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A vow (Lat. votum, vow, promise:see vote) is a transaction between a person 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 usually 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 powers of heaven or of hell bear witness to it, with all its consequences.
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 Maghreb (in North Africa), in time of drought the maidens of Ma.zouna carry every evening in procession through the streets a doll called ghonja, really a dressedup 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:
He has a 'black head', he neither bleats
Nor complains; he says not, 'I am cold.'
Rain, who filiest the skins,
Wet our raiment.
Rain, who feedest the rivers,
Overturn the doors of our houses.
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.1
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 (ebxi~) 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 11. 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 27, 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. Thas in Acts 23:21, 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 barbel'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 18:18 Paul had shorn his head in Cenchreae, for he had a vow.' In Acts 21:23 we hear of four Jews who, having a vow on them, had their heads shaved at Paul's expense. Among the ancient Chatti, as Tacitus relates (Germania, 3 I), young men allowed their hair and beards to grow, and vowed to court danger in that guise.
Professor A. Eel in paper Quelq ise rites pour obtenir la pluic, in xiv Congrès des Orientalistes (Alger, 1905).
Text from 1911 EB.