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Kiln Gods by Skylark's The Ceramicist blogger

July 27, 2023

The Ceramicist blogger Skylark Galleries Vivien Phelan

Kiln Gods, what are they? Who uses them? What is the history behind them?

Kiln Gods are a part of the mythology of pottery. In the UK it’s probably more like folklore or crossing your fingers and wishing good luck to the firing process.

Making a piece of ceramic art takes quite a long time, then it need drying time - a stage at which is it highly breakable.

Then there is the anxious, no turning back, time when you place your very  breakable work in the kiln and fire it twice, first to make it hard, then to make it glossy. The temperature will reach well over 1000 degrees centigrade.

A kiln god’s job is to ensure a good and successful firing . These little “ friends” are placed on or around the kiln.  Many ceramicists in the UK make their own kiln gods, or kiln guardians.

Vivien Phelan's kiln god

Vivien Phelan's Kiln God

Not all ceramic artists have the kiln gods but, in Skylark Galleries, Ruty Benjamini and I have some. I have a kiln god who has been my partner since I started ceramics. He always takes my last instructions as I put the kiln on.

Ruty Benjamini ceramicist Skylark Galleries kiln god

Ruty Benjamini's kiln god

Skylark's Jonquil Cook, however, says, "I definitely don’t do kiln gods at all. I rely on my own experience, the maintenance of my tools and equipment, raw materials, heat work, the fluctuations, variations and unexpected results that come from using powerful electric machinery. I’m a good example of an atheist potter!"

Richard Dickson tells me, "It's an expression I sometimes use, especially when I'm nervous of results. Having said that it's just a figure of speech and I don't have any idea of a physical manifestation." 

Richard Dickson's bowl ceramic

Richard Dickson's stoneware ceramic blue bowl 12 cm wide £40

In China and Hong Kong kiln gods have a rich history and are very important deities and are honoured, worshipped and are there to protect the welfare of  the whole ceramic community. They have been around for centuries.

Chinese kiln gods are specific to each area with their own mythologies. Their job is to protect the potters and the ceramic industry. China has guidelines for honouring kiln gods which need to be passed by the local temple communities, which then have a shrine built and devoted to them. They don’t just place a kiln god by their kiln like we do. The ceramicist visits the temple and prays to the deity, burning incense and leaving offerings.

Ruty Benjamini’s “thoughtful” ceramic figure on a green wooden cube

Ruty Benjamini’s “thoughtful” ceramic figure on a green wooden cube £350.00 size 20 x 16 cm

In Jingdezhen, one of the amazing towns in China where nearly everything is made in beautifully glazed ceramic, such as traffic lights, rubbish bins…etc., their kiln god name translates to the, “Genius of the fire blast”.  This myth goes back to the 1700s, following the apparent self-immolation of T’ung Bun to ensure all the ceramics in the kiln would come out perfect, so that all the porcelain wares that the Emperor wanted survived a successful firing.

In those days it was even more difficult to achieve a good firing result as it was at the hands of the weather.   Kilns were surrounded by four different kiln gods: the mountain god, the earth god, the cow king god and the horse king god. Today Jingdezhen has large community kilns at the end of a road.

Vivien Phelan's Counting Sheep ceramic

Vivien Phelan's Counting sheep size 33cm x 20cm £295.00

The Greeks also have a history of kiln goddesses such as Athena (goddess of pottery).  With a hand raised over the kiln, she wishes for a good firing and good sales but she threatens that, if the wares don’t turn out well, she will call the kiln destroyers, kiln demons, mischief creators such as Suntribos (the shattered), or Smaragon (the smasher), or Sabaktes (the crasher) .

I think it’s all a bit of fun and releases the anxiety of switching the kiln on!

 Vivien Phelan The Ceramicist Blogger for Skylark Galleries

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