Fire and Why Potters Made Useless Combs of Pottery

March 27, 2010 at 5:37 pm Leave a comment



Our ancestors of the species we call Homo erectus, discovered how to domesticate fire around one and one and a half million years ago in South Africa and Tanzania. Although they seem to have managed to live well enough without it, it was a revolution similar to the one the use of the internet has brought with it into our lives.

Fire creates warmth and light; fire creates energy; fire lives. At rock concerts it is quite common that people light their cigarette lighters – a secular ritual not very different from the religious one during Easter night when the new fire lights the dark Catholic and Orthodox churches. The significance of lighting a candle contains much more than the act in itself.

Against my own will, but driven by my unconscious, I went on a “vision quest” outside Death Valley in California in 1998. We had no tents only tarpaulins and having been told about the heat in Death Valley, I did not bring warm enough clothes. It snowed two nights and I understood that I ought to have been better prepared. For three days and nights we fasted, everyone alone in his or her chosen place in the desert. The last night we kept vigil inside the stone circle each of us had made. It was cold and the moon did not rise until about two o’clock at night. I had collected wood for a very small fire. When it was pitch dark I lighted it and then I sat inside the small circle of warmth and light. Above me I could faintly see the stars. It was very silent. I sat as in a well filled with happiness.

The dangerous god Volcanus

The ancient Etruscans who lived in Italy, did not allow the god Volcanus inside their cities. They sensed that the god,who makes houses and forests go up in fire, was far too dangerous there.

The fire inside the house, on the hearth, belonged to the woman who represented the goddess, Vesta, and the tradition that the kitchen belongs to the woman is still very strong in many places. The man grills on the open fire outside. In Blera, “my” Italian village, not very many years ago, the kitchen was the only heated room in the winter, but only the women could stay there. The men, who often were better cooks than their wives, cooked in their vineyards or in the wine cellars. They never asked for permission to warm themselves in the kitchens.

The fire is a great magician; it transforms the raw into the cooked, dough into bread, cold water into warm coffee; clay into pottery. As all archaeologists know, walls made from tiles of unfired clay disappear when it rains on them. A clay jar that hasn’t been fired, may be beautiful, but is only to be looked at and not for use. The heat from the fire is necessary so that the jar can contain the water, that earlier destroyed it; the same water that extinguishes the fire. It is a miracle that we forget, but that the ancient potters in Dolní Vestoniçe may have consciously celebrated.

Funerary urn perhaps from Athens, ca.  950 BC.

Amphora-urn from Athens, ca. 950 BC

Clay is the “crudest” of all raw materials used by man; it has no shape, but it can be made to take whatever shape the potter-goddess-god wishes. The potter forms the wet clay, creates what she wants: animals or human figures, jugs, jars, bowls and plates. She may squeeze the wet object into a ball again if she is not happy with the result and begin anew.

For many years I struggled with the symbolism of the prehistoric funerary urns. What are they meant to symbolize? They only contain the clean bones and never the ashes.  Then one day I happened to watch a program on KCET. A young  Pueblo woman asks her grandmother why pots have so rounded forms.  “Don’t you recognize your own body?”  the grandmother answers.

The solution is so easy and so natural.

The urn is an image both of the pregnant woman and of the symbolic Woman, the goddess. In the same way as the embryo grows and transforms in the amniotic liquid in the womb, the bones are gestated and transformed in the urn. The fire eats the muscles and intestines – the bones remain; they are nearly indestructible; they are thus the essence of every living being.

Comb on jar from Cyprus

Comb incised on jar from Cyprus, ca. 1500 BC.

In the great majority of pre-industrial societies, the potter is a woman because woman and pot are both containers: woman of the new life; the pot of the water and grains. Consequently the container is a symbol of the mother carrying the unborn baby. This helps us to understand why both small children and grown-ups were buried inside pottery jars in Korea and Japan as well as in Europe. This is why pots were placed in the tombs all over the world: not only as gifts to the dead but as symbols of a new birth. This is why the pot in itself is a symbol. As the embryo grows in the womb of the mother, so the deceased shall be transformed in the womb of the Mother, that is, in and through the symbols inherent in the pottery container and the Earth.

I haven’t finished yet. According to the logic that symbols work in opposite directions, I now propose that the analogy goes even deeper: what first was united in the clay, earth and water, through the fire becomes split into two objects: the earthen-ware vessel capable of containing the water. Water makes clay disintegrate; after having been fired, the clay is transformed and able to imprison the water inside itself.

The analogy may have been as follows: the funerary jar, symbol of the goddess, transforms the deceased from a being separated from her (the bones in the funerary urn and the water in the jar) into a being united with but still different from the goddess (like the water mixed with the clay). This is how I understood why the urns were made as water containers and why the potter so often has given the water jars an abstract female shape, sometimes adding a face or breasts. The potter, however, also followed the Paleolithic tradition that when representing a divinity you should give it an androgynous form. I’ll return to this in the next chapter.

When the ancient potter combed her vases, she also combed the hair of the goddess.

Combs of pottery from Cyprus, ca. 1500 BC.

When she painted or incised a comb on the pottery container or combed it or made a useless comb in pottery, she did it in order to describe the same indescribable archetypal image from two different angles. The goddess that transforms the dead plant to another substance – blond hair that is ready to be spun into thread and woven on the loom – is the same symbol only differently expressed as the one of the goddess that transforms the clay to a pottery container.

Thus the comb is both the tool of the goddess and the goddess herself, who is so much more than an anthropomorphic personification that she must be imagined in everything the earth contains.


The images:




Jar with incised comb:  V. Karageorghis, The Coroplastic art of ancient Cyprus I. Chalcolithic – Late Cypriotic I. Nicosia 1991, plate 19.

Pottery combs:  Karageorghis fig. 65.


Entry filed under: Combs, Dolni Vestonice, Fire, Pottery, Water.

Child of Water Vesta and the Circle of Fire

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