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All fired up: the symbolism of firing.


"IN AGES EARLIER THAN OUR OWN, WHICH WERE MORE keenly aware of symbolic correspondences, their feeling for this origin of clay in the earth, symbol for the most concrete objective reality, which was passed through fire, symbol for celestial transmutation, certainly contributed a great deal to people's feeling for ceramic art." (1) While we may have no trouble assigning symbolic correspondences to earlier times, we may be less comfortable about analysing or even noticing such correspondences in contemporary life. But this doesn't mean they're not there. An interesting question is, to what extent have these symbolic correspondences changed or shifted between those earlier times and our own? Or, perhaps more accurately, how have these correspondences been augmented over time so that new symbolic layers accrue while others recede without entirely disappearing?


Ceramics is an intriguing mixture of art and technique, the pragmatic and the poetic. A maker can become prosaically absorbed in details during a firing--has the kiln reached temperature, are there any cold spots, is the atmosphere even?--and so on. However, there often comes a point when the power being harnessed takes over and the alchemy of the event takes the upper hand. The kiln becomes a roaring beast that has to be coaxed, tended, placated. A transformation is taking place which transcends the purely technical and scientific analysis of heat acting on material and flux.

Fire is indispensable to humanity. It provides us with warmth and creative but also destructive power. Our sustenance depends on cooking. Claude Levi-Strauss in 'The Raw and The Cooked'--his study of the myths of South American Indians--shows how for them a meal--'real' food--had to consist of cooked food, and his analysis shows that in these myths it is clear that raw equates to the natural and cooked to culture. (2) The role of fire is that it transforms on a scale from 'nature' and 'rawness', which are destined to decay, to socialising and purifying, which protect from decay. Cooking moves objects higher up the scale of the raw/cooked axis and is characteristic of culture as opposed to the 'low', the 'raw' and the earth.

In addition there is a remarkable prevalence of customs of symbolically 'cooking' persons which ranges from remote tribes to regions of France. These can be manifested in, for example, physically placing a young unmarried woman in an unlit oven. Levi-Strauss suggests "the individuals who are 'cooked' are those involved in a physiological process: the newborn child, or the pubescent girl. The conjunction of a member of the social group with nature must be achieved through the intervention of rituals involving cooking or fire. Cooking is normally an intermediate stage between a raw product of nature and the human consumer. Thus the rituals involving fire have the effect of making sure that a person is at one and the same time cooked and socialised". (3)

Many makers of domestic pottery either love cooking or eating--usually both. Takeshi Yasuda writes about the importance for him of food and the relationship it has to his work. What seems like a charming error when visitors to my studio ask me 'How are the pots cooked?' or 'Where is your oven?' shows that 'firing' is really only potters' jargon for cooking. This reveals that the underlying relationship between ceramics and food, beyond the practical level of container and contained, is the change and transformation wrought by fire on materials. It is thought that the earliest potters were the women, and they are still generally the preparers of food, and it does seem as if much of pottery is like cooking. Potters blend materials to make glazes, we get our hands dirty and wet, we knead clay like bread. The element that fuses the raw mixture together, that does the real act of transformation is the fire, and the kiln the crucible.


The ordeal by fire that my medium of porcelain undergoes is the most extreme of all types of pottery, since the fabric of the clay itself (as well as the glaze) melts, so any weakness in the form is exposed and will cause it to collapse. The fact that ceramic pieces are exposed to the extreme heat of the kiln inevitably endows them with a metaphor of endurance since some of them do not survive. At the same time, in the image of ordeal by fire, ceramic objects contain symbols of the purification rituals that stretch back to the earliest dawn of mankind. Ordeal by fire appears ubiquitously in myth throughout history, and through much of history in practice. Nor is it confined to what we might define as 'primitive' society. It was surely no coincidence that witches and heretics were executed by burning. The burning of Joan of Arc--The Maid of Orleans--would have added another symbol of purity to the remaining legend of her virginity. It is worth noting that her remains were burned twice more to eradicate the slightest trace of her bodily existence. But what was regarded as thorough decontamination by her enemies was seen as even greater sanctification by her allies.

An Enlightenment version of the ordeal is contained in Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'. Tamino and Pamina together undergo a series of trials, by fire, water, air and earth, which are purificatory ordeals. (4) Although 18th century and Masonic thinking relegated women to roles in need of guidance or rescue by men, Mozart manages to transform Pamina from an inert thing into a feminine initiate herself, by undergoing the trials alongside Tamino. He thus subverts Sarastro's reasoning earlier in the opera, 'that woman needs a man to guide her, since without one every woman strays from her path and misses her function'--turning 'The Magic Flute' into a promotion of equality for the sexes after all. (5) By surviving the trial by fire, ceramic pieces reference to an entire history of symbolic associations to purity.

Every age has its myths and rituals, although it is hard for us to see our own. Levi-Strauss's contention is that there is no fundamental break between the primitive mind and contemporary attitudes "I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact'. (6) In our secular age in the West we like to think that we have done away with many or most of our myths and rituals, and yet each age seems to have its need for symbols, particularly symbols of purity and wholesomeness. An obsession of our own age is a concern with the cleanliness and purity of food. There are regular scare stories in the media about contaminated, adulterated or highly processed foods, while the organic brand is simultaneously elevated to a higher, more desirable status. The matter is complicated by the necessary distinction between the entire process leading to the existence of organically grown food and the hijacking of the label for branding purposes by the food retailing giants. While the former caters to our physical need for foods free from harmful impurities and a system of growing which is in harmony with the environment, the latter exploits our psychological need to consume our food with a good conscience.

It is interesting to compare our ideas on the purity and wholesomeness of food with those of, say, the Victorians, when the appearance of purity in the forms of triple-refined white sugar or white bread could only be achieved for the masses by industrialised processes. In the 1850s processed or refined foods were considered purer and therefore healthier because they were the products of the latest industrial processes and far removed from the 'backward', 'primitive' and 'bacteria-ridden' fields and farmyards from where they originated. Conversely, we are now more inclined to tolerate the 'clean dirt' of the pesticide-free farmyard than the complex processing of food in the antiseptic environments of food factories. Thus we see how certain symbolic correspondences can alter radically through time.

This is not--or not yet--the case for ceramics, and it is hard to foresee any such similar shift in the way we think and feel about pottery. Ceramics already symbolise the mystery of purification that we inherit from the ancients, and porcelain contains the most extreme form of this in that its ordeal is the most intense (although it has to be recongnised that there are other strands of 'ordeal by fire' ceramics which positively encourage not the 'purification' of the material, but the visual record of the effects of the process, for example in anagama firing). Taking the analogy of the nature/culture spectrum, porcelain, because of the extreme of fire that it undergoes, acquires a symbol of the highest form of culture/society--for instance in imperial China. It still retains this aura even now. However, there is a second layer of purity that porcelain contains, in that its fired form represents the most complete transformation of the earthy material that is clay, into a translucent material of whiteness and purity. White has, for many cultures, always been the colour most associated with the spiritual. Celadon glazes, being simple, unsullied and delicate, reinforce the purity of the clay and therefore, perhaps especially now, seem particularly suited to food and drink.


One of the magical/paradoxical things about pottery, and for me porcelain in particular, is that it embodies a durability and contains the echoes of its tremendous endurance while still being fragile. These images are contradictory but contribute powerfully to the unconscious appeal of these objects.


(1.) Philip Rawson, Ceramics, p23.

(2.) Claude Levy Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, p 336.

(3.) Ibid, p336.

(4.) Brigid Brophy, Mozart The Dramatist, p182.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Claude Levy Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, p12.

Article by Joanna Howells

Joanna Howells has been invited to contribute to David Jones's latest book Firing, Its Philosophy and Practice, by exploring her own practice in making studio porcelain. This is an edited version of her contribution. David Jones's book is to be published by Crowood Press in July 2007. Website :
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Author:Howells, Joanna
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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