The Cultic Semantics of Ceramics

Issue #3 • 1061

Archeological excavations in Bactria carried in the 20s – 30s of the XX c. by different expeditions have revealed numerous and various ceramic pieces. Many articles and sections of books were devoted to their dating, typology, classification, genesis and evolution. However, beyond these searches are many questions, which did not have a proper treatment. Among them, there is a question about cultic semantics of the Bactrian pottery in the Kushan period (the I – II cc. A.D.), which by its ethnic origin belonged to the Yuezhi – Tokharians but called by the name of the founder of the governing dynasty – Kushan, like the Western Iranian dynasties of the Achaemenids, Arshakids and Sassanians according to Achaemen, Arshak and Sassan.

In accordance with their functions, pottery vessels are divided into five general groups:
kitchen utensil (for cooking and storage of food and liquids);
cultic (has got some specific features but about them we’ll say below);
writing utensils (use of whole vessels and fragments – ostraks for writing);
burial ceramic vessels (use of vessels, mainly khums, for bones storage);
decorative vessels (for interior design).

As a rule pottery vessels fulfilled one, two functions but there are some that combined three, or even four functions, for example, thin-walled clay vessel with bilingual inscription in Sanskrit (Brahmi writing) and Bactrian (writing of the Greek origin), which was found in fragments at the excavation site in the Buddhist cave monastery of Karatepa in Old Termez. The inscription says: “This vessel is for water having of the monk Buddha(shira), a great preacher of dharma”(1, p.98). Thus, the vessel fulfilled the utilitarian function and was a private thing of the monk who used it for water drinking, for writing and decorated the interior of his cell or temple altar that means it fulfilled a function of writing utensil and decoration. In addition, it was a vessel – amulet.

Cultic pottery vessels in Bactria were often used as kitchen utensils but existed special vessels made for cult ceremonies. Not only their specific form and substance (cassolette) but also epigraphic data prove this. At the site of Karatepa were found two vessels with inscriptions in Kushan Brahmi encircling low parts of one of their sides. According to V.Vertogradova, both texts have didactic content and probably belong to a school of the Mahasanghiks. Bactrian Buddhists, in particular, at Karatepa, used a special type of vessels with inscription-edification unknown in India. Both the content of inscriptions and their location in a low part of vessels give evidence for this, while in a case of burial vessels inscriptions usually occupied a middle or upper part of the vessel-body. (1, p.98)

Cult ideology forms a field of spiritual culture, the study of which, especially on the basis of archeological materials and in company with full or almost full absence of paleo epigraphic data, is extremely difficult matter. Interpretation of separate artifacts or burial rites within general reconstruction of cult beliefs and rites could be always impeached, for the excavation fixes just their external form, while the insight substance, according to epigraphic data, rather daedal in its recurrence, is left almost unknown. Cultic semantics of rites connected with ceramics of Kushan Bactria is not universal – in some cases traces of these or those rites reveal themselves brightly, in some – much less and in some cases they could be almost absent. Probably, in different areas of this region they had local character.

Absence of evidences in written sources makes to use ethnographic parallels and examples that have found reflection in written monuments of the Ancient East and archeological materials. Among religious beliefs, existing in Kushan Bactria in the first centuries B.C., could be defined three main religious systems, which enjoyed the highest respect in this region: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism (Hinoyana) and Greek cults with their worship to Olympic deities. However, customs and rites of paganism, taking their roots in far ancient times, did not play any less important role. Our concept on the ritual cycle fixed in the ceramics of Kushan Bactria is largely connected just with them. All diversity of this cycle could be drawn in following statements:
a) vessel – externalization of animate being;
b) vessel – equivalent of a deity;
c) vessel (especially broken and up-ended) – a symbol of death and transition to afterworld;
d) vessel – a sin-offering;
e) vessel – a peace-offering to ghosts of forefathers – fravashs;
f) vessel (cassolette) – a protective sign, magic externalization of absolution and insurance against sins;
g) vessel – a cosmogony model of the Universe.

Vessel – externalization of alive creature. Many peoples of the world have ideas that vessel is a symbolic externalization of animate being, and its shape is often compared with a shape of the human body, especially the female body. Just from this point of view, the details on Bactrian vessels in a form of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic heads should be interpreted. Among them, there are female and male heads, mountain goats, lions and monkeys. Entire animal figures – horses, leopards and monkeys decorate low parts of clay censers, as if supporting semi-sphere of reservoir, which in this case presents heaven, while the middle belt with pictures of animate beings reflects the earth, and under-bottom and legs of censor symbolize the chthonian world.

Vessel – equivalent of a deity is not just externilazation of animate being. In cult ideas of the peoples of India and Ceylon the vessel, where is growing the tree of wish or the tree of Bodhi, is one of the most wide spread symbols found its reflection in fine arts. According to the medieval chronicle “Mahatbothivamsa”, a king set such vessel on a gold throne and worshiped to it as to symbolic embodiment of deity. Until now, as F.Bosh and L. Dyumon point, in cult rites in India and Ceylon the vessel with the flower of lotus symbolizes a deity (2, p.128 – 129; p.110 – 113, 156). It just might be that similar ideas were in Bactria, anyway, in the burial ground of Bittepa was found a metal model of the vessel with a tree growing (3, p.).

Vessel – a symbol of death. In burial grounds and cult structures in Bactria we often meet significant number of broken or up-ended vessels located at the external side of underground burial structures. Being a reservoir for basic life resources – water and food, without which life is impossible, the vessel deliberately broken or up-ended had a meaning of loose or termination of earth life. Therefore, this rite at the burial and following memorial ceremonies had deep sacred significance. Numerous evidences for its existence are in written sources of the Ancient East and, in particular, in ancient Jewish rituals where broken vessel is a sign of death. “I’ve been forgotten in hearts as the dead: I – as the broken vessel” – the psalm says /Ps. 30.13/. Semantic link “vessel – human death” – has been fixed in one of Indo-Aryan texts dated from the turn of the 3rd – 2nd millennia B.C.: the body of a ruler was left on the battle field as a broken vessel. In new Assyrian rituals vessel breaking meant the enemy destroyed (4, p.121).

Nearly similar or related ideas were in the mentality of ancient Central Asian peoples. In this regard is interesting a fragment of the Manichaean text, published by W.B.Henning, which tells about the fall of Znvf town -probably, Zeim (Kerki) on the Amu Darya, besieged by enemies and where “. bloodshed happened. Lady Nana accompanied with women was walking towards the bridge. They were breaking vessels, crying loudly and groaningly, clawing their faces, tearing their hair and throwing down onto the ground”. (5, p.143 – 144). Obviously, this fragment reflects some ritual acts including vessels breaking that is exercised by priests of goddess Nana and connected with death of people. Backwash of ancient ideas on semantic link of human death and broken vessel has kept till now in some regions of Central Asia. For example, in the kishlak of Darband in Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan that is on the territory of ancient Bactria, vessels used for dead body washing up as well as vessels with sweat water for the ghost of the dead person were put on the place where the corpse laid, then were broken and carried to the grave.

Vessel – a sin-offering. Essential aspect of vessel breaking ritual lays in the act of sacrifice, or sin-offering, what prevented a person from disasters and misfortunes. “Leviticus” says that a clay vessel where the offering was cooked must be broken (Leviticus, 6,28). Outstanding Russian ethnographer, M. Andreev described annual holiday of “fire purifying” – Safar-Kachti, earlier wide spread in the Ferghana valley and Tadjikistan, which included jumping over fire, ritual murder of a dog and breaking of vessels. It was done in order to transfer disasters endangering the people onto vessels. This opinion has found its reflection in Central Asian folk-beliefs on chiltans (Pers. – “fourty men”) – especial category of ghosts controlling this world. One of folk-beliefs, described by M. Andreev, chiltan masked as a grave-digger had prevented disasters of a young man breaking his porcelain cup (7, p.347).

Vessel – a peace-offering to ghosts of forefathers. Sacrifice functions of vessels have been reflected also in a rite of the spirits of the dead remembering. Unlike, for example, soil burial grounds that were filled immediately after burying, aboveground burial structures – nauses were always accessible and peace-offerings have been exercising for a long time. In this regard, the custom of vessel locations in front of the walls of nauses is especially illustrative. Here is a direct link with a rite of peace-offering to forefathers’ ghosts, which Abu Raikhan Beruni described and according to which, at the end of Abanmah month and during five following days, the Persians were putting food into nauses and beverages – onto roofs of houses and were burning incenses for the spirits of the dead. The same rites were typical of the Soghdians and Khorezmians. (8, p.256).

The cult of forefathers’ ghosts worshipping – fravasham is reflected in Avesta and fixed in “Fravardin-Yashta” where each person is blessed who does a peace-offering “with a food and clothes in the hand”. In order to do food offering for the spirits of the dead they used not only intact vessels but with defect as well. In the kishlak of Rishtan (Ferghana) existed the tradition, according to which women going to mazar of Khodja Ilgar Boshi came to a pottery shop, took broken or defective vessels and left them at mazar as khudoi (offering to God) (9, p.77).

Vessel – a protective sign, magic externalization of absolution and insurance against sins. In Kushan Bactria this role belonged to special vessels, which are called in science as cassolettes. Cassolettes found in this region are of two types: the first one has orbed or semispherical reservoir, straight tube with different projections and conical base, sometimes on three legs, empty inside and sometimes flat. Pictures of entire bodies of animals and bird heads on the base are not rare. The second type has a flat bottom, conical empty tube with cut holes and semi-spherical reservoir.

As the search has revealed, cassolettes were wide spread in Kushan Bactria. The cassolettes found at Kampirtepa has especial importance. This settlement is located 30 km west of Termez, on the right bank of the Amu Darya, nearby the ferry, which we have identified as “Greek Ferry” of Pardagvi-Pandoki described by the medieval Persian author Hafiz-I Abru, what is proved by ceramic fragments with Greek inscriptions found there. In the eastern, so-called exurban, zone was excavated a building we have identified as Zoroastrian Kata – special premises used for temporary storage of some things in a case of bad weather or other cases in accordance with Zoroatsrian burial practice. As I have revealed, at the ancient time, at the eastern side of Kata, along the walls, existed the trench where were located cultic fireplaces for protection from bad ghosts trying to capture a human soul.

According to the Persian ideas, after burial ceremony in a house where the dead laid, they put burning lighten nearby dachma, in a special structure called Sagdi where fire or lamp should have burnt for three days. The fire was carried in the cassolette of iron, which was located separately because Demon Vizaresh allegedly was frightening souls staying after the death in this world during three nights. The soul put itself under the protection of the fire, and Demon seeing the light had to fly away and was not able to cause a fear and terror up to the fourth day after death when a soul reached Mehr Pevar (a place of judgment).

In the ditch, along with cult fireplaces, there were numerous intact and specially broken vessels of different use including cassolettes. Many of cassolettes and bowls were filled with small sterns of bushes and fruits of wild rose and almond, which were burnt in the cult fireplaces and then put into vessels. In Central Asia for fumigation were used “sacred grass” hazori-sinaid, isrik and gashnich, branches of archa, wild leek, capsicum and garlic. There were in use also chubi-chorroha – chips and grass gathered at the cross of four or seven roads and piliki – a chip of bulrush muffled with a piece of cloth or cottonwool (9, p.77).

The cult semantics of the wild rose (Rosa canina) was very rich. Its fruits were used in a rite of fumigation at Kampirtepa. According to ethnographic data, the wild rose protects hearth and home, is a stimulator and a symbol of fertility. In folk-beliefs connected with the wild rose are clearly seen two layers: archaic and Muslimized. In the last one, the wild rose “hulu” means “adjina gul” – the witch’s flower. The data collected by Sh. Ustaev at the mountain Tadjiks of Boysun and Kugitangh (south of Uzbekistan) reflect the more ancient layer of folk-beliefs. Branches of the wild rose are material for amulets -”tumor”, which are hanged above the door into the house and to the fore in the sitting room – “mehmonkhana”. They were assigned to protect welfare. A stick (hassa) was made of branches of the wild rose. The God allegedly forgives its owner for his five-year sins. Beads (shaba) from the wild rose fruits move away harmful ghosts. The wild rose as a component was used for fire burning in a case of epidemics and ritual practice as offering. But along with the other trees and bushes it could be a significator of death, if faded early or too late, or bloomed twice a year (10, p.80).

Thus, at the Kushan time, cassolettes filled with burnt fruits and branches of the wild rose were used for protection from harmful ghosts and as an offering. Vessel – a cosmogony model of the Universe. Brightly accented three-parted division (low, middle and upper) allows considering of the vessels as some cosmogony model of the Universe. Such view was registered at some peoples of the world, in particular, in India and Sri-Lanka. As E. Semeka, a searcher of rituals and myths of Sri-Lanka, wrote , finished pot, judging by symbolic description (nine hatkh round, five hatkh in depth, three hatkh in perimeter and eight fingers in thickness), like a tree itself and rituals related to it, presents a cosmogony model of the Universe (2, p.128 – 129).

It is quite likely that, considering close contacts of Bactria and India as parts of the Kushan Empire in the first centuries A.D., similar views were among the Bactrians as well. In this regard, interesting data have been got from the search of the structure and semantics of cassolettes found at many Bactrian settlements. Their structure has three parts: the low – orbed and flat laying on three legs that symbolize columns supporting the earth, the middle – filled with ornamental motifs (wave, life tree) and animal bodies reflecting flora, fauna and world ocean and the upper – a part of semi sphere, probably, presenting the heaven. In some cassolettes a semi sphere of reservoir as if founds on bodies of animals, what might reflect ancient mythological ideas about the heaven that lays on the hands of giants or on the animals. In this regard, not less interesting is a black clay amphora with two handles from Kampirtepa. Its middle part, which is filled with ornamental belts and symbols of flora and water and is separated from the low part by a concentric line with declined lines reflecting the earth and from the upper part – by wave-shaped pattern symbolizing the sky giving to the earth vital water, is clearly accented.

In this article we have analyzed just some aspects of this important scientific problem. Its further searching will give the opportunity to reveal additional aspects of the cult semantics of ceramics.

Author: Edvard V. Rtveladze

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