My Favorite Altar Tools: Elemental Bowls

I’ve been maintaining a devotional altar for years now.  In high school it was little more than a pretty feather, a collection of river rocks, and a nice candle all contained in a shallow little blue bowl.  It looked like a pretty little “candlescape” and completely flew under my mother’s radar.  Not long before college, I acquired my first explicitly pagan piece–my statue of Oberon Zell’s The Millennial Gaia–and the more formal altar I have now began to take form.  The most recent ‘innovation’ in its set up was inspired by something Deborah Lipp wrote in The Elements of Ritual (2003).  Early in this book, Lipp discusses how some people choose to represent Fire on their altars.  She notes that “[a] flame on the altar is a pretty intuitive way to represent fire”, but that she prefers “to use the burning incense to represent both Fire and Air” (9).

I loved that rationale.  In my rituals, I’d brought the salt to the water and combined them.  I missed that same reflection when I used a flame for fire and incense for air.  It all seemed like too much fire:  the incense was burning, after all, so the candle was just hanging out, unincorporated and fully redundant given the number of burning candles that usually happens in ritual.  So I fully agreed with using a charcoal in a censer to represent fire, and the aromatic incense itself as air.  For a long while, then, I looked for a nice censer for my altar.  What I ended up with was far more perfect and far more serendipitous.  Funnily enough, I came by it through happening upon my water bowl.

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In early 2008, I was back home living with my parents, working part time, and saving up money for graduate school.  I’d just begun receiving acceptance and rejection letters from all the different programs I’d applied to, and knew that a new start was on the horizon.  I was also fairly prominent as a loose tea reviewer and had become good friends with many of my peers in that circle.  One of them, Alex, acquired a stunning piece of Japanese pottery in February for his teaware collection:  a hagi-yaki piece from the influential ceramicist Yamane Seigan.

A classic piece of hagi ware, this one a sake cup from ceramicist Ken Komatsu

Now, hagi ware is primarily known for two things:  its humble, organic forms and its translucent, white, and uneven glaze.  The running joke among the tea nerds was that hagi looked like pottery that a 3-year-old made and that (hopefully!) someone else ejaculated upon.  We often called it bukkake ware.

Hagi is not something that most Westerners find attractive, but the tea nerds loved it because of the clay that was used.  Hagi-yaki utilizes a highly porous clay, so as the pieces are used, tea deposits sink into the glaze and the clay, changing not only the appearance of the piece over time, but enriching the taste of the tea, too.  Smart tea drinkers, then, dedicate their hagi pieces to one type of tea only.

As intrigued as I was by the taste-enriching potential of hagi ware, I was too put off by the appearance of the pieces to consider investing in any until Alex acquired his piece.  His was an example of aohagi, or a hagi piece that uses a blue-tinted glaze.  It was not just any blue glaze, though:  it was Seigan blue, the glaze that earned Yemane Seigan international fame.  Yemane’s work is incredible:  The smooth, blue glaze seems to actually flow.  Waves of yellow and periwinkle swirl around midnight blue and skim over the rocky substrate of the piece.  The contrast against the coarse clay creates its own eddies of color patterns, and the play over the different clay ridges adds to a rippling effect.

The moment I saw Alex’s piece–an ippukuwan or small tea bowl–I knew it was the perfect water bowl for my altar.  It was so much more representative of the element than any random blue bowl could possibly be; it was practically water itself made solid.  I was in love.  Eventually I bought a very similar piece to Alex’s, though mine was happily more cauldron-shaped and had a pronounced spiral at the bottom of the cup, and it has graced my altar ever since.

My tea-dedicated aohagi chawan next to my altar-dedicated ippukuwan. Notice how the salt leeches through the clay.

Of course, after I began using my water bowl, I fell in love with it even more.  After the first time I used it, I left the salt water remain in the bowl for a couple of days.  When I next returned to my altar, I saw to my complete surprise that the porosity of the clay was no joke:  the salt water had completely permeated the bowl and, as the water evaporated from the exterior, it left behind the salt.  Every part of the bowl where the clay was exposed to air had salt crystals ‘growing’ out of it–even some glazed areas had pin-points of salt crystals!  Of course, my tea friends would shriek in horror, but I love that consecrated salt has now inextricably become a part of my tool.

Once I obtained my water/earth bowl, however, I realized that it would harshly contrast with any of the censers I’d considered obtaining.  Most of these were metal swinging pieces, and looked too sharp and industrial next to my organic little blue bowl.  Most were also much larger than the bowl, and I thought that would tip the balance of yin and yang just a bit.  So I decided to just stay open to the possibilities and trust that eventually I would arrive upon the perfect tool.

Funnily enough, perfection arrived only a few months later just as I was packing to move across the country and start school at Oregon.  As I recall, I was randomly surfing Etsy looking at the Japanese tea ware that ‘amateur’ Americans were producing when I came across a piece called “tea bowl no. 2” by the artist “sunrisemountain”.  My jaw dropped when I saw it.  It wasn’t a piece that I would have been drawn to on its own, but it was the perfect foil to my ippukuwan.  It had the same sort of cauldron shape and a similar foot, but the lines were much cleaner and less fluid.  It had little rosettes stamped in the four “quarters”, which further spoke to a more Apollonian insight.  More interestingly, it was glazed in both a creamy yellow–an air color–and a deep reddish-orange–or fire colors–and the glazes met at strong angles rather than flowing into each other.  It spoke “masculine” where my water bowl spoke “feminine,” a very appropriate differentiation given that water and earth are the feminine elements and air and fire are masculine elements.

It seemed to be a perfect air/fire bowl to me, and a quick consultation with my ruler showed that its 4 inch wide and 3 inch tall dimensions would be about the same size as my ippukuwan, which was 3.9 inches wide and 2.8 inches tall.  Better yet, the price with shipping came to $16.50–which wouldn’t hurt my tight purse strings too much if heat from the charcoal broke the bowl.  So I bought it.  And, of course, I could not be more pleased.  I keep the bowl about 3/4 full of sand, and that provides plenty of insulation to keep the bowl from breaking due to heat shock.  Better yet, that depth of sand is great for supporting incense sticks, which–given the small size of my current room–I’m far more likely to use than loose incense.  All in all, I found a match made in heaven!

My Fire/Air and Water/Earth Bowls.  Could they be any more perfect for their purposes?

Most recently, I acquired two small complements to these pieces.  I’d been using two little one-ounce white porcelain tea cups to hold my salt and loose incense, but they looked so stark and fragile small next to the heartier clay pieces.  I knew that eventually I would want to replace them.

My salt and incense bowls along with my Cartier salt spoon.

At a recent trip to Eugene’s Down to Earth, I found a great solution in the form of two little ‘sauce bowls.’  These bowls are typically used when serving sushi and are used to hold a puddle of soy sauce.  Americans, however, have gone wild for them and use them to hold all sorts of condiments.  Their shallowness also makes them great mise en place containers for spices, so they’re often found in kitchen supply stores in addition to places that have a more Asian slant.  These little guys are about three inches wide and an inch tall, and came in two glazes:  one a brown and black glaze, the other a tan an orange combination, each with an evocative spiral curling down into the bowl.  The black one is perfect for holding my salt and the tan one is perfect for holding loose incense.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of elemental containers, and I love how symmetrically eclectic they look upon my altar.  It was a collection that took a couple years to acquire, but it was well worth waiting for the right pieces.

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