This is an example of what I can produce when asked for a long-form article. I’ll be posting more examples along with, possibly, my own reflections on my current travels.
The craft of forming clay into shapes that are suitable for drinking and serving from has a long, renowned history. From the Maya in México and Central America to the various Chinese dynasties, every civilization with access to clay has supported a select group of artisans in their design, creation, and perfection of ceramic vessels. These vessels, whether blood-red earthenware or bone-white porcelain, were considered the superior form for consuming beverages; in fact, until access to softer and cheaper metals came about, clay was also the superior material for which to use in the production of cups, mugs, goblets, etc.
In some distinct cases, clay was transformed from simple, every-day cups and mugs, to objects of great repute. Multiple civilizations built ceremonies around distinct ceramic vessel forms, while others went so far as to imbue their vessels with deep meaning tied to God-honoring rituals. The following are a few examples of these civilizations, and the ways in which a material from the earth was raised to the elevation of reverence:
- Japan and The Way of Tea Ceremony: This ceremonial preparation of matcha tea dates back to the early 12th century. Considered, in influence, from Buddhist traditions, it is very much looked upon as a transformative, spiritual practice. Balancing principles of life and death, each movement within the ceremony is associated with inner reflection on simplicity and stillness (“wabi”) and external imperfections of surrounding life (“sabi”.) The vessels that were, and still are, used to hold both the unprepared and prepared tea have always been made from clay, and, in fact, a special firing technique reflecting the principles of wabi and sabi was developed exclusively for the purpose of providing cups and pots for The Way of Tea. Called Raku, this firing technique involves the rapid firing and cooling of heavily glazed earthenware, which produces beautiful, bespeckled, and sometimes pock-marked, vessels. Each piece is unique, making them highly prized. In fact, some tea masters have handed down particular pieces from generation to generation for over 400 years! Indeed, without the raku cups, saucers, and sometimes pots, certain tea masters would say that you wouldn’t be practicing the true artform of The Way of Tea; you’d just be having a perfectly ordinary cuppa’.
- Inti Raymi (Incan Sun Festival in Peru): Every Inca subject in the Empire knew what Inti Raymi was. They flocked to the main plaza in Cusco, Peru to watch their King honor the god Inti (or the Sun), and offer prayers and drink for a promising harvest the coming year. The King being a direct descendant from Inti (as the stories tell), was in fact looked upon as a god himself. After somber opening ceremonies, including a ritual slaughter, the King would take his special ceramic vessel (called a kero), and dip into the sacred drink of the festival (called chicha) and pour a cup out for Inti. Then, carefully, one by one, he’d allow his royal family, and then chiefs, take a sip from his special kero. Upon drinking from this cup, those who did so would then be sharing a drink with a god, thus placing themselves closer to grace. Each kero produced for this ceremony was used for that ceremony only, and then placed in special keeping by the Priests of Inti. What hubris these vessels must have carried to so many lips!
- Greek Symposiums (Drinking Parties): Basically an excuse to talk politics and drink wine, Greek Symposiums were mostly run, and attended by, men. At these parties, after the celebrations and dinner was completed, wine would continue to be served. Special restrictions were in place, however, as non-diluted wine was looked upon as the beverage of drunkards, and high-society Greeks would never consider themselves as such. Ceramic vessels were designed and crafted to carefully hold and measure perfectly diluted wine. Called a psykter, this vessel would sit inside a larger ceramic piece called a krater, in which was kept ice and water to allow the wine to stay cool. Both a kylix and an oinochoe were used to serve the wine with, both being personally scooped from the psykter by slaves and given to (or poured into the mouth of) the elite. As an added bonus, the kylix sometimes had a nude or other erotic image painted onto the bottom of the inside, which would slowly be revealed as the gentlemen drank from it.
In all of these examples, special care was given to protect and preserve the importance of the vessels themselves. We have evidence of this care because of how many examples have survived through antiquity into today. It is truly a remarkable experience for the novice potter to go visit modern-day displays in various museums around the world with the knowledge that the vessels behind glass once served such important and prestigious rolls in human history.