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.

 

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.

 

 RITUALS

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)