Sunday 12 January 2014

T is for Tamata

T is for Tamata

The icon of Agioi Anargyroi from a church in the Plaka, Athens

Many first time visitors to Greek churches are puzzled the small flat metal discs embossed with men, women, children, and every body part imaginable, - all strung out like washing either over or under or beside an icon.  (A Roman Catholic visitor would not be surprised, of course).

Not every icon is adorned in this way. Icons so honoured are understood to have performed miracles in the past and therefore likely to do so again providing that an offering is made in the right spirit.

Tamata placed under the tree’s icon in Plataniotissa

What are They?

 These myriad small tokens of worship are concrete manifestations   of promises and petitions.

The Greek word tama (plural tamata) means a promise or a vow. There is undeniably an element of a quid pro quo in such an offering (I offer this in return for….).  Of course  a tama be a votive of thanks for a service already rendered, but  it is just as likely to be a plea for a hoped for outcome.

Not all tamata are small. In the Bible, Mary’s mother promised God that she would dedicate her child to him if she could only conceive. Mary herself was a tama, presented to the temple, - her mother’s thanks to God.

Not Just in Greece…

Human societies everywhere offer votives to what are perceived as higher powers.  I suspect that the practice is hard wired into our brains at birth. The very act of placing or creating a token and placing it before a higher power is a ritual of empowerment and hope. It is the action – the act of placing it - that makes a tama somehow more satisfying than, say, a prayer or a donation. It is a visible symbol of a contract with a higher power, a contract in which the petitioner may be the lesser partner, but one in which the  connection between the petitioner and the petitioned is made manifest. The important thing is the acknowledgment on the part of the person offering the tama that he or she believes that the petitioned one is up to the task.

Many visitors to Greece, more aware of its ancient than its ecclesiastical history, will immediately be reminded of similar votives in ancient Greek temples, particularly those temples devoted to Asclepios, the Greek god of healing. 

Some of the votive offerings found in Corinth’s Temple of Asclepios (courtesy of

All Greek gods were given offerings:  food, animals, clothes and precious metals in return for hoped for benefits or simply to ward off their ill will, but Asclepios, god of healing, received the most tamata. The only difference between his and the ones seen in Orthodox churches today is that his were normally rendered in terra cotta and stone.(1)  

The majority of the tamata you see in churches today relate to health.
There are tamata for eyes, ears, legs, breasts genitals, hearts (these could be for physical heart ailments for broken hearts); there are tamata for men women, children, and babies. Some are quite beautiful:

This rather Mycenaean version is also the logo of

 Others are more mundane:

These are from and retail for about 15 euros.

Every imaginable type can be found in stores selling religious items and there is one of those in every good sized town in Greece.

A miracle working icon can answer any petition:  the tamata placed before them are as varied as the ailments of their worshippers.   But Christianity has fine tuned the concept by having special saints for particular illnesses – specialists if you will. Just to name two: St Gerasimos in Cephalonia, is famous for curing madness, and  Agia Paraskevi for curing eyesight.  These saints’ icons will have a preponderance of tamata relating to their specialities. 

Miracle working icons of Mary are the most common in Greece; she garners the greatest number of tamata and can cure virtually everything.
Special Marks of Veneration

A exceptionally venerated miracle working icon will have, along with the usual tamata, bracelets, gold watches, crosses, englolpia,- just about anything you can imagine. Look again at the picture of the tamata at Plataniostissa and you will see a pearl necklace, engolpia, and rings.

The icon of the Panagia at Mega Spilio near Kalavrita said to have been painted by the evangelist Luke is an excellent case in point: 

A Tama for Every Petition

There are tamata for household pets, any barnyard animal you can name, and even one for your car; various models are available! (2)

The tamata for vehicles is by extension a petition and prayer for the safety of travelers, a need the Herms at crossroads in ancient Greece used to fulfill. 

What Becomes of Tamata?

The tamata you see in famous churches and Monasteries are the tip of the iceberg. Usually the church or monastery keeps quite a collection in a back room. It is not exactly taboo to dispose of them, and they stay put a lot longer than votive candles which can be scooped up for recycling in larger churches before you even reach the street. I wondered about this because of the taboo concerning the disposal of votives in ancient Greece. The votives could not leave the temple area and when they became too many they were often thrown down dry wells on the temple grounds –a real boon for archaeologists. Future archaeologists will have no such luck. According to our local priest, the parish council might after a suitable time decide to turn them into cash for good works.  The more valuable ones are often kept to be displayed, particularly in the case of monasteries.

On a visit to the imposing Monastery of Panagia Elonis  14 kms west of Leonidion, a nun kindly showed us the famous icon of Mary and more tamata than I can remember ever seeing anywhere. I remember this well because, in front of all those glittering votives, she earnestly tried to talk me into another baptism. My Protestant dab on the forehead cut no ice with her. The setting was so grand, the votives so beautiful that I was tempted, especially since she offered to be my godmother if I would only take the plunge.(3)

 A few months later (August 2006) , the icon of Mary and all of  the monastery’s treasures were stolen.

Unfortunately, theft has become a huge problem in recent years. It used to be that even in small out of the way churches with a miracle working icon you could see gold and diamond rings hanging along with the usual silver tamata, and the church doors would be unlocked. They were still in place on a second or third visit too.  No more.

In the case of Panagia Elonis, the icon was recovered and returned with much government sponsored fanfare (a minor miracle that the Greek police took credit for) but experiences like that have changed the custom of leaving valuables unguarded, even those dedicated to a saint, in isolated spots. A pity.

(1)  The Asclepian ritual of incubation – spending the night in his temple  to affect a cure - was transferred seamlessly into Christianity (most obviously on the island of Tinos today) simply because the ritual is so satisfying and compelling.
(2)  A special prayer for vehicles that can be read by the priest during a service. A church near Athens has a special yearly blessing for cars and the lineup can be long!
(3)  It is interesting that Protestants are the only religious sect seemingly immune to the siren song of votives. There are historical reasons, of course. 


  1. Margriet van Heesch12 February 2014 at 01:51

    Dear Linda,

    How utterly fascinating! I can't stop reading this!

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