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Mortar and Pestle - How It was Used in Ancient Times and Now

Updated on July 21, 2011

Mortar and Pestle

What Is the Mortar and Pestle and How it’s Used?

The mortar is the a bowl, and the pestle is a blunt object. One end of the pestle is used for crushing and grinding substances that are placed in the mortar.

How to use the mortar and pestle:

  1. Place the substance to be ground in the mortar.
  2. Place the pestle on top of the substance that is in the mortar.
  3. Apply downward pressure on the pestle and grind using circular motions.
  4. Continue this action until you have the desired results

This action forces the substance against the surface of the bowl and pulverizes it.

Ancient Mortar and Pestle

History of the Mortar and Pestle

The molcajete was used by pre-historic Mesoamerican cultures, that includes the Aztecs and Mayans, that stretches back at least 6,000 years, and was made of basalt.

Native American tribes used mortars carved into the bedrock in order to grind their acorns and other nuts.

The Japanese used large mortars with wooden mallets to prepare moki.

The mortar and pestle was used extensively in India to make various spice mixtures.

It is traditional in various Hindu ceremonies such as weddings and upanayanam to use the mortar and pestle to crush turmeric.

Large stone mortars with wood pestles were used in West Asia to grind meat for a type of meatloaf called kebbeh as well as a type of hummus called masabcha.

The ancient Egyptians and Romans used the mortar and pestle in a variety of different materials throughout the years.

There are intact mortar and pestle samples from the early 14th century that was used by people in the British Isles during the Anglo Saxon times.

The mortar and pestle has been shown to have been used by Apothecaries in Italian frescoes of the 15th century.

The Thai mortar and pestle dates back to the Sukhothai period which was the 1st Kingdom that was founded in 1238 A.D. and was used to grind foods and medicines.

The Caddo and Cherokee Indians used a large version of the mortar and pestle to grind their corn.

What the Mortar and Pestle Is Used For

The mortar and pestle has been used for a variety of purposes since ancient times, and continues to be an important tool, even today.
The mortar and pestle has and is used to:

  • crush, grind, and mix herbs, spices, and grains for use in cooking, magickal spells and/or rituals, and medicinal use
  • to grind up pills in order to speed up the absorption rate
  • prepare various recipes such as guacamole and pesto
  • prepare paint by painters
  • process various chemicals by physics and chemists
  • prepare make-up for women
  • prepare medicines and medicinal plants by pharmacists
  • to grind stones into smaller pieces or powders

Materials That the Mortar and Pestle Have Been Made From

The mortar and pestle has been made from a variety of materials throughout the ages. Some of the more popular materials that the mortar and pestle have been made from include:

  • Ceramic- rough ceramic is generally used to powder substances and works well for this purpose, but it stains easily and is brittle.
  • Stone/Granite- these are durable and sturdy, and most granite ones claim that they will never crack or chip, but are also heavy. You will want to find a fine grained texture that is not very porous (a good way to check is to grind the pestle into the mortar. You will want to see little to no dust, and no chalky white trail).
  • Hard Wood- these are good to use for grinding seeds, grains, and salt. Wood also absorbs flavor rather well. You should avoid using foods with a moisture content because it will eventually cause the wood to split. You never want to leave these soaking in water, and you will want to condition with a wood oil often.
  • Porcelain- these are sometimes given a rougher surface by grinding sand inside the mortar, these are unlikely to stain, does well with moisture content and liquid foods, easily cleaned and dishwasher safe.
  • Glass- doesn’t grind finely and is fragile, but are stain resistant and good for using for liquid type mixtures such as pesto and guacamole
  • Marble- these are generally heavier, but they are easier for chopping and grinding, it does not absorb odors, and is easier to wash
  • Bamboo- not as heavy as the stone or ceramic versions (so more pressure is needed to get the job done), bamboo is naturally anti-microbial, may not work on harder type materials such as ginger, can be difficult to remove odors such as garlic (can be left out in the sun for a couple of days to remove strong odors).
  • Iron (Cast)- these are durable and long-lasting, great for using with harder items, these generally have a rough surface that grinds materials quickly and easily, also heavy, does not trap odors, you must make sure that you dry thoroughly after washing so that it doesn’t rust.
  • Steel (Stainless)- recommended if using for crushing up pills for medicinal use, easily cleaned, resists stains and odors, and doesn’t leave a residue.
  • Brass- durable and easy to clean.
  • Basalt (Lava/Volcanic Rock)- to find a high quality version, look for a low sand content. Is great for a wide variety of uses, it does need to be seasoned before use in order to stabilize its surface.
  • Soapstone - can be heavy, sturdy, does not absorb flavors, and easy to clean.

How to Choose a Material

When choosing what type of material that your mortar and pestle are made of you need to decide what you will be using your mortar and pestle for.

The material must be hard enough to crush the substances that you need it to and will not be worn away by the materials. You don’t want the material to be too brittle to break during the pounding and grinding process.

The material must be cohesive enough that bits of the material don’t wind up in your ingredients.

You don’t want to use an absorbent material if using it to grind up highly odorous things such as garlic or cinnamon.

You also don’t want a porous material where bits of herbs or spices will end up only to be added to your next batch of herbs or spices to be ground up.

Why Use a Mortar and Pestle?

When using a mortar and pestle you gently release the natural oils and flavor essences that are contained in the herbs or spices. The flavors come from the essential oils that are contained within the herbs or spices. These essential oils evaporate rather quickly once the plant is broken up. When using an electric chopper, not only do you overheat the herbs and spices (causing the essential oils to evaporate), but you are also changing the taste and smell of the herbs and spices with the metal blades. Using a mortar and pestle also gives you much more control when grinding ingredients than does an electric grinder, that even with one burst, can pulverize an item. When items are ground up in a mortar and pestle correctly, you will produce a higher quality product that is a much more flavorful and exemplary product than can be bought or done in an electric chopper.


The mortar and pestle are used to grind and mix herbs, stones, grains, seeds, roots, and berries in order to prepare herbs, tinctures, and magical powders. You can use the mortar and pestle to grind up ingredients for use in cooking, spells, healing remedies, pillows, and sachets for charms or baths.

Using the mortar and pestle brings the practitioner's direct energy connection and special feel into your rituals and magickal workings. By using your concentration of mind and hands you are transferring your positive energy into the process, which is an important component of healing and spell work.

When using for magickal purposes, there are a few things to consider when using a mortar and pestle. You will probably want at least two different sets. One for mixing ingredients that are poisonous when ingested or applied topically, and a second set for mixing ingredients that are meant to be used for healing internally or applied topically, such as poultices or skin treatments. Some types of materials, like those made of wood, bamboo, and some types of stones, will absorb or retain the essence of the substances that are ground within them. Some people will keep many sets with each set assigned with a certain use or purpose so the the previous ingredients energy will not interfere with a future spell or magickal working. You will also need to consider the fact that if using a metal type of mortar and pestle that the metal will bring certain properties into your spell work. You also need to remember that certain metals will react with acidic substances, which can cause an unknown chemical reaction. This reaction can either ruin or change the outcome of your spell.

As with any other magickal tools, your mortar and pestle does need to be cleansed and consecrated before using.

My New EBook

I have spent some time lately creating an e-book for my fellow Wiccans, Witch's, and Pagans.

It has all of the common tools that we use along with history, lore, where to buy, how to make (if possible), and correspondences.

I have created this because I know how convenient it is to have all of the information available and easily accessible. I even find myself using this all the time simply for the correspondences.

Tools of Witchcraft


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    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      6 years ago

      Fascinating info. I have a few mortars & pestle sets, I work a lot with herbs for many reasons so I use them frequently. This was a very enjoyable read.

    • modernalchemyst profile image


      6 years ago

      Wonderful information and pictures, thank you! Voted up. I just purchased my first mortar and pestle at my local pagan shop. After looking online, it seems I could have bought it cheaper, but oh well, happy to support a local business. :)

      Until reading this, I wasn't aware that metal could interact with the ingredients, though it certainly makes sense. Mine is cast iron and appears to have some sort of powdered interior. Are there any particular herbs or liquids you would recommend avoiding to prevent such an interaction?


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