Artefact of the Month

Egyptian “Seventh Day Jug”

October, 2018


Among the holdings of the Museum of Ethnography’s Africa Collection are more than six hundred articles made of ceramic, most of them ordinary kitchen vessels, but a fairly large number – including ceramic drums, pipe bowls, foot scrubbers, sculptures, spindle ends, and beads – consisting in objects intended for other, non-culinary uses.  

The museum’s “artefact of the month” for October belongs to the category of items used for ritual or occasional purposes:  a piece known as an ollet el subuh, or “seventh day jug”.  The vessel in question hails from the collection of husband-wife journalists István Rudnyánszky and Edit Szávay, who, assigned to Africa beginning in the 1950s, accumulated a significant body of material both in their work, and by purchase from Western European tribal art dealers.  Several hundred of the objects in their collection were eventually purchased from or donated by the couple’s estate and are now public property.

The ritual to which the jug relates involves the purchase of an unglazed, plain or painted water container by the parents of a new-born child for use in a celebration held on the seventh day following birth, the traditional day of name giving and the baby’s first bath.  The jugs produced for boys feature spouts, symbolising masculinity, while for girls, both spout and handle are absent.  Local culture holds the number seven to be magical and believes survival of the seventh day a sign of the child’s suitability for life.  Accordingly, the jug is decorated with seven candles, along with blue beads (similar to those hung about the new-born’s neck), thought to ward off the evil eye on the day of celebration, and white and red flowers.  The jug is then placed in the centre of a large tray alongside a number of coins (again for reasons of magic) and seven different seeds/legumes:  wheat, lentils, fava beans, fenugreek, clover, rice, and barley.  With preparations complete, the baby’s family, holding lighted candles, follow the eldest female member around the tray as she scatters fistfuls of salt about and sings a song appropriate to the occasion.  In the days to follow, the seeds germinate, symbolising fertility, well-being, and growth.

Sometimes a special doll, sporting a water jug on its head and a septipartite candle holder about its waist, is also purchased for the seventh-day celebration.  The doll is meant to recall a related peasant custom, in which women danced with brimming water jugs on their heads.  Until the early twentieth century, it was not unusual to find women with the skill to perform the intricate serpentine movements of the dance without spilling a drop of water, as if the jug and its candles were bolted to their heads.  Today, the famous dance is rarely performed, though its spectacle remains immortalised in the local pottery.

Beyond celebrating the child’s ability to survive and magically promoting his or her continued development, the seventh-day celebrations also serve to open the new-born’s ears, so that he or she might hear the sounds of the surrounding world.  To do so, family members bang a mortar and pestle in the infant’s vicinity.  The water jug, too, can be used as an instrument, and indeed, children enjoy blowing on them to produce a sound.  Thus, the cock’s head featured on another seventh-day jug in the museum’s collection may, in fact, be a reference to sound production and the inauguration of a child’s sense of hearing.

Edina Földessy

Painted ritual jug
From the Edit Szávay estate, 1995
Museum of Ethnography; 95.68.30

Cock’s head ritual jug
From the Edit Szávay estate, 1995
Museum of Ethnography; 95.68.29

Ritual jug
From the Edit Szávay estate, 1995
Museum of Ethnography; 95.68.22

Photo credit:  Krisztina Sarnyai