1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vow
VOW (Lat. votum, vow, promise: cf. Vote), a transaction between a man and a god, whereby the former undertakes in the future to render some service or gift to the god or devotes something valuable now and here to his use. The god on his part is reckoned to be going to grant or to have granted already some special favour to his votary in return for the promise made or service declared. Different formalities and ceremonies may in different religions attend the taking of a vow, but in all the wrath of heaven or of hell is visited upon one who breaks it. A vow has to be distinguished, firstly, from other and lower ways of persuading or constraining supernatural powers to give what man desires and to help him in time of need; and secondly, from the ordered ritual and regularly recurring ceremonies of religion. These two distinctions must be examined a little more at length.
It would be an abuse of language to apply the term vow to the uses of imitative magic, e.g. to the action of a barren woman among the Battas of Sumatra, who in order to become a mother makes a wooden image of a child and holds it in her lap. For in such rites no prominence is given to the idea even if it exists—of a personal relation between the petitioner and the supernatural power. The latter is, so to speak, mechanically constrained to act by the spell or magical rite; the forces liberated in fulfilment, not of a petition, but of a wish are not those of a conscious will, and therefore no thanks are due from the wisher in case he is successful. The deities, however, to whom vows are made or discharged are already personal beings, capable of entering into contracts or covenants with man, of understanding the claims which his vow establishes on their benevolence, and of valuing his gratitude; conversely, in the taking of a vow the petitioner's piety^ and spiritual attitude have begun to outweigh those merely ritual details of the ceremony which in magical rites are all-important.
Sometimes the old magical usage survives side by side with the more developed idea of a personal power to be approached in prayer. For example, in the Maghrib (in North Africa), in time of drought the maidens of Mazouna carry every evening in procession through the streets a doll called ghonja, really a dressed up wooden spoon, symbolizing a pre-Islamic rain-spirit. Often one of the girls carries on her shoulders a sheep, and her companions sing the following words:—
- “Rain, fall, and I will give you my kid.
- He has a black head; he neither bleats
- Nor complains; he says not, ‘I am cold.’
- Rain, who fillest the skins,
- Wet our raiment.
- Rain, who feedest the rivers,
- Overturn the doors of our houses.”
- “Rain, fall, and I will give you my kid.
Here we have a sympathetic rain charm, combined with a prayer to the rain viewed as a personal goddess and with a promise or vow to give her the animal. The point of the promise lies of course in the fact that water is in that country stored and carried in sheep-skins.
Secondly, the vow is quite apart from established cults, and is not provided for in the religious calendar. The Roman vow (votum), as W. W. Fowler observes in his work The Roman Festivals (London, 1899), p. 346, “was the exception, not the rule; it was a promise made by an individual at some critical moment, not the ordered and recurring ritual of the family or the State.” The vow, however, contained so large an element of ordinary prayer that in the Greek language one and the same word (εύχή) expressed both. The characteristic mark of the vow, as Suidas in his lexicon and the Greek Church fathers remark, was that it was a promise either of things to be offered to God in the future and at once consecrated to Him in view of their being so offered, or of austerities to be undergone. For offering and austerity, sacrifice and suffering, are equally calculated to appease an offended deity's wrath or win his goodwill.
The Bible affords many examples of vows. Thus in Judges xi. Jephthah “vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whosoever cometh forth out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering.” In the sequel it is his own daughter who so meets him, and he sacrifices her after a respite of two months granted her in order to “bewail her virginity upon the mountains.” A thing or person thus vowed to the deity became holy or taboo; and for it, as the above story indicates, nothing could be substituted. It belonged to once to the sanctuary or to the priests who represented the god. In the Jewish religion, the latter, under certain conditions, defined in Leviticus xxvii., could permit it to be redeemed. But to substitute an unclean for a clean beast which had been vowed, or an imperfect victim for a flawless one, was to court with certainty the divine displeasure.
It is often difficult to distinguish a vow from an oath. Thus in Acts xxiii. 21, over forty Jews, enemies of Paul, bound themselves, under a curse, neither to eat nor to drink till they had slain him. In the Christian Fathers we hear of vows to abstain from flesh diet and wine. But of the abstentions observed by votaries, those which had relation to the barber’s art were the commonest. Wherever individuals were concerned to create or confirm a tie connecting them with a god, a shrine or a particular religious circle, a hair-offering was in some form or other imperative. They began by polling their locks at the shrine and left them as a soul-token in charge of the god, and never polled them afresh until the vow was fulfilled. So Achilles consecrated his hair to the river Spercheus and vowed not to cut it till he should return safe from Troy; and the Hebrew Nazarite, whose strength resided in his flowing locks, only cut them off and burned them on the altar when the days of his vow were ended, and he could return to ordinary life, having achieved his mission. So in Acts xviii. 18 Paul “had shorn his head in Cenchreae, for he had a vow.” In Acts xxi. 23 we hear of four Jews who, having a vow on them, had their heads shaved at Paul's expense. Among the ancient Chatli, as Tacitus relates (Germania, 31), young men allowed their hair and beards to grow, and vowed to court danger in that guise until they each had slain an enemy. Robertson Smith (Religion of the Semites, ed. 1901, p. 483) with much probability explains such usages from the widespread primitive belief that a man’s life lurks in his hair, so that the devotee being consecrated or taboo to a god, his hair must be retained during the period of taboo or purification (as it is called in Acts xxi. 26) lest it be dissipated and profaned. The hair being part and parcel of the votary, its profanation would profane him and break the taboo. The same author remarks that this is why, when the hair of a Maori chief was cut, it was, being like the rest of his person sacred or taboo, collected and buried in a sacred place or hung on a tree. And we meet with the same scruple in the initiation rite, called σχῆμα, of Eastern monks. First, the novice is carefully denuded of the clothes, shoes and headgear, which he wore in the world, and which, being profane or unclean, would violate the taboo about to be set on him. His hair is then polled crosswise by way of consecrating it; and in some forms of the rite the presiding monk, called “the father of the hair,” collects the shorn locks and deposits them under the altar or in some other safe and sacred place. Greek nuns used to keep the hair thus shorn off, weave it into girdles, and wear it for the rest of their lives round their waists, where close to their holy persons there was no risk of its being defiled by alien contact. The rest of this rite of σχῆμα especially as it is preserved in the old Armenian versions, smacks no less of the most primitive taboo. For the novice, after being thus tonsured, advances to the altar holding a taper in either hand, just as tapers were tied to the horns of an animal victim; the new and sacred garb which is to demarcate him henceforth from the unclean world is put upon him, and the presiding father laying his right hand upon him devotes him with a prayer which begins thus:—
“To thee, O Lord, as a rational whole burnt-offering, as mystic frankincense, as voluntary homage and worship, we offer up this thy servant N. or M.”
From the same point of view is to be explained the prohibition to one under a vow of flesh diet and fermented drinks; for it was believed that by partaking of these a man might introduce into his body the unclean spirits which inhabited them—the brute soul which infested meat, especially when the animal was strangled, and the cardiac demon, as the Rabbis called it, which harboured in wine.
The same considerations help to explain the custom of votive offerings. Any popular shrine in Latin countries is hung with wax models of limbs that have been healed, of ships saved from wreck, or with pictures representing the votary’s escape from perils by land and sea. So Cicero (de Deorum Natura, iii. 37) relates how a friend remarked to Diagoras the Atheist when they reached Samothrace: “You who say that the gods neglect men’s affairs, do you not perceive from the many pictures how many have escaped the force of the tempest and reached harbour safely.” Diagoras’s answer, that the many more who had suffered shipwreck and perished had no pictures to record their fate does not concern us here. It is only pertinent to remark that these votivae tabellae and offerings may have had originally another significance than that of merely recording the votary’s salvation and of marking his gratitude. The model ship may be a substitute for the entire ship which is become sacred to the god, but cannot be deposited in the shrine; the miniature limbs of wax are substitutes for the real limbs which now belong to the god. In other cases the very objects which are taboo are given to the god as when a sailor deposits his salt-stained suit before the idol.
The general idea, then, involved in vows, whether ancient or modern, is that to express which the modern anthropologist borrows the Polynesian word taboo. The votary desirous to “antedate his future act of service and make its efficacy begin at once,” formally dedicates through spoken formula and ritual act a lifeless object such as a ring, an animal, his hair or his entire person to the god. He so either makes sure of future blessings, or shows gratitude for those already conferred. Most of the ritual prescriptions that accompany vows arc intended to guard inviolate the sanctity or taboo, the atmosphere of holiness or ritual purity, which envelops the persons or objects vowed or reserved to the god, and thereby separated from ordinary secular use.
The consideration of the moral effect of vows upon those who take them belongs rather to the history of Christian asceticism. It may, however, be remarked here that monkish vows, while they may lend to a man’s life a certain fixity of aim and moral intensity, nevertheless tend to narrow his interests, and paralyse his wider activities and sympathies. In particular a monk binds himself to a lifelong and often morbid struggle against the order of nature; and motives become for him not good or bad according to the place they occupy in the living context of social life, but according as they bear upon an abstract and useless ideal. (F. C. C.)
- Professor A. Bel in paper Quelque rites pour obtenir la pluie, in xivme Congres des Orientalistes (Alger, 1905).
- Religion of the Semites, Lect. ix.