Sacrifice to the kiln Gods – its historic roots

Make a sacrifice to the kiln God

Photo: Midjourney

Sacrifice to the kiln God – its historic roots

The tradition of sacrifice to the kiln Gods originates from ancient times, most likely there have always been traditions for sacrifice to some kind of kiln Gods. For safe keeping of the pots, good luck, or a friendly gest to the guard of the kiln who hopefully returns the favor.

Daniel Rhodes describes the first known ceramic kilns to about 8000 B.C:
“The ceramic kiln was one of man’s earliest tools, the primitive form of which dates back to at least 8000 B.C. and perhaps much earlier.”

That gives us 10’000 years of history with ceramic firing in kilns, perhaps more. But ceramists from ancient times haven’t left us with much written documentation about their traditions and beliefs.

The kiln Gods

Any potter firing up the Amagama kiln four times a year has likely put three months of hard work into it. A failure could potentially ruin 1/4 of the income that year, a hard punishment for any potter I would say. A small sacrifice to a kiln God sounds like a reasonable precaution.

Professor in ceramics, Daniel Rhodes, writes this about kilns, firing, and superstition in his book:

 "Even today, with the availability of meters, pyrometers, and other instruments of control, a certain mystery attends kiln firing.  And in spite of the efforts of specialists, a degree of uncertainty persists. This uncertainty may account for the fact that potters do not regard their kilns as other craftsmen might regard their tools; rather they look upon the kiln as a place of holocaust, a potential enemy and destroyer as well as collaborator. By and large the action of the kiln has given rise to considerable superstition, and firing has not been well understood, even by many who are otherwise well trained in ceramics" 

Kilns – Design, Construction, and Operation

In that perspective, the kiln is as much a friend as an enemy, both an indispensable tool and an unpredictable destroyer. I read that in primitive firing a loss of goods between 10-30% is to be expected. The pot to the left cracked, the one to the right did not, why? No wonder the firing and the kiln have given rise to considerable superstition and mistrust.

Here in Europe, I learned about the tradition of sacrifice to the kiln Gods, as a small gift like a cigarette, food, or alcohol into the kiln before it is lit. A gift that could burn away, eaten by the fire, or more figuratively get consumed by the kiln God.

Of course, we did it just for fun, but the historical reference is obvious.  

Chantay says it like this in the CeramicArtsDaily forum:
“A small bowl next to the kiln and make an offering, usually coffee or tea, to what ever god watches over the kiln. I don’t personally believe in one, but just in case”.

It’s hard to say if it’s modern superstition or has any historical roots. It has some clear similarities to Buddhist symbolic offerings, but that doesn’t mean the tradition has to be old.  

There exists historical proof of kiln Gods, like the Chinese kiln God Yao Shen; opposite of protecting each firing, Yao Shen is called upon to protect the potters and the ceramics industry in a specific region. Yao Shen is also called “the Kitchen God,” not exclusive to ceramics with other words.
Read more about Yao Shen here:

Clay culture: Origins of kiln gods by Martie Geiger-Ho

Exactly how early beliefs and sacrifying rituals manifest is impossible to know for sure today. But there are many thoughts to twist your mind around; the scientific value may be small: But still, it’s quite an appealing idea that there exists some kind of invisible connection, to the earliest potters through rituals passed on from one generation to the next, and still could be practiced today.

European offerings to a kiln God seem rather un-Christian, it’s tempting to think of pre-Christian times. Or Sacred Fire – the doorway through the fire, with its offerings to our ancestors. They fire night and day four days to the end, something just sounds all too familiar for wood-firing ceramics. But potters are not the only ones with traditions bound to fire. Just mention the Zarathustrians fire ceremony.

But is it, in the end, some historic connection? Yes, at least in a cultural and ritualistic sense. Sacrifices to the kiln God are most likely a cultural mix of superstition, cultural heritage, and the potter’s deep connection to their craft and their unpredictable tool; the kiln. Taming the fire, man’s strongest symbol for destruction. The answer may be that the need for rituals around this strong event is a cultural expression in itself.

There is also one connection so obvious that it’s easy to overlook: I was sure no tradition could be traced from the earliest potters and survived without interruption, as a living ritual into our time. But that is wrong: The ritual meaning and the context are lost in time, and we may fill the tradition with other purposes now than we did millenniums ago.

But we always burned small ceramic figurines in the kiln!

Making small figures is also a tradition; and in archeology, you literally find them everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if some old clay figures were meant to watch over the kiln and the pots.

Here you can read about Japan’s Dogū and the Jōmon culture, to mention just one figurine tradition:
Dogū – Japan’s Oldest Mystery

“Ceramics sherds make up the largest fraction of material objects recovered by archaeologists from prehistory and historic sites”.
From the book: Prehistory & History of Ceramic Kilns.

As a fun fact: Potters are not the only profession with a love for making clay figures either:
In many religions; God himself made man out of clay.

sacrifices to the kiln-god

Historic roots aside; I guess it has always been nice to have someone to share the blame when things go wrong. Several of my failed firings just led me to believe that the kiln God may not be a fan of Swedish damsugare.

(I just absolutely love them)

Found there exists a kiln-God book out there, WOW