Clay

Earthenware Jar

I’d prefer to take my wine tonight

in an unglazed earthenware jar.

That way, each time it meets my lips,

I’ll taste and be reminded of

the clay from which I came,

the clay in why I’ll one day dwell

and one day I’ll turn into.

Zonas (Greek poet)

The pottery instructor insisted that we got rid of all the air pockets. Knead, knead, knead was her motto. And knead some more. Tiny air bubbles can burst with the high temperature inside the kiln and ruin your piece. So, we kneaded and rolled the soft clay, a process like that of making bread.

As a teenager, I had started taking pottery lessons inspired by my grandmother, who was very artistic and skilled. She made some beautiful pottery pieces that are on display at my parents’ house.

Clay is directly related to creation, whether it is artistic creation or creation myths. In mythology, religion and folklore, clay gives life. Take the Jewish golem for example, an anthropomorphic being created from clay or mud. Many ancient cultures believed that deities created humans from clay, like the Inca creator god Viracocha, the Yoruba god Obatala, the Greek god of fire Prometheus, or the Babylonian goddess Ninhursag. 

I close my eyes and I can feel the cool damp clay, the shape of the tools in my hand, the earthy smell in the classroom. It’s the thread that connects me with ancient potters and future generations.

Objects made with clay outlive their creator and become the imprint left by that person. Like my grandmother’s pottery that we treasure to this day.

Ancient peoples used clay to make everyday objects like the jar mentioned in the Greek poem, as well as a building material. Thanks to such a humble element, the material culture of the Sumerians, Greeks, Romans, and many other civilizations has been preserved. Archeologists have gleaned knowledge about the ancients, their customs and traditions, from the study of the clay objects they left behind.

Clay tablets found in archeological digs in Mesopotamia show, for example, palace records, which are an important source of information.  We know the story, or most of it, of Gilgamesh or Athrasis, and can read the Odyssey because they were written on clay tablets that survived through the centuries.

These tablets became a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of culture.  Some of these tablets, however, were not meant to last.  But when the buildings they were kept in caught fire, they were baked and hardened, survived to this day.

A couple of the pieces I made are still at my parents’ house. I close my eyes and I can feel the cool damp clay, the shape of the tools in my hand, the earthy smell in the classroom. It’s the thread that connects me with ancient potters and future generations.

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