates to “paid his/her vow willingly and deservedly. Examples follow:
Deo Marti Nodonti / Flavius Blandinus / armatura / votum s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
“To the god Mars Nodens, Flavius Blandinus, weapons-instructor, paid his vow willingly and deservedly.”
Deo Borvoni et Damonae, Maturia Rustica votum solvit libens merito,
“To the god Borvo and to Damona. Maturia Rustica paid her vow willingly and deservedly.”
Deo Sucello Nantosuelt(a)e Bellausus Mass(a)e filius v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito).
“To the god Sucellus and Nantosuelta, Bellausus, son of Massa, paid his vow willingly and deservedly.”
Deae Ardbinnae Titus Iulius Aequalis vslm
“To the goddess Arduinna, Titus Julius Equalis paid his vow willingly and deservedly.”
(This reminds me a bit of the newspaper prayers you sometimes see in the Classifieds section, often to Saint Jude who is the patron of hopeless causes–of course since the ancients carved their prayers of thanks into stone, they are a bit more permanent!)
Why this is so great
What I love about this formula is how widely it was used and understood. It originated in Rome, but the Roman Empire grew quite large and this practice grew with it.
And I love it because every time you see an item or altar inscribed with VSLM or ex voto, you may not know the specifics of the situation but you know that someone prayed to a god and the god answered.