The Cup of Life

"Round 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 pot."

Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

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 theater.

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.

Some tales abound with the magical properties of the cup itself, whereby a 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".

The first physician, one white robed Dhanwantari, filled a cup with Amrita which 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.

In 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 into the night sky to see the heavenly cup, the Big Dipper, endlessly spinning around the celestial pole with it's life giving contents.

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.

The Greek gods had a similar magic cup, this time filled with Ambrosia, 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.

Yet 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.

This blood was thought to renew one's life, and the practice continued well into the second century bc, after which it was downgraded to drinking wine symbolically turned "into blood".

Nearly identical to the Greek cult of Dionysus, was the Roman cult of Bacchus. 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.

Scholars 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.

Ancient Norse also routinely included cauldrons in ritual practice. A group 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.

In honor of their god Bragi, the Norse would pass a special boat shaped bowl 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 practice.

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.

The Welsh goddess Ceridwen had a magic cauldron named Amen, which meant "hidden". 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.

Reverence and mysticism surrounding the cauldron did not stop in the distant past, 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 are "his".

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 cup.

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 occupation.

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.

In Germany, a pagan festival to celebrate the conclusion of the harvest and the 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".

Even 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.

Throughout Anglo-Saxon lands, the practice of associating special drinks and drinking 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.

Even today, the superstitious among us continue to stir pots clockwise in 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 sacred blood.

Over and over, for countless eons, now in many lands, and adopted by many cultures, the power of the cauldron continues.

Source: Pagan Astronomy Network