The Symbolism of Clay

the symbolism of clay

The Symbolism of Clay

The symbolism of clay is full of vibrant references to mother nature; everything our body needs to survive comes from the minerals found on this planet, and each variety of clay contains different ratios of these vital minerals, supplying humankind with a natural medicine. The use of clay in ancient cultural rituals through to modern day cosmetic beauty invites us to perceive this important material in a number of ways. The further we look into the usage of clay, we begin to discover very spiritual meanings that can help influence the way we use ceramics.

The process of making ceramics demands the use of all four elements – earth, air, fire and water. Of course, the clay itself represents the element of earth, which is available in abundance all around the world. Wheel throwers in particular are very familiar with the use of water to create flexible and malleable clay, and very often the presence of water can prevent disasters in wheel throwing, creating an easier transition from one shape to the next. When we finish our pieces, we rely upon natural air to dry out the clay which is essential before placing into the kiln. Finally, the need to ‘fire’ at very high temperatures in a kiln is what completes the ceramic process.

Across many spiritual traditions, the four elements represent the fundamental ingredients of all life, both inside and outside of our bodies. Ceramics is a practice that connects you to that core group of elements, putting you in touch with organic rhythms of the body and world itself. In this sense, the symbolism of clay reflects balance and harmony. Even if you’re not thinking about these elements when you are making ceramics, one needs to be aware of how to create the right balance. In many ways, a ceramicist is playing with earth, air, fire and water. When issues occur in ceramics, a simple answer may be that the elements were out of balance, e.g. the kiln temperature was too low, or too high; perhaps the piece contained too much moisture etc.

In order to really get to know these materials and understand the way they work, continuous practise is recommended to excel your learning. 137° Ceramic Art Studio offers a range of courses including an intensive 6-week Summer Programme.

The symbolism of clay can also portray ideas of renewal and reincarnation as clay can be infinitely recycled in its raw state by managing its moisture levels. This alludes to the infinite possibilities of clay and the capacity to start all over again, to be reborn. Jesus’s resurrection is an example of this. The Christian bible contains a verse in Isaiah 64:8 that says “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The use of metaphor portrays the variety and beauty of creation and creativity. It can also imply that, as humans, we can have many chances to improve ourselves, reinvent who we are. The bible also offers the reminder that our nature is cyclical, in Job 10:9 it states: “Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?”

The women of the Himba tribe in Namibia use bright red ochre clay to coat their skin as a part of their daily beauty ritual. It is believed that it also acts as a powerful form of sun protection. The Himba women create symbolic hairstyles relating to age, marital status, wealth and social ranking. For the Himba tribe, the red clay symbolises the essence of life and blood as it is the presence of iron that is responsible for the red colour of clay and human blood itself.

Suzanna Staubach’s book entitled ‘Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element’ is a comprehensive exploration that offers wonderful and inspiring knowledge to those interested in the roots and the symbolism of clay.

Thanks to the studies within medicine, scientists have discovered that clay is a very healing material, naturally used for treating skin conditions and various ailments of the body. Clay has ‘detoxifying’ abilities, removing outer dead skin cells and also extracting toxins on the inside of our bodies. By ingesting clay, we can help to prevent parasites and infections. We know that the Ancient Egyptians employed this method and used clay to preserve the mummies.

The symbolism of clay as a life-giver is also prevalent in Greek mythology with the figure of Prometheus who created humanity from clay. Prometheus became associated with other deities linked to creative skills and technology. This very literal portrayal of clay and the human body exposes the visceral relationship between the two, implying that clay is alive and has the power to achieve great things. The full title of Mary Shelley’s infamous novel ‘Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus’, follows the story of Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious scientist who literally hand-builds his creature from the body parts of several corpses. The creature lives to experience intense emotions, learn language and read poetry, and therefore surpasses both Victor’s and the readers’ expectations of him.

Like Frankenstein’s creature, clay is both strong and powerful, yet also fragile and sensitive. It reminds us that despite the thousands of years that have passed since ancient civilisations, ceramic objects still lay in the ground, some intact, are waiting to be rediscovered. We say that ceramics are delicate, easy to break, but time and history often argue the contrary.


Written by Freya Saleh