I purchased these three clay souvenir tokens outside a religious shrine in Thailand. I’ve seen similar clay souvenirs in other Asian countries and in Latin America. I’ve used them as press molds in larger ceramic pieces that I’ve built.
They exude a certain aura of the divine, subtle yet unmistakable.
When using one of these tokens (actually, a reverse-impression of the clay token) as a press mold recently, I started thinking about the origin of clay tokens, especially as souvenirs of religious or spiritual sites around the world.
Religious-themed clay tokens have been found dating back to early Mesopotamian times, 8,000-9,000 years ago.
Archeolologist Joel Palka notes that:
In the ancient Near East, clay tokens were used in temples, human burials, pilgrimage shrines, and ritual caches… Cross-culturally, worshipers utilize small clay objects for ceremonial purposes, such as pilgrims’ tokens. Clay absorbs spiritual power at shrines in many cultures, making it a significant material for ritual offerings, blessings, or protection. Worshipers place clay tokens at shrines or take them home for family members and sick persons to touch or consume. Similar material contexts suggest that ancient people in the Near East used some clay tokens to gain merit from deities for prosperity, health, and religious devotion.“ (Palka, J.W. “Not Just Counters: Clay Tokens and Ritual Materiality in the Ancient Near East.” J Archaeol Method Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-020-09457-8)
Illustrating Palka’s observation that small clay souvenirs are widespread across the world, clay tokens serving as religious icons were manufactured in the early Christian world. These two souvenir tokens celebrating the life of Saint Symeon the Elder date back to the 6th-7th century.
Saint Symeon was an ascetic, one of a group of Stylite “pillar dwellers” known for living alone & unsheltered atop high stone columns for 47 years of his life, practicing self-mortification in religious devotion. Apparently this drew a crowd. Ultimately, a group of followers settled around Saint Symeon’s column, eventually growing into a large pilgrimage complex along the major crusader route from Europe to the Holy Land. Souvenir tokens, purportedly created from the dust surrounding the columns on which Symeon stood, were sold to passing pilgrims. The tokens, stamped with the image of Symeon, were believed to hold great curative powers, as if the pilgrim were touching the hand of Saint Symeon himself. (See: Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics, Valentino Gasparini, Maik Patzelt, et al.)
[One odd thing to note: there was a Saint Symeon the Elder and a Saint Symeon the Younger – presumably father and son. Clearly living in isolation on top of a stone pillar for 47 years was somehow attractive to the ladies. Go figure.]
Other examples of clay religious-themed souvenirs are these these two pilgrim flask mementos of St. Menas, pictured in both instances with his arms outstretched in a blessing. Both are ceramic ampullae (small holy-water flasks brought from pilgrimage places as a souvenir, and mass-produced in Early Byzantine times). They were found at Abu Mena, near Alexandria in Egypt.
The first example is held in the British Museum (item number EA69839). It is dated as late Roman, apx. 480-650. It was made from a mold and is stamped in Greek “O ΑΓIOC ΜΗΝΑC,” translated as Saint Menas.
The second example is held in the Louvre Museum.
These small religious tokens made of clay represent a continued tradition of human creative activity that has lasted over 9,000 years. Think about that for a minute. In today’s world, any one of us may live 100 years, experiencing perhaps 6 generations (our grandparents to our great grandchildren). People have been making these clay souvenirs for 400 – 450 contiguous generations, and we still find them on display in small roadside stands near temples and churches across the globe.