In the representations of this "merveilleux symbole qui etait comme le Saint-Graal de l'epopee chaldeenne," to quote the words of one of the greatest scholars of Sumerian antiquities, there can be recognized an "evolutionary" and more or less chronological sequence of types. At first there are plain globular vases, held by standing or seated personages, one hand below and the other on the vase.
-- Ananda Coomaraswamy, Yaksas
The amrita kumbha or "pot of elixir"
The sacred earthenware pots of Lusung were also generally of a globular shape and brownish or reddish color. They were of medium size that could be easily carried even when full of water.
In Japan, where we find the world's oldest known pottery, sacred jars are mentioned in the literature detailing the founding of the empire. The Japanese used these jars for storage and also for ritual sacrifice. In the Nihongi, the first emperor Jimmu Tenno meets a divine visitor during a war with his enemies and is told to make a great pot sacrifice to gain victory:
The Emperor, indignant at this, made prayer that night in person, and then fell asleep. The Heavenly Deity appeared to him in a dream, and instructed him, saying, "Take earth from within the shrine of the Heavenly Mount Kagu, and make from it eighty Heavenly platters. Also make sacred jars and sacrifice to the Gods of Heaven and Earth. More over pronounce a solemn prayer. If you do this, the enemy will render submission of their own accord."
In Southeast Asia, sacred jars were of several types. In addition to those used to store beverage and food, others were used for the practice of secondary burial. Both of these types of jars could also be handed down as sacred heirlooms known in Indonesia as pusaka. Jars were important status symbols and were used especially during marriage negotiations as one of the most coveted forms of bride wealth.
Pot worship was especially important in the Philippines, Borneo, Taiwan, among the Moi of Indochina and in certain other areas of Indonesia. Pottery is often the most important burial item in these regions where it is sometimes broken first, so the animistic spirit may accompany the deceased.
In latter times, Chinese celadons and large vessels known as dragon jars a type of stoneware, which, though of obvious Chinese influence, may have been of Southeast Asian manufacture. The simple earthenware pots became neglected and forgotten by the local people, but cherished by those abroad who had coveted them for ages.
Many fantastic traditions surround the sacred jars in insular Southeast Asia. In Borneo, the jars are said to be made of the gods from the same clay used to make the Sun and Moon (and sometimes also the Earth). Among the Tinguian of the Philippines, a certain jar named Magsawi was said to be able to converse, to take long journeys and even eventually got married to a female jar from a neighboring province. They eventually had a child jar with the same characteristics! According to the Tinguian, the sacred jars are the products of Kabonian, a deity with solar affinities.
Another tale of living jars comes from the tale of Gimbangonan:
Not long after he started, and when he arrived in the pasture, all the jars went to him, and all the jars stuck out their tongues; for they were very hungry and had not been fed for a long time. The jars were somadag, ginlasan, malayo and tadogan, and other kinds also. When Aponitolau thought that all the jars had arrived, he fed them all with betel-nut covered with lawed leaves. As soon as he fed, he gave them some salt. Not long after this they went to the pasture, and they rode on the back of a carabao [water buffalo].
Paul Kekai Manansala