The Cauldron

Wiccan Rede * Summer 1986 by Merlin Sythove

When people think of witches, the symbols they often associate with that image are the broom and the cauldron. Therefore it is actually quite surprising that most of the literature about the Craft, when discussing the so called ‘weapons’ concentrates mainly upon the Athame and the Pentacle. A lot of attention is given to the various symbols which are supposed to be on these ritual instruments – symbols which vary from tradition to tradition, and which inevitably have to be ‘right’ in order for that instrument to work efficiently…

Various weapons have been discussed in these pages in the past, but in this article I would like to take a closer look at the broom and the cauldron. The two weapons are the most ‘archetypal’ weapons of the witch, and by taking some time to reflect upon the symbolism behind them we may come across one or two interesting points which will give these weapons some extra dimension in our ritual work. Because, contrary to the Cup, Athame and Pentacle, neither the Broom nor the Cauldron play an important role in most Craft ritual, if we disregard the decorative side that is.

The cauldron is a well known tool: usually made of iron, with three small legs, and a handle which permits it to be hung over the fire. Doreen Valiente describes the cauldron mainly from a practical point of view (see Witchcraft for Tomorrow); the use of the cauldron for the preparation of food, drink and brews, and the preparation of salves, ointments and drugs. The three legs are representative of the threefold Goddess. The four elements can also be recognised in the use of the cauldron: water and earth (herbs, vegetables etc.), fire for the actual cooking process and air in the steam and the scent. Doreen Valiente also remarks that the cauldron which is intended to be used often is quite small – the large varieties usually depicted are quite hard to bring to boil on a wood fire! Today the cauldron is hardly ever used to prepare food, most of the time it has a symbolic function.

Within Craft rituals the cauldron is often at the centre of the circle. Stewart Farrar (Eight Sabbats) mentions the cauldron with Spring Equinox, Beltane and Midsummer festivals. The cauldron could however be used at all festivals. At Yule a candle, or a fire could symbolise the birth of the sun god. The cauldron filled with water and flowers symbolises life and beauty. Filled with fruits and nuts it represents abundance and harvest. In this way the life-giving aspect of the cauldron is emphasised; it becomes a symbol of the womb of Mother Nature. Being aware of the symbolism can give extra power to magical or herbal brews as well.

The cauldron appears only twice in Celtic mythology. The Celtic Father of All, Dagda, possessed a cauldron which could not be emptied, and which left no man unsatisfied. Dagda is depicted as a rather uncouth figure, but his cauldron made him into a god of the highest rank. He represents the God in his function as the giver of life, of food and abundance. The Mabinogion relates the story of Bran the Blessed. He had a cauldron which strangely enough came from Ireland, and was later handed back to them, and the cauldron could bring the dead back to life. It had only one drawback: they could no longer speak after their resurrection. The cauldron plays an important role in one of the great battles that is described in the Mabinogion. Bran is also depicted as a large and strong man, or rather a giant, because his crossed the Irish Sea on foot, wading through the waves, in order to get this cauldron in the first place. Note that this cauldron came from the West!

In various texts which are circulating within Craft circles we find the cauldron being mentioned too: once as a symbol of resurrection, and once as the Cauldron of Cerridwen, when a link is made with the legendary Holy Grail.

Both mythology and our own literature describe the cauldron as a symbol of birth, rebirth and afterlife or spiritual life, as can be deduced from the cauldron which leaves no man unsatisfied and is never empty.

The ritual use of the cauldron emphasises its life giving properties and the aspect of fertility, and the connection with Mother Earth and the female principle in general is quite obvious.

The thought of reincarnation is quite prominent in Craft philosophy, but surprisingly enough it is not very detailed at all. Much more than the mere statement that we’ll live again, and meet, remember and recognise our loved ones can not be found. One tradition which has far more precise ideas about reincarnation, or rather simultaneous lives, is the Welsh Hereditary Tradition (see: the article by Myrddin in ‘Tapestry of Wicca’). Interesting in this respect is the recent research into past lives, which indicates that sometimes the ‘persona’s’ of past reincarnations survive, and can be contacted. This fact leads us more to an idea of reincarnation as a tapestry of simultaneous lives, instead of the usual consecutive lives with their karmic ties.

The scant references to reincarnation form the following picture. During our lives we are encouraged to develop a certain life style. We are responsible for our actions, even to the extent that the Gods need OUR help in order to bring change and evolution. The Wiccan Rede reminds us of our responsibility towards our fellow humans – these days most people would include animals, plants and even the whole earth within our responsibility. We are encouraged to develop wisdom, which would enable us to be of real value to others in case of need or help. All this leads to the gradual unfoldment of human potential, both practically, morally and ethically.

At the conclusion of our life we will go to the Summerland. We will have time to restore our strength, to rest, to meet our friends and loved ones again, and to confer with them. After some time we will reincarnate again. And this is all the information we get. Our purpose in life is development and happiness, and between lives a time of repose refreshes us and enables us to keep track of our own path (an insight all too often lost in the turmoil of day to day living!). The cauldron – an instrument intimately related with the West, and as such with the Summerland which is usually situated in the west in many mythologies, is a reminder of the waters of life, the bottomless well which restores us in between lives, and will satisfy us. One thing that the cauldron can’t do for us though, is give us speech. Speech, in as much as it goes beyond the type of communication also found in the animal world, is uniquely human. It enables us to form relationships, it makes us into social beings whose social ties also go beyond the need for shelter and food. Speech is the ultimate expression of our own unique character, and finally also an instrument of our free will. Free will can only be exercised if it is not too much hindered (or limited) by past experience, such as the knowledge of previous lives. If this knowledge were available to us all the time, we would live our lives according to the laws which would compel us, and freedom, which inevitably means making mistakes, would not be possible.

Nature, our ally and in this case a source of inspiration, can provide many more insights when one is contemplating reincarnation. The wheel of life can be likened to the yearly cycle in nature, where the tiniest seed grows into a full plant, flowering and bearing fruit, and finally scattering its seeds on the earth. The original plant, the part we would recognise, dies and becomes the nourishment for new generations.

The idea of ‘Karma’, sometimes interpreted as punishment, is absent in Craft philosophy. Still, the element of evolution and learning does play a role, and even that of suffering, as it is shown in the image of the scourge. Is not every one of us prepared to ‘suffer to learn’? It remains a free choice, though, and is not part of some inhuman law which impels us, disregarding our free will!

A completely different aspect of the symbology of the cauldron is revealed to us when one contemplates the archetypal image of the ‘witch, stirring her cauldron’. This image is, if anything, event stronger than the cauldron as a symbol of (re)birth. Now we find the cauldron being used for the concoction of brews, salves, ointments, medical and magical ones, and sometimes even plain food.

The cauldron becomes an instrument of transformation. Quite normal ingredients, by virtue of being mixed and boiled by a witch in her cauldron, are imbibed with magical or medical virtues and transformed into a brew which is far more than just the sum of its parts. To the ailing and the sick, the cauldron becomes the vessel of the water of life – healing, restoring and reviving mind and body. An to those that are at odds to the goddesses of fate the cauldron is the symbol of the magical transformation of their life – bringing lovers together, attracting luck and warding off evil, bringing prosperity and fulfilment of dreams. The cauldron, or rather the witch WITH her cauldron, now fulfils and inherently social function. She is the capable person, trained over a long period by her mother or grandmother, who by virtue of her craft and skill is able to be of service to the community.

Without the community, the witch is handicapped. Her skills in midwifery, in medicine, and in magic are geared to helping people. Witchcraft is not the path of mysticism, where the individual retreats from the world and seeks communion with his god. Nor is witchcraft the way of many other religions, to seek converts and win humanity over to serve the new priesthood. Witchcraft is practical service to individual people, using both mundane and supernatural skills. The witch doesn’t expect or ask for payment. She chooses her path out of her own free will, knowing what it would entail, and out of a need to put her craft to use, helping people and thereby serving her God or Goddess too – because pagan or not, people should be allowed to find happiness on Earth. This is the transformation that the witch could bring to others – transformation of their lives, help when it is needed so that people can fulfil their dreams. The witch is, in this respect, a highly subversive figure. Not at all interested in the needs of those in power, whether priest or king, but in service to the community. Not interested in domination over others, but instead teaching them to stand up for themselves and claim what is theirs. The cauldron, as a symbol of the social function of the witch, could become a focal point for us about our position and the use we can make of our Craft. Are we able to give form to the transforming powers of the cauldron in our own life, or in that of others who come to us with their problems? Or are we content to celebrate the yearly festivals and leave everything else as it has always been? Have we used our apprenticeship to develop one or two skills which are really helpful to others? Or have we spent our days reading all those wonderful books by all those wonderful authors, never finding any time to do any practical work or making a start at mastering a craft.

If we look deep enough into the cauldron, we may glimpse some of the knowledge which was ours before the reincarnation, and see our own path in this life more clearly. Hallowe’en is the festival which is connected with this symbolism; the end of the old and the start of the new; with divining the future and reflecting on the past. But our reflections on our own life can happen at any time, and no time is suited more to change and transformation than the present. Especially the holiday season, with its change of scenery, change of the daily routine, with rest and relaxation, may help us to gain the necessary objectivity to take a closer look at our own life.

This reflection could lead us to the third aspect of the symbology of the cauldron: the cauldron and the image of our own unconscious, or of the world of archetypal forms. In a sense we could describe the cauldron in today’s terms as a ‘black box’: you know what goes in on one side, you also know what comes out on the other, but what actually happens in between remains a mystery. In many ways the unconscious still is such a black box – in spite of all the research and the theories which are available. The unconscious has many interesting features. It supplies us with dreams that may or may not mean anything to us on waking up, or may even prove to be predicting something. The unconscious can be influenced, for example by hypnosis, and in turn may influence us, as can be shown by posthypnotic suggestions.

In magical work the unconscious is used to a great extent, and its power highly valued.

I won’t attempt to give an accurate description or a definition of what is loosely called the unconscious: many people have spent books trying to do just that. Let it suffice to say that that I want to indicate the whole layer of consciousness which is just beyond our awareness in our everyday, mundane life.

It is relatively easy to contact this layer of consciousness. When we meditate on a particular symbol or when we follow a pathworking, we may find thoughts and feelings entering our mind which go well beyond the ‘me’ that we know so well. Insights may present themselves which may be quite revealing.

When we are in this meditative state we are symbolically looking into the cauldron, and seeing a true reflection of ourselves or of the subject which we are contemplating.

The cauldron may be likened to the well or the mirror which we find in fairytales.

The cauldron as a symbol of birth and rebirth was discussed, and also some thoughts on reincarnation were mentioned. The witch with her cauldron as a social figure was dealt with, and the implications this has for our own function within the Craft. And lastly, the cauldron as a representation of the unconscious and our own dark side was mentioned. It will not be easy to give the cauldron a more prominent place within various rituals, but maybe some ideas have been given to start building some rituals around the cauldron in one or more of its many aspects, or to use it in pathworkings.

Not much space is left to discuss the broom – another weapon with a highly charged archetypal content, so we’ll leave that for another article.