The Cauldron and The Witch A Love Story
Although all a witch needs is our mind to create magic, tools help to channel, boost and magnify our power. There are several tools that we as witches, may use for our magical purposes. However, one of the most iconic tools is the cauldron. The cauldron is a representation of the Goddess and her womb, the process of transformation, and can be used in the rituals that represent the fire and water elements. Because it is also found in the center of the home for cooking, for our potion making and our spell crafting, it really is the heartbeat or wombspace where we share and create our most precious gifts. As witches, women and mothers, we offer unconditional love and strength through what the cauldron and or wombspace offers to the world through comfort and love where it is most surely lacking.
These are the ways I use my cauldrons
As an altar piece.
As a tool in spell work.
As a tool in divination.
As an incense holder.
While using the cauldron as an altarpiece, or to hold incense, is fairly self-explanatory, I thought I would elaborate on ways in which to work spells or perform divination with the cauldron.
How to Use a Cauldron for Divination
Using the cauldron for divination is usually via scrying, or gazing into a substance in order to get messages. This could be done with water, oil, smoke, and flame. When using water, you just scry like you would a mirror—you look into the water, blur your focus, and wait for psychic messages to come to you. When interpreting flame and smoke, you are looking for certain shapes, direction, strength, color (flame), and concentration (smoke). When using oil, you could use it the same way you do water, by pouring some into the cauldron and gazing at it, or you can fill the cauldron with water and drip oil or candle wax into the water and divine based on the way the oil or wax pools together on the surface of the water.
How to Use a Cauldron for Spell Work
The cauldron is most often used as a transformative catalyst in spell work. You could write your wish on a piece of paper, light it on fire, and drop it into the cauldron. You could make a poppet and charge it in the cauldron, or put ingredients inside to make a potion. The common thread between these methods is that the cauldron transform.
Symbolism of the Cauldron
By looking at the myths surrounding the cauldron, we can learn about the various meanings attributed to the cauldron.
Cauldrons of Gods and Men
A modern idea about the cauldron is that it is a feminine tool, but there have been several myths about gods and men who have had a sacred cauldron.
Dagda, who owned the Cauldron of Plenty (sometimes referred to as the Cauldron of Abundance). This cauldron suits Dagda well because he is known for his great appetite. It is said that all who take from this cauldron walk away satisfied. This abundance may refer to food, wealth, and health.
Dian Cecht, another Celtic god, owned the Cauldron of Healing
The Cauldron of Resurrection was owned by an Irish king and said to have the power to bring men back to life. The cauldron was enormous, large enough so a full-grown man could fit comfortably inside. The myth ascertained that whenever a dead person was put into the cauldron, he would come back to life.
For the Celtic pantheon, at least, the cauldron goes beyond femininity and masculinity. The cauldron represents abundance and plenty, which could mean an abundance of health, wealth, even life.
The Divine Feminine
There are several popular myths surrounding the cauldron as a symbol of the divine feminine: Cerridwen, Baba Yaga, Circe, Medea - you get the idea. While these myths come from various parts of the world, they have a couple of common themes which point to a consistency in the cauldron's symbolism. The first is that the cauldron symbolizes the power to do magic, and its very presence is a testament to a woman's power to work potions, unseen spirits, and the elements to work outside of the natural order of things.
Cauldron of Annwn
This cauldron is one of rebirth and inspiration. Her cauldron is the one that ties all the myths involving cauldrons together. The cauldron of Annwn is really the "all cauldron" and holder of mysteries. It is not of this world, but still inspires us. Its potential to give new life can send us on new journeys. There lies an opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and be reborn.
Let's look at a few of my favorite cauldrons and a little history that goes along with them.
The Battersea cauldron, England, late Bronze Age/early Iron Age
The Battersea Cauldron dates from around 800BC to 700BC, around the time the Bronze Age was moving into the Iron Age. It is made from seven curved sheets of bronze riveted together.
It has the traditional cauldron shape, narrowing at the top, presumably to stop hot liquids splashing out, and a flared lip. It would have been used for feasting, important for chiefs to make an impression, and probably flesh hooks would have been used to lift meat from the pot.
The cauldron was found in the River Thames during dredging in 1861 and it’s now on display at the British Museum in London.
The Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark, early Roman Iron Age
The Gundestrup cauldron was found in a Danish bog
Richly decorated and made from silver, the Gundestrup Cauldron was obviously not a practical vessel. It probably dates from between 200BC and 300AD, in the early Roman Iron Age. Although it was dug out of a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup in Denmark in 1891, most people think its origins are Gaulish (modern France) or Thracian (modern Bulgaria).
The cauldron’s plates were taken apart before it was deposited in the bog and it is assumed the very rich object was some kind of ritual offering. Images on the cauldron show elephants, lions, human faces and a character believed to be Cernunnos, the horned god.
The Mušov cauldron, Roman
The Mušov cauldron, cast from bronze in Roman times
The Mušov cauldron, made of bronze, is a Roman object found in a Germanic chieftain’s grave in Mušov, in the Czech Republic, in 1988.
It dates from the 2nd century and is decorated with four heads showing Germanic men with their hair tied in a Suebian knot, decorating the handles.
Cauldron of rebirth, Celtic mythWarrior reborn from a Celtic cauldron
There are several magical cauldrons in Celtic folklore. My favorite is the Cauldron of rebirth also known as the cauldron of Bran the Blessed, which features in The Mabinogion, a famous collection of Welsh myths.
There’s a lot of fighting in Wales and Ireland and the cauldron changes ownership several times, but the key point is that it can be used to revive dead warriors, who return alive but mute.
Cauldron survivor – St Vitus
St Vitus surviving the cauldron, painted around 1450
St. Vitus was a Christian saint from Sicily, one of several persecuted and martyred by the Roman Emperor Diocletian and Maximian. He died in the year 303 after being tortured in Rome.
He is represented as a young man in a cauldron, because there is a legend that he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling tar and molten lead, but miraculously escaped alive and unscathed.
The name “Saint Vitus dance” was given to the neurological disorder Sydenham’s chorea, which causes sudden jerking movements. This is because in the late Middle Ages some people celebrated the feast of Vitus by dancing in front of his statue.
Cauldron of death – Ishikawa Goemon
The execution of Ishikawa Goemon shown in a late 19th century
Ishikawa Goemon was a Japanese Robin Hood. Living from 1558 to 1594, he was a semi-legendary outlaw hero who stole gold and valuables to give to the poor.
He was boiled alive, eventually died along with his son in public in Kyoto after a failed assassination attempt on the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The gruesome story says at first he held his young son high above his head to protect him, then plunged the boy deep into the pot to kill him quickly, then held the boy’s boiled body above his head again to defy his enemies as he succumbed to his injuries and sank into the cauldron.
Bronze ding from the Chinese Shang dynasty, 1300-1046BC,
The ancient Chinese cauldron or ding stood on legs, had two facing handles and often a lid. These ritual bronzes came in two shapes – round with three legs and rectangular with four. They were used for cooking, storage and ritual offerings to gods or ancestors. The earliest examples found are ceramic, but they came into their own in the Bronze Age.
The witch’s cauldron
The Three Witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth shown in a Georgian dress by Daniel Gardner in 1775
Shakespeare’s quote from Macbeth:
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake.
Shakespeare’s words and phrases, clever as they are, are generally a reflection of what society thought witches spend their time doing around their sacred cauldrons. So the question for me becomes, what is the connection with his words and the truth of such things. I think there are actually three things in history that come close. These would be the Hell-Mouth, the image of the witch as a contradiction of the nourishing mother, and poison.
The Hell-Mouth dates back to the early medieval era, when Hell was first personified as a demonic monster who tortures and ultimately devours damned souls, the cauldron-like mouth is both the entrance to Hell and the scene of the torture and devouring.
However increasingly in the later medieval manuscripts, additional cauldrons and demons are added to this dark depiction. As the cauldron is a tool of Satan, so too is the witch, who also uses cauldrons to stir up magical potions, with the bodies of unbaptized babies as a primary ingredient. As seen in late medieval texts like Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1475).
By the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, we can see these witches, encircling and stirring their cauldrons, in Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus, Of Witches and Diviner Women, 1489. As well as Hans Baldung’s various witch woodcuts (c. 1510).
From the sixteenth-century depictions, which will become increasingly suggestive, into the next century coincidentally with the intense persecution of witchcraft. I believe it’s a hop, skip and jump to the folk-tale witches of the nineteenth century and postcard witches of the early twentieth century.
There is one more connection I think is worth discussing. A key contributing cause of the early modern witch hunt was the translation of a particular Old Testament passage, Exodus 22:18, Thou Shall not Suffer a Witch to Live. A translation which Reginald Scot contested in his early and popular skeptical essay on witchcraft and its prosecution, The Discovery of Witchcraft 1584.
Scot maintained that the original Hebrew word utilized in the passage, which he referred to as Chasaph which means diviner, seer, or poisoner rather than the “witch” of Christian demonology.
Before the seventeenth century, the crime of witchcraft in England was perceived more specifically as maleficium, or harmful magic, rather then devil-worship, and poison was the most dangerous form of maleficium, it required knowledge, skill and a cauldron. Those found guilty of bringing about death by poison, were sentenced to death by boiling in a cauldron!
A sensational poisoning case in 1531 involved Richard Roose, a cook in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who attempted to murder his master by poison. The bishop was spared but two people in the household did indeed die before Roose was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by “boiling” in a cauldron in Smithfield.
So many contradictions tied to the cauldron and the witch beside it, from nourishment, healing and life to poisoning and death, from childbirth and mother’s milk to infanticide and poisonous gall (referenced by Lady Macbeth) before both are transformed into innocent vessels.