about the cauldron go;
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad that under cold stone,
Days and nights has 31,
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first in th' charmed
The aged green warty witch stirring her steamy brew in a cast
iron cauldron is a well known stereotype. Depicted in countless
movies, plays, and media of all sorts, the old woman is a living
memory of an ancient European past. Boiling and bubbling, Shakespeare
tells us 3 witches, priestesses of the goddess Hecate, stirred
and cackled, peered into their cauldron's depth's, and offered
Macbeth their insights on the future. A remnant of the past
but not resigned to it, the old wizened woman and her cauldron
yet appear in countless Halloween decorations, costumes, and
But who exactly is that old granny, and what is cooking in
that pot? Is it death... or life?
The magical cauldron and it's mysterious contents have been
a staple of pagan lore and practice long before the early Christian
Church incorporated it's elements into the medieval tale of
the Holy Grail. Magic cauldrons appear in many Indo-European
myths as the purveyors of transformation, and under the guise
of cauldrons, pots, chalices, cups, horns, and dippers of various
configurations. In these tales, the cauldron is usually stirred
by a goddess, often the old hag or crone which represents the
death aspect of the creatrix.
Though her identity has been forgotten by many, the green
aged witch of Halloween is based upon a powerful and ancient
concept that death itself must answer to a higher authority,
and contained within is the power to transform death into life,
a mystery echoed by the green of the crones skin which reflects
the color of nature and reminds us of both it's wintry decay
and it's renewal in the spring, and by the spiraling and spinning
nature of her brew.
As a youthful goddess depicting the fruitful early half of
the year, and as an aged crone representing the winter, the
goddess of our matriarchal ancestors still reverberates throughout
the season, and as the year turns towards winter, she offers
us the cauldron in remembrance that this season too shall pass
and be renewed in the spring.
To our European ancestors, the cauldron served as the symbol
of the great mother and her transformative womb. Many Indo-European
myths focus on the concept of the dead being placed into the
cauldron, then revitalized into the full flower of youth. Often
these myths come to focus at the winter season, at a time when
both the greenery of nature and the sun seem to fade away and
is then divinely renewed.
tales abound with the magical properties of the cup itself,
mere sip of its contents have the power to heal or
transform. The cauldron as the symbol of rebirth and transformation
can be traced far into the distant past, as the tablets from
Sumer mention a goddess who guards the cup that contained the
nectar of life. In the ancient Hindu texts, a beautiful creation
tale states that "long ago, when the sea was milk" the
goddess Narayana ordered the gods to "churn the ocean
and she will yield Amrita the nectar of immortality".
first physician, one white robed Dhanwantari, filled a cup
was then borne away by the goddess, yet
even this brief contact granted him the ability to heal. A
lovely myth, and yet here the "sea" has another meaning.
ancient cultures round the world, the sea was a metaphor
for the boundless depths of the starry night sky. The tale
reveals the Hindu belief that once, the universe was a void,
but then began to churn. And one on Earth need only look
the night sky to see the heavenly cup, the Big Dipper, endlessly
spinning around the celestial pole with it's life giving
Another Hindu tale says the moon god Chandra possessed a cup
containing such a nectar of life, called Soma. A milky substance
brewed from certain plants on sacred mountains, it is known
that the ancients performed rituals that included the quaffing
of the divine elixir. In honor of this cup, Hindu Brahmins
carried coconut shell cups as religious implements. As an example
of how highly the sacred cup ranked in popular belief, and
revealing the symbology of the cosmic womb, another tale proposes
that a Hindu man once saw a beautiful woman bathing in the
sacred Ganges River. Drawing some of it's water into a wooden
bowl, the man spilled his sperm into it, and from the bowl
was birthed a newborn son.
Greek gods had a similar magic cup, this time filled with
the "nectar of the gods" which granted
them immortality and beauty. A Greek tale tells us that Medea
was a sorceress, daughter of Aetes. Her magical kettle was
said to restore lost youth. "Medea cut an old ram into
pieces, threw the bits into her cauldron, and a young lamb
came forth." Another variation of the same story says
the sorceress Circe, the divine daughter of the sun, lived
on an island and owned a magic cup that had the power to transform
those who drank from it.
one of the most famous Greek examples of the cauldron appears
in the cult
of Dionysus, the god of wine and renewal.
The god Dionysus – born in a cave from a virgin on December
25th at the winter solstice – was later killed and resurrected.
His rituals involved sacrifices and a sacred communion with
a cup of blood that was shared among his followers.
blood was thought to renew one's life, and the practice continued
the second century bc, after which it was
downgraded to drinking wine symbolically turned "into
identical to the Greek cult of Dionysus, was the Roman cult
Also the god of wine and renewal, his name
remains with us today in the term "bachelor".
Yet another Roman god's cult remains with us more strongly
then in just a name. Originally worshipped in Persia and later
by the Roman military, the god Mithra appears in some Indo-European
lands as the god of renewal and resurrection. As with many
pre-Christian gods of the same genre, Mithra was born of a
virgin in a cave or rock on December 25th at the winter solstice,
he later died and resurrected.
The infrastructure of the Mithra cult served as the foundation
for the Catholic Church, which was to follow centuries later.
His rites included a sacrifice of a bull whose blood was believed
to wash away sins and grant the power of renewal.
now believe that this act creates a "timestamp" of
the distant past, and reveals the sun god's connection to the
constellation Taurus, for at one time, the spring equinox occurred
in this sign. Conducted at the Temple of the mother goddess
Cybele, the land on which it stood was later to become the
Vatican in Rome. Led by a priest called the Pater (Father),
followers shared a communion of small loaves of bread marked
with a solar cross and a bowl of wine, believed transmuted
into the sacred bloodshed for them.
The Gundestrup Cauldron, found in Denmark and which dates
from the 1st century bc, has a scene which is nearly identical
to the ancient Greek beliefs. Souls of the dead are depicted
marching up one side of the tree of life, and down the other.
Under the roots of this cosmic tree that represents the pole,
is a goddess who one by one, dips the dead into the cauldron
of rebirth. One may assume that like the Hindus, the Norse
believed one might climb the sky and enter this celestial cup.
Norse also routinely included cauldrons in ritual practice.
of priestesses known as Valas, ldises, Dises,
or Hagedises, from whence we have the word "hag",
lived in sacred groves and literally acted out the role of
the death crone for the tribe. The hags rode in front of the
war parties and often performed a ritual called the "blood-eagle" upon
their captives. The blood was collected into great cauldrons,
wherein the women "plunged their naked arms up to the
shoulders, previous to joining in the wild dance with which
the ceremony ended".
It has also been noted that the Norse invaders in ancient
England were known for cooking victory feasts in great cauldrons
that rested on the bodies of the enemies. The Norse and the
Scythians both drank from the skulls of their enemies, made
into elaborate and decorated chalices in the belief that an
enemies attributes of bravery and courage could be absorbed
into one's own being.
honor of their god Bragi, the Norse would pass a special
called the Bragaful around the table to each
warrior. Each would rise and proclaim an oath, promising to
do some great and heroic deed within a year. The drinker was
believed bound to his oath with the act of drinking from the
special bowl. Eons of such boastful exclamations have given
rise to our modern word "brag". The modern practice
of "toasting" each other with drinking glasses and
asking for a special blessing is a direct descendent of this
Norse cauldrons are also often associated with the brewing
of godly nectar, but rather then ambrosia, the drink of choice
is mead. In one saga, the 12 deities that represent the zodiac
are invited to a feast, but must first secure a kettle to concoct
a brew fit for the gods. In a complex plan which involves stealing
the immense cauldron of the giant Hymir, the god Thor manages
to get the cauldron to Asgard where it remained the sole source
of the god's homebrew.
And finally, the Norse believed that the valiant dead, those
who had died gloriously in battle had earned the right to have
a seat in Valhalla, the eternal hall of heroes. Daily they
would regale themselves with tales of their heroic deeds, drink
beer and eat magical pork. The meat would come from a pig called
Saehimnlr. Each day the same pig would be cooked in the cauldron
of the goddess, and yet each day would appear renewed and intact,
ready for another meal.
In Ireland, tales are still told of the mysterious fairy race
called the Tuatha De Danann, who arrived on ancient Irish shores
and founded four magical cities, each with it's own treasure,
one of which was the magic cauldron of the Dagda. It was believed
this cauldron could also magically produce food and its supply
would never run dry.
In Slavic lands, the goddess Baba Yaga was believed to fly
through the air during the harvest season, sitting in a giant
cauldron and steering with her broom.
Welsh goddess Ceridwen had a magic cauldron named Amen, which
It could make a special brew that took one year and a day
to prepare. Sipping just three
drops could grant the drinker universal wisdom. Many scholars
believe that Ceridwen's cauldron formed the basis for the medieval
Christian tales of the Holy Grail, which appeared centuries
later in the same locales.
Identical to earlier pagan beliefs, a Middle Age mysticism
surrounded the idea of the Grail, attributing to it the power
to cure the sick, and even empower objects that came in contact
with it. Additional proof of 'borrowing' lies in the medieval
legend that the Grail resides at Glastonbury, England deep
inside Chalice Well.
Long a pagan sacred site predating Christianity, Glastonbury
was held by many to be the ancient site of pagan Avalon, the
Island of Immortality where the stricken King Arthur was said
to be awaiting rebirth. At this site resides the Tor, a manmade
mountain or pyramid, which was once surrounded by a moat transforming
it into an artificial island.
Another mystery resides at Glastonbury as well. Researchers
have found that from the air, the surrounding countryside appears
to be laid out in a shape representing a giant zodiac. Using
this frame of reference, one then realizes that like many other
ancient sacred cities, the true object of intent lies in the
sky, at the celestial pole and the transformative center of
the heavenly womb.
and mysticism surrounding the cauldron did not stop in the
but continued well into the medieval age
and even the present time. In England, at the Chanctonbury
Ring, an old folk tale claims if one goes to the Ring at midnight
and runs seven times around, the devil will appear and offer
you a drink from his cauldron, and should you drink it, you
Archaeologists have since excavated the site and found it
is an ancient Roman-British temple where participants ritually
performed a symbolic 'journey of life' then drank from such
A custom recorded in 18th century Somerset England involved
locals pouring bottles of wine into a hollowed out stone basin.
This too was determined to be a direct descendent of the sacred
bowl, brought to English shores by Roman soldiers during the
Lasting long into the Renaissance era, it was a common belief
that special crystal chalices had the power to cure illnesses
and protect the owner against poison, later this idea was absorbed
by the Catholic Church who declared they had such a cup themselves,
the Crystal Cup of St. Denis.
Germany, a pagan festival to celebrate the conclusion of
onset of the winter season was absorbed
by the new religion as many festivals were, and Christianized
to St. Martins Day. The festival had long included the custom
of feasting, ritual toasting, and a sacrifice of liquor, which
was poured out to the gods. Drinking horns called Martins – horns
which were believed to have the ability to cure ills and renew
one's spirit – were passed out among the participants,
and contained a special liquor drink which has since given
us the word "martini".
the modern cornucopia, or literally "horn of plenty" depicted
at harvest festivals has it's origin in the ancient ritual
drinking horns of the Norse. As a symbol of the magical cauldron,
the horn is customarily stuffed to overwhelming with plants,
fruits, flowers and vegetables of every variety. Still found
on modern tables today, the never empty horn brims over with
the symbolic bounty of nature.
Anglo-Saxon lands, the practice of associating special drinks
vessels with renewal is again visible
at the winter solstice, when parties went Wassailing (wassail
- "all health") throughout the neighborhood carrying
a special wooden cup filled with a mixture of apples, liquor
and spices called the Wassail bowl, and up to the 1900's in
rural England carolers were known to still be carrying a small
cup called a "Bessel cup" which contained small figures
of the divine mother and child, a symbol of the reborn solstice
sun which was later Christianized.
today, the superstitious among us continue to stir pots clockwise
the direction of the sun, and the trophies known
as "loving cups" are still awarded to contest winners,
following the ancient practice of awarding heroes who have
ventured on their quest and arrived victorious with a symbolic
cup of life.
Chalices continue to be a focal point in modern Pagan practice
as one of the two most sacred implements, the chalice representing
the transformative womb of the universal mother, and the second
being the knife or wand, symbolizing the masculine powers of
generation. Both mimic their celestial counterparts, the womb/cup
of the circumpolar Dipper, and the pole upon which it circles.
The Christian Church, having long since absorbed the cauldron
of renewal from the pagans and echoing the worship of Mithra,
continues to use the blessed chalice during the ritual of communion,
where it's contents of wine are yet believed transformed into
Over and over, for countless eons, now in many lands, and
adopted by many cultures, the power of the cauldron continues.
Pagan Astronomy Network