A History of Clay as Ritual

No wonder pottery was held in such high esteem throughout ancient cultures. It bridges all of the elements, and can be used to assist in most aspects of life. For thousands of years clay has been widely celebrated for its ability to connect humans to the earth; to their healthy nutritious sustenance and medicine; to their artistic expression; to their community and social wellbeing; to their homes and, of course, their spiritual/mystic endeavours.

I have put together a few brief pieces of information and writings I have learnt from; exploring the reverence of clay that has been so significant to most cultures around the world:

Clay has been offered in many myths (Egyptian, Greek, Christian, various tribes around Africa) as the primordial substance that humanity is crafted from.

  • In Greek Mythology it was Prometheus who made humans from clay and Athena who breathed life into them.
  • In Egyptian Mythology Khnum was the one of the oldest Deities – the god of fertility and the River Nile. “The Great Potter”; it was believed that Khnum created the first humans and the Gods from the clays found in the River Nile.
  • The bible says that Adam, the first man was created from clay.
  • In Hebrew, the words for “human” (Adam), “earth” (Adama), “red” (Adom), and “blood” (Dam) all stem from the same origin.
  • Amongst Yoruba and Jukun peoples in Nigeria, myths speak of a deity who crafts humans from clay. Tribes in Southern Africa extend this by speaking of the freshly crafted humans, or newborns, as being “smoked” over the fire and sprinkled with ashes – all of which is involved in the ceramics process.
  • According to the Sumerian story “Enki and Ninmah,” the lesser gods, burdened with the toil of creating the earth, complained to Namma, the primeval mother, about their hard work. She in turn roused her son Enki, the god of wisdom, and urged him to create a substitute to free the gods from their toil. Namma then kneaded some clay, placed it in her womb, and gave birth to the first humans. However, there is no singular story that is decided upon as the “creation story”, as so many versions exist in this culture.
  • According to Hindu mythology, the mother of Ganesh — Parvati — made Ganesh from clay and turned the clay into flesh and blood
  • The Māori people believe that Tāne Mahuta, god of the forest, created the first woman out of clay and breathed life into her.


Rituals with Clay were also performed to enhance embodied life in various cultures through the ages:

  • In Egyptian practises, clay was buried / placed with the deceased (especially those of high status) to assist them in the afterlife. Pots were also associated with the womb, and some people were even buried inside of them - representing the rebirth into the spirit world.
  • Yoruba potters of Nigeria regard clay pits as the vagina / womb of their deity, Iya Mapo. "Iya Mapo is the protectress of all women's crafts, trades and professions. She invokes the totemic semblance of Iyalode, Iyemowo and Nana Buukun attributes. She is known in Yoruba culture as the inventor of pottery. Her ancient insignia is an edon (sacred bronze casting) which represents two children close to the goddess. One is held tight to her bosom and the other is strapped with a sash "Oja" to her back with its head downward. For the uninitiated the symbolism is unrevealed. Perhaps it suggests the downward trend of the present society. Women that have long been neglected are now coming forcefully into the forefront of national development in different governmental projects both state and national. The goddess of trade "Iya Mapo" has finally come out in full force with all her creative genius to back women's progress. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest among young women in crafts such as weaving, dyeing, pottery and batik design. Some women are now moving forcefully into trades long considered as men's sole prerogative, such as wood-carving, building trades and engineering. The benevolence of Yemoja and Oshun continue to gain prominence with that of Iya-Mapo to uplift women to a higher social level with their men counterparts. If women are given adequate opportunity like men and the right incentive, the sky is their limit. Iya Mapo is the potter woman, who embraces the technique of moving round an archetypal hole to mould and shape beautiful potteries. A potter remarked "Iya Mapo" is many things combined. She is a miner when she digs the clay, she is an artist creating potteries, she is a technologist when firing the pots, and a scientist when glazing the potteries (Ibigbami 1992). There is a story about Ajagemo's bards reciting a time when Ajagemo watching a potter woman at work playfully addressed his "Egbe" entourage "Which is older, the pot or the hole inside it?" To which the giggled reply "Don't ask what you know; it is the hole" (Wenger and Chesi 1983:140). Iya-Mapo is often depicted in art as possessing multi-various or dimensional hands due to her versatility in art and craft. In most pottery workshops or villages, where potters or weavers, dyers, soap makers and palm oil producers abound, there is always a small shrine made of pottery dedicated to placate Iya-Mapo in all Yorubaland."  https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/passages/4761530.0006.005/--maternal-goddess-in-yoruba-art-a-new-aesthetic-acclamation?rgn=main;view=fulltext



  • A ritual among The Bemba tribe of Zambia: “When a man marries a girl she makes a pot called an ‘imbusa’. Before they have sexual intercourse, this is filled with water and the leaves of herbs, and each of them take hold of it and carry it and put it on the central fire in the hut. When they have finished their love-making, they go together and take the pot off the fire and wash their sexual organs. If the pot is broken, they are not allowed to have sexual intercourse until the pot is remade. The pieces of the old pot are ground up, mixed with new clay and a new imbusa modelled.” (Clarke, 1931: 274 – from “In Pots We Trust”, Olivier P. Gosselain)


  • The Urhopo people create many different shapes of vessels for different purposes and rituals. One type of pot is called Omo-Oche: “The pot is used for sacrificial paraphernalia for the purpose of being able to see into the spiritual realm to find out why certain repetitions of ugly occurrences are happening to them. Sacrifices (Izobo) are prepared and packed into this same pot to appease the deity or avert the happening. Beneath the pot’s mouth there are seven openings through which white pieces of cloth are threaded. After they have been soaked with oil they are lit to invoke the spirit of mercy (Arhodovwe) at three junction road to oversee and control of the life the victim henceforth.” (“The Concept of Beauty in Urhobo Pottery”, Dr Abamwa Oghenekevwe Elizabeth)
  • In Vastu Shastra, the soil is considered a symbol of happiness and peace. According to the vaastu, keeping soil utensils in the house, house will always full of happiness and prosperity. 1-Vastu Shastra has been told that if you drink water kept in clay pot, then your health always remains good. Apart from this, drinking water of clay pot has a good effect on life. According to it, water should be kept in the mud pot and should always be kept in the north-east direction of the house. By doing so, the negative energy removes from the house. 2- If you worship the statue of God made of clay, it will remove all the problems of your life. There is no lack of money as well. And the stability of wealth persists. To maintain happiness and prosperity in the house, having a clay bird in the south-eastern direction of the house keeps good luck in the house.