The cauldron is a symbol of rebirth, the hearth, of abundance and of well being. Ancient Celtic tales tell of cauldrons that that no one ever went away from hungry and cauldrons that, when the dead were thrown into them, would bring the dead back to life. These days, cauldrons represent the female aspect of divinity, the womb, and are used thusly in conjunction with wands, swords and athames (depending on their size and the tradition) in symbolic representation of The Great Rite.
The Cauldron in History and Folklore
The word cauldron comes from Latin caldaria meaning “cooking pot” in turn from caldārium, “hot bath”. The word kettle comes from the Germanic word for the same cooking implement kessel, Middle English chetel, Old Norse ketill. The Middle Irish word for cauldron was Coiri or caere, which meant something like “place of liquid or moisture”. The Welsh word for cauldron was pair or peir.
Just as a point of interest, a circular depression in the Earth caused by volcanic activity is also sometimes called a cauldron or a caldera.
Many cauldrons have three feet for setting them over the fire and, lacking this, may be suspended from a simple tripod structure of three sticks lashed together if used over an outdoor fire. This is mirrored in the Greek tripods, a 3-legged stand for holding a sacrificial vessel, similar to a cauldron. China had similar 3-legged sacrificial vessels called “dings”. The three legs are occasionally pointed to by modern Witches as representing The Triple Goddess, but She didn’t exist universally in ancient times. The reason for the number of legs is probably more practical: A three-legged structure is the most sturdy on uneven ground.
The Cauldron in Celtic Lore
The cauldron plays a role in many Celtic stories and the lore even describes them as great treasures with magical powers.
The Gunderstrop Cauldron
The Gunderstrop cauldron is a silver cauldron found in a peat bog in Denmark. It is beautifully decorated with images of Cernunnos and possibly Taranis and animals and is believed to have been or have held an offering to the Gods. It dates from between 200 BCE and 300 CE and is believed to be of either Gaulish or Thracian origin. This awe inspiring piece is on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
In Welsh lore, specifically the second branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen ferch Llŷr, or Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, we hear of the Pair Dadeni, the Cauldron of Rebirth. The Pair Dadeni belonged to a pair of giants, Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife, Cymydei Cymeinfoll who lived in the Lake of the Cauldron in Ireland. When they met the Irish King, Matholwch, he invited them to his court, but they ran afoul of the Irish people the King decided to do away with them by burning them to death in their own house. So the giants fled Ireland to the Island of the Mighty (Britain) and there they were sheltered by Welsh King Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed), son of Llyr. In thanks for his hospitality, they gifted him with the Pair Dadeni before they moved on.
After a time, Matholwch visited Bendigeidfran’s court to forge an alliance between the two islands and he married [[[god:Branwen]], Bran’s sister, to solidify the alliance. But Efnysien fab Euroswydd, the maternal half brother of Branwen and Bran, was furious that he was not consulted about the arrangements and showed his displeasure by mutilating the horses that the Irish had brought with them. Matholwch was outraged and Bran was terribly embarrassed and offered Matholwch the Pair Dadeni as compensation for the horses. He accepted the gifts and returned to Ireland with his entourage and his new bride.
But the Irish hold a grudge and Branwen bore the brunt of it. Instead of ruling as queen, she was put in the kitchens and forced to work and beaten every day. She gave birth to a son, Gwern who apparently had the affection of his father, though his mother did not. Branwen tamed a starling and sent it to Britain with a message for her brother who gathered their other brother Manawydan and a huge host of Welsh warriors and sailed to Ireland to reclaim her.
When the Welsh landed in Ireland, the Irish made a peace offering of a huge house, large enough for the entire British army and stocked with 100 bags of flour. But Efnisien discovered that the bags of flour really contained hidden Irish warriors and killed them all.
Finally, the Welsh and the Irish struck a deal for peace and Matholwch abdicated the throne in favor of his son Gwern and a great feast is held in his honor. But at the feast, Efnisien seized the boy and threw him into the fire and killed him.
This sparked off a bloody war during which the Irish use the Pair Dadeni to great advantage. They tossed their dead into it and they rose up able to fight again, but lacking the power of speech (zombies!?). The Welsh were pummeled until Efnisien hid among the dead and was tossed into the cauldron by the Irish where he burst it from the inside, killing himself in the process.
The two sides thus on even ground, the Welsh won the war but only seven men were left. The Welsh returned to Britain and Bran, who suffered a mortal wound, ordered that his head be cut off and brought London where it continued to speak for many years after. Branwen died of grief.
Read this tale at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab22.htm Branwen
The Dagda’s Cauldron
The Cauldron (coire) of the Dagda, or the Cauldron of Plenty/Bounty was one of the four treasures of the Tuatha de Dannan, brought across the sea to Ireland from the mythical city of Muirias. It is said that the magic of the cauldron was such that no one ever went away from it hungry. It was named Undry.
The Cauldron of Dyrnwich
The Cauldron of Dyrnwich is one of the 13 Treasures of Britain ( Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain) according to Welsh folklore. It is said that this cauldron would only cook food for a brave man. If a coward attempted to prepare a meal in it, it would not boil.
The Cauldron of the Head of Annwfn
The Pair Penn Annwfn, or the Cauldron of the Head of Annwn behaves just as the Cauldron of Dyrnwich. It will not cook the food of a coward. Perhaps it is the same cauldron. It is described as dark blue with pearls around the rim. This cauldron is described in the story Preiddeu Annwfn or The Spoils of Annwfn, which features King Arthur.
Read the text at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/preiddeu-annwn
We learn about Ceridwen’s Cauldron from The Book of Taliesin. Hers is the Cauldron of Inspiration, Pair Awen or Pair Ceridwen. Ceridwen had two children; A hideous son named Morfran and a lovely daughter named Creirwy. Ceridwen decided to give her son the gift of great wisdom and inspiration to make up for his unfortunate appearance. She prepared a very complicated potion that needed to be stirred constantly for a year and a day and employed a young boy named Gwion Bach to do the stirring. The first three drops of the potion conferred the gift, the rest of the batch would be only the foulest potion.
On the last day, just as the potion was nearing completion, Gwion got a little excited with his spoon and caused three drops of the burning hot potion to splash onto his hand, which he instinctively stuck in his mouth. He was instantly granted knowledge and inspiration and knowing Ceridwen would be furious, he fled, turning himself into a hare. She perceived what had happened and quickly turned herself into a greyhound to chase after him. He came to a river and turned himself into a fish and she turned herself into an otter, then he turned himself into a bird and she a hawk and on it went until he turned himself into a tiny bit of grain to hide and she turned herself into a hen and swallowed him up.
Nine months later she birthed the boy and abandoned him, tossing him into the sea. But he was rescued and grew into the legendary bard Taliesin.
The Cauldron in Hellenic Lore
While the cauldron doesn’t receive the same iconic treatment in Hellenic lore, it still features prominently in several stories relating to regeneration and rebirth.
From the lore of Ancient Greece, we learn of Medea through the story of Jason and the Argonauts and other stories in which she gets a more central role. She was a powerful foreign sorceress and priestess of Hecate who won Jason’s heart (or perhaps just proved useful to him) and sailed away with him on his ship after helping him win the golden fleece. Her bronze cauldron represents her knowledge of pharmaka, herbal magic, potions, poisons, the power they represent over life and death. In it she creates a potion that protects Jason from the fire breathing oxen he must yoke to plow a field at her father’s behest, and a sleeping drought that helps him get past the dragon guarding the golden fleece.
One notable scene with regard to her cauldron has her tricking the daughters of an aged enemy king into killing him at their own hand by demonstrating her cauldron’s regenerative powers (or perhaps pulling off an elaborate sleight of hand trick). She cuts up an aged ram and puts it in the cauldron and boils it with certain herbs and then opens the lid and a young lamb leaps out and frisks away. The girls try to pull this off on dear old dad and when it doesn’t work, he’s been done away with quite messily but Medea getting her hands dirty.
When Dionysus was Boiled in a Cauldron
The cauldron figures prominently in the stories of the childhood of Dionysus. In the Cretan version of the story of the birth and childhood of Dionysus, soon after the birth of Zagreus, Hera sent two Titans to destroy him. They distracted him, attacked him, cut him up and boiled him in cauldron and ate him. Zeus discovered the plot before they finished their feast and destroyed the Titans but only Dionysus’s heart remained, having been retrieved by either Athene, Rhea or Demeter. Zeus used the heart to recreate Dionysus as an fetus once more, either by re-sewing him into his thigh or by impregnating a mortal woman. He was reborn as Dionysus.
When Pelops was Boiled in a Cauldron
Tantalus is a man who suffers for eternity in Tartarus standing in a pool of water beneath the branches of a fruit tree and suffering eternal hunger and thirst for he cannot reach either food or drink though it is there, just out of reach, tantalizing him. What did he do to deserve such punishment? Among other things, he attempted to trick the Gods by offering him a feast made from his own son, cut up and boiled in a cauldron. The Gods were offended by this. Clotho one of the three Fates, gathered up all the pieces of the boy and boiled them in her own cauldron and brought him back to life.
The Cauldron in Germanic and Norse Lore
Every night, Andhrímnir slaughters the beast Sæhrímnir and prepares it in his cauldron, Eldhrimnir for the Gods and heroes to feast upon in Valhalla. The name Eldhrimnir means “sooty black from the fire” (sort of).
The Hávamál mentions Óðrerir as the source of sweet poetic inspiration. It may refer to the mead that is drunk, or the kettle (cauldron) from which the mead is drunk. If the latter, the Óðrerir is a cauldron similar to Ceridwen’s, giving inspiration.
Potent songs nine
from the famed son I learned
of Bölthorn, Bestla’s sire,
and a draught obtained
of the precious mead,
drawn from Odhrærir.
Hávamál (142), Thorpe translation
Sources and More Information
- Branwen, Daughter of Llyr at Sacred Texts
- Get The Mabinogion at Amazon.com
- The Four Ancient Books of Wales by William F. Skene (Amazon)
- The Spoils of Annwn from Rochester College
- The 13 Treasures of Britain at the Celtic Literature Collective
- The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes
- Medea by Euripides
- The Poetic Edda Bellows Translation at Sacred-Texts.com
The Cauldron in Modern Magick
Modern magick-users utilize the cauldron in a variety of ways and it is considered a necessary altar tool for many traditions. Indeed, cauldrons are so useful and so imbued with symbolism that many witches soon acquire quite the collection of cauldrons and cauldron-shaped tools. The modern cauldron may take many shapes. It may be a cast iron, pot with three legs and a handle, perhaps decorated with the symbol of your faith. These are available in many sizes from small enough to fit in your hand to large enough hang over the fire pit. Or you cauldron may be a pretty ceramic pot that resembles the traditional cauldron not at all, but if you say it is a cauldron then that is what it becomes. Cauldrons are also available in copper, pewter, stainless steel and a variety of materials that may dictate how they can be used. Kitchen Witches may collect practical, functional cauldrons and may might have a slow cooker dedicated to magical cooking designated “the electric cauldron”.
The only real requirement for a cauldron is that it be shaped in such a way that it can hold water and that it be made of a material that won’t burn. If it has a lid, it’s a bonus. Size only matters if it restricts the functionality of the cauldron.
The Cauldron Symbolizes the Womb
For some, the cauldron may be used interchangeably with the chalice to symbolize the womb in the Great Rite. Depending on your aesthetic or tradition, the cauldron may seem a much more natural fit.
The Cauldron Symbolizes Transformation
As the cauldron is a symbol of transformation, it becomes a very meaningful place to house spell materials while you are working on them or during a resting period for multi-day spells. In this way, a cauldron can serve almost as an altar itself, containing all your spell ingredients as you work over it, taking them out and dropping them in as needed. Once complete, the cauldron is covered, the spell contained, brewing or gestating if you like, drawing in the energy the spell was meant to draw until the magic has done its work and the cauldron is cleaned out again, ready for the next spell.
Fire in the Cauldron
Cauldrons are often used by witches as convenient fire bowls. Decent sized cast iron cauldrons can safely hold a ceremonial fire or contain burning objects, such as bay leaves and pieces of paper dropped into them, or for incense, smudge or spell candles. Cast iron doesn’t heat up as quickly as copper or stainless steel and is less likely to crack than ceramic or glass, though it does contain heat for a longer time than any of these, so it is an ideal material for a cauldron. However, any fireproof (oven safe) material is suitable, provided you use due caution.
- No material should ever go from cold to hot quickly. If your cauldron is cold, warm it up slowly. A sudden heat to a cold pot can cause most materials, including cast iron, to weaken and crack. Likewise, do not toss your cauldron in cold water while it is still hot. This can also cause damage.
- Always burn in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.
- If you are leaving a candle alone to burn out, place the cauldron itself on a heat proof surface far away from the possibilty of drapes blowing in or similar. Make sure the flame is below the lip of the cauldron or that it is wide enough that if the candle falls over it will still fall entirely inside the cauldron. Have a fire alarm in the room to alert you if things do go awry.
The Cauldron for Divination
Filled with water, the cauldron provides a dark, reflective surface, perfect for scrying. You can simply gaze into the dark depths of the cauldron, or drop oil or candle wax onto the water’s surfaces to receive messages from the Universe.
Cooking in the Cauldron
The Cauldron is naturally a good tool to use for whipping up the simple feast, brewing up salves or syrups or other potions or melting down wax for candles. You want different cauldrons for making food and potions and crafts, of course. You may wish to get yourself a traditional cauldron (or two, or three) and set it up over the firepit outside or the fireplace inside and spend some time and patience learning to master the art of maintaining just the right heat on your fire. It is a worthwhile pursuit for a witch. However, most of us do not have the luxury of the open flame and must adapt our practice to modern appliances. If you want to be a Kitchen Witch, get you a Dutch oven (or two, or three) and slow cookers of various sizes. Your oven ready cauldron and your electric cauldron will be good friends to you. They are all you need to make candles and soap, infuse oils for salves and lotions and dressing oils and anointing oils, or to make a big ole pot of hot spiced wine or cider for your next Sabbat gathering.
Diving into the Cauldron at Sacredhearth.com