Saturday, September 02, 2006

Clay, Myths and uses of (Glossary)

Clay -- composed of fine, hydrated minerals that are cohesive in nature -- plays an important role in myths and traditional healing systems around the world.

Often the first humans are said to have been formed with clay. The Sumerians had such myths, as did the Aztecs, the Dyaks of Borneo and many other peoples. The clay most often used is red or reddish-brown, the color of which in many myths is attributed to tempering with divine blood (see Oppenheimer, 366-7).

Interestingly, modern science suggests that life, not just humans, may have formed in early volcanic clay. Researchers found that methanol — naturally produced when volcanic carbon dioxide combines with volcanic hydrogen gas — is protected from volcanic heat between layers of certain common clays.

Shielded by the clay, methanol reacts with a clay mineral called montmorillonite to create far more complex organic molecules with up to 20 carbons. For more info, see:

Secrets of Life Found in Volcanic Clay?

The living powers of clay may link also with its use in traditional forms of medicine.


Geophagy refers to the consumption of clay or soil for healing purposes, which was very widespread, and in some cases to the use of clay as a condiment or emergency food as in the Philippines, New Guinea, Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America.

An amazingly widespread practice was for pregnant women to consume clay during various terms or through the entire pregnancy. Clays like kaolin and montmorillonite have properties that can help with morning sickness. Kaolin, for example, is used in the popular preparation Kaopectate.

It may also be that there is some ancient link between the myths of creation of humans from clay and the use of the substance during pregnancy, the formation of humans in the womb. In an old Bisayan myth, Saman and a daughter of Sicalac were forced to eat yellow clay after traveling to the East, which results in their descendents having a yellow color.

The perceived healing powers of clay found in many cultures is not without scientific merit.

Clay is used today widely as an alternative medicine, and also by orthodox medicine in some cases. Clays like montmorillonite (bentonite) and hydrated sodium calcium aluminosilicate (smectite) are utilized, for example, to detoxify mycotoxins from animal feed.

Naturopathic practictioners also use clay in humans to protect against mycotoxins, heavy metal poisoning and to generally cleanse the body through their absorbent properties. Volcanic clays are particurlarly important because of their wide spectrum of mineral content.

Volcanic clay has a residual negative charge that binds to positive ions, which are toxic to humans.

Mycotoxins are produced by fungi and are heat-stable, thus resistant to practices like cooking. These toxins generally build up in grains and grain-based animal feeds. Mycotoxins from feed will pass into the meat, milk, eggs, etc. of animals that consume the contaminated foodstuffs.

As mycotoxins are very potent carcinogens have have toxic effect particularly on the liver, kidneys and immume system, many researchers now believe they are one of the most important health risks found in the present-day food system.

The European Union has approved clays like Clinoptilolite as binding agents for animal feeds. Although such use of clay binders is not approved by the U.S. FDA, the practice is still becoming increasingly popular in the United States.

Clay jars and the "water of life"

We have explored in this blog, the use of simple, earthenware jars as water, tea or wine pots. In some cases, these rather uncomely jars became exceptionally valuable, sought after by kings and merchants.

The porous earthenware jar allows water to evaporate on its surface. If water is left in such jars for some time container will eventually empty -- the source of "drinking jar" tales.

Evaporation allows the jar to dissipate heat, and thus these vessels are widely known for their "breathing" qualities and their ability to cool drinking water.

Many clays used for such pots contain organic matter and microrganisms, and eventually these water pots become infested with lichens and microrganism colonies, which generally are non-pathogenic, and even beneficial to humans. The jar becomes a living entity to the ancient mind.

If made with certain quantities of volcanic clays (other than kaolinite), the jar becomes badly deformed over time because these clays expand as they absorb moisture.

Such volcanic clays would help purify the water of toxins, and might also mineralize the water through dissolution.

Through these various processes, the water kept in these pots could be easily be recognized as having superior qualities, and indeed that is the case in many cultures.

Living clay from the Magnetic Mountains

Volcanoes tend to abound in natural magnets generated and scattered by an eruption. People living near the mountains could recognize this link and the concept of the magnetic mountain is born.

The magnetic force can be seen as a form of animistic life energy by the pre-modern mind, and thus also anything associated with the volcano including the native clays.

In Borneo, the clays of the Sun and Moon were used to create some of the local sacred jars. The reference here is, I believe, to the original ancient mountains of the Sun and Moon, respectively Arayat and Pinatubo.

Water jar monument from Calamba, Philippines

In legend, these two mountains battle with each other hurling stones through the sky. Science shows that there may be something to these myths. The great Holocene eruptions of Pinatubo show signs of a "mixing" of basaltic stones from the Arayat formation and dacites from Pinatubo. This mixing actually takes place in underground chambers between the two mountains and results in a hybrid ash and pumice. Thus, the eruption of Pinatubo also involves, in a way, Arayat.

This hybrid ash eventually weathers into the volcanic clays around the mountain, a mixture of the elements from the solar and lunar mountains.

Water kept in jars made with this clay, which can be seen as related to the clay used to form the first humans according to mythology, is infused with the same essence as the primordial clay becoming the "water of life."

Paul Kekai Manansala


Callahan GN. Eating dirt. Emerg Infect Dis [serial online] 2003 Aug [date cited]. Available from: URL:

Galvano F, Piva A, Ritieni A and Galvano G. "Dietary strategies to counteract the effects of mycotoxins: a review," Food Prot. 2001 Jan;64(1):120-31.

Phillips TD. "Dietary clay in the chemoprevention of aflatoxin-induced disease," Toxicol Sci. 1999 Dec;52(2 Suppl):118-26.

Phillips TD, Sarr AB and Grant PG. "Selective chemisorption and detoxification of aflatoxins by phyllosilicate clay," Nat Toxins. 1995;3(4):204-13.