In todays modern pagan ideology the cauldron is widely referred to and talked about as a symbol feminine magic, which of course in many ways it could be seen as very simply that. And it seems from talking to people across the globe, many of us only use our cauldrons in the most basic of ways, i.e. burning incense, mixing incense, maybe a bit of scrying occasionally. But when you consider that for the “Celts” the cauldron was foremost of the items within a communities equipment, this seems a little bit of a come down. It is not and never was seen as a gender specific tool and I hope that by the end of this exploration you may agree and possibly even see your cauldrons in a slightly different way.
Being the seminal instrument of transformation, apart from the womb of course, is no small thing in a magical world, the gravitas awarded by modern magical workers might, possibly, be a little more considered and active if we were not so well provided for with beautiful bowls, cups and other containers these days. Generally, though not in all cases, the modern pagans cauldron has changed much in style and substance from a large copper alloy vessel that could hang over the open fire within a feasting hall. Not many would inspire such legends as the Dagda’s cauldron Undry, who contained such bounty that when ever a meat hook was thrust into the depths, an appropriate portion for each person would be with drawn forth. Undry was not alone in being a cauldron of plenty in Irish history Each of the five ‘Hostels’ of Ireland were all said to have had a ‘Cauldron of Plenty’.
I would like to note that I used a personal “who” when speaking about Undry, and this was a deliberate act to emphasise the power and personality that was imbued into magical items in past times. Cauldrons, swords, knives, jewellery are just some amongst so many other items that were extraordinary in their world. The smiths pulled the ore from the earth and by, what was by the standards and knowledge available then, magical means, transformed it into powerful metal allies, which, when wielded with skill, could and did influence the world around you. Swords and cauldrons, even necklaces had names and names carry power when aligned with reputation, when the bards told your story or sang your song, you wanted it to leave a good and lasting impression.
I wonder in these days of mass production, how many items made today can truly be felt to be imbued with magical attributes?
There was recently a discovery of a cache of twelve large Iron Age cauldrons in Wiltshire, they had been buried together in a large pit. There is conjecture, because of where they were found, near a small settlement on a ridgeway that connected several larger settlements, that maybe it represents a number of communities coming together for a large ritual or specific gathering.
Some of the cauldrons appear to have been repaired over time and all had been used so they would have been a big loss to those who buried them, quite a sacrifice and a big statement or commitment to the reasons they came together for it would seem to me.
There have been many discoveries of cauldrons both Bronze Age and Iron Age over the years, although not as many as you might think. The Bronze Age ones tend to be made of pieces of copper alloy, riveted together, and generally found in watery areas, they seem to have been made specifically as votive offerings and therefore unused, around 60 of this kind have been found in Britain and Ireland. The other type found from the Iron Age are a combination of copper alloy sheets with added rims and handles of iron and resin to waterproof the seals, approximately 30 of these have been found over the years and almost always in or near settlements, having been used.
Many other examples have been found across the European continent, the most famous of which has to be the Gundestrup cauldron. This fine example of either Thracian or Gaulish silver work from approximately the 1st cent, is intricately worked with ritual and deific images that seem to be influenced by many cultures with similar spiritual themes. There could be a large element of ‘showing off’ or ‘one-upmanship’ associated with these items as that is something that the people of those times were well known for, the ‘Cauldron of Plenty’ would have been a wonderful way of expressing the wealth and fecundity of your community.
There are other sides to the cauldron within the stories, myths and legends of the “Celtic” era, the ‘Cauldron of Regeneration’ being one that comes quickly to mind. Here we find healing properties from the immersion into the vessel, noting here that it is often the vessel itself that provides the healing and not necessarily the liquid it might have contained. The most famous of this story is in the 3rd branch of the Mabinogi, being Bran’s cauldron, which he gave in compensation to the Irish King for the insult that Evnissien had given in a terrible display of rage. It was said that a dead soldier from the battlefield could be placed in the cauldron over night and the next day they would emerge, fully armed and ready to fight, yet be unable to speak.
Having said that the healing often comes from the vessel, there is the general association of wells, lakes and seas with the aspects of healing and regeneration, and I would like to point out that there is a link of a fundamental and linguistic kind which brings the two aspects together most distinctly.
The word for the soul in english is related to the Old English word sawol “spiritual and emotional part of a person, animate existence,” from P.Gmc. saiwalo (cf. O.S. seola, O.N. sala, O.Fris. sele, M.Du. siele, Du. ziel, O.H.G. seula, Ger. Seele, Goth. saiwala) Sometimes said to mean originally “coming from or belonging to the sea”. So we see here yet another layer of complexity that can be brought back to conscious levels and that we can apply to the concept of the “Cauldron of Regeneration”, a new born soul can not speak when it emerges from the mother’s womb, the dead are reborn and in the poem the Pryddu Annwfn, the Spoils of Annwfn, “there were six thousand soldiers arrayed along the walls and with them we could not converse”.
Then there are the “Cauldrons of Challenge” and with these we might also combine the “Cauldrons of Inspiration” as they seem, at times, to be one and the same although with some slight differences. Differences such as an Irish method of deciding on guilt, this was were an accused person had to plunge their arm into a cauldron of boiling water, if innocent then they came out unscathed, if guilty well…you can imagine! Some echoes of the ducking stool in there too, it seems to me.
The idea of the cauldron having a say in your fate is echoed in the Pyddu Annwfn once more, when Taliesin speaks about the Peir Pen Annwfn “The darkened cauldron with its pearl rimmed edge, that will not boil the meat of a coward, that is kindled by the breath of Nine Maidens.”
You must have courage to seek the numinous knowledge and wisdom from the cauldrons of the otherworld. That is an implicitly stated over and over within every tale or poem in which the cauldrons, grails or quests are centre stage.
Taliesin tells us time and again in his poems offering us a glimpses into his own journey, his time training with Ceridwen. At the time when the three drops leapt from the cauldron onto his thumb and he took them into himself, nothing would be the same and the potion brewed could serve no other. The transformation of herbs and magic within that vessel were destined to transform young Gwion into the great bard Taliesin and not Affagddu, at the end of the journey it was the the cauldron’s judgement, it was the call of the otherworld and beyond even Ceridwen’s power to change it.
And to finish the exploration there are is the poem by Amergin named “The Cauldrons of Poesy” and this is were we can all find a practical way to incorporate all these ideas into our very beings and work with them everyday. Amergin speaks of three cauldrons that reside within us, these cauldrons are what need to be filled and turned by our life experiences and our spiritual dedication:
Goriath (goh ree ah) The Cauldron of Warming/Incubation, everything that we bring into this world when we are born into this world from the other. Our blood and bone, our attributes and humanness. This I would place in the lower abdomen and is upright in each person from birth.
Ernmas (air’n mahs) The Cauldron of Motion/Movement, our skills and vocations, filled by how we are motivated and our emotions. This cauldron is often “on its lip”, upside down or on its side to various degrees, and I would put in the heart space.
Sofhish (so wish) The Cauldron of Knowledge/Wisdom, our spiritual dedication to our path and the Gods is what turns this cauldron. It is almost always “on its lips” in all but the most extraordinary of people. This is placed in the head.
A meditation on bringing these cauldrons into focus within you, is highly recommended, I have worked with them from my first ventures on to my druidic path and found them to be an extremely powerful and magical part of my practice.
In a few words of advice, as if you really need them, always read as many translations as possible, there are clues and treasures to be found in every one, even if they seem overly imbued with Christian overlay. Remember there is a theory that says if a scholar began a piece with a dedication to God/Jesus and finished with the same, everything held within was sacrosanct therefor could not be changed. Which makes a lot of sense when you read some of the things Taliesin wrote in the Pryddu Annwfn and other poems!
If the cauldron is a microcosm of the macrocosm, a version in miniature of the vast potential of the cosmos, all of the chaotic oceans of the Earth, a symbol of the womb and tomb. A tiny concentrated version of the great potential then held with our minds, it then becomes the vessel of our very soul, Prydwen, Arthur’s great ship that takes him across the waves to the otherworld and brings him home. Then truly the ideas and symbolisms inherent in this apparently simple domestic item begin to fill and cascade over the darken, pearl edged rim with profound significance.
I ask you, can you truly ever look at your little cauldron in the same way again? May the cauldron always boil your meat and may breath of the Nine forever kindle your cauldrons,