The rain drums on a dull landscape under a low, leaden sky. It is November and Nature has exchanged her green livery for the dark cowl of the Cailleach. The Winter Hag stirs her cauldron once, twice, three times; the brew is potent.
A witch and her cauldron might represent a tired leftover of Halloween, but the imprint of contemporary society rarely does justice to the numinous nature of primitive symbols. Our cauldron is brimming with secrets to tell.
In 1880 near the village of Gundestrup in Denmark, a remarkable artifact was recovered from a peat bog. The object, a cauldron of 96% silver composition, had been purposefully dismantled and deposited in the watery bog. Originally gilded, it stands 14 inches in height, 25.5 inches in diameter and holds approximately 28 gallons.
The Gundestrup cauldron is considered a Celtic "Rosetta Stone" for interpreting Celtic mythology and literature because of the highly decorated plates that form the cauldron. Depicting male and female deities, rituals, infantry and other animals and symbols common and uncommon to the Celtic world, the cauldron offers us a stunning glimpse into the extraordinary world of our predecessors.
Cauldrons have been recovered from bogs, waterways and burials throughout Celtic Europe. Archeological and literary evidence concur that the cauldron was a tool of great household and ritual significance as well as a representation of water, transformation and regenerative symbolism. In short, cauldrons are the "quintessential Celtic vessel of lore and magic."
Magical cauldrons percolate throughout Celtic mythology. In Branwen, the second branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, a Cauldron of Rebirth restores dead soldiers -- a scene many believe is depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron. Each Otherworldly sidhe possessed a limitless cauldron and in the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Culhwch must obtain the magical cauldron of Ireland, where apparently, the better magical cauldrons are forged.
The Dagda, chief god of the Tuatha de Dannan, possessed the Cauldron of Abundance. The cauldron possessed the power to heal and proved an inexhaustible source of food and poetic inspiration. As mythologist Joseph Campbell points out, "such a cauldron suggests, however, derivation from a Goddess' [and] betrays the appropriation by a patriarchal deity of matriarchal themes."
Looking at Welsh mythology, the hag Cerridwen kept a Cauldron of Wisdom at the bottom of Llyn Tegid in Wales. Into it she stirred magical herbs for a year and a day so that her homely son Morfran might receive beauty and poetic inspiration. When the potion was finished, three drops flew from the cauldron onto the thumb of Cerridwen’s servant Gwion Bach, thus ensuring the future of Gwion Bach as the great poet Taliesin after his flight from Cerridwen.
But Cerridwen’s origins are pre-Celtic and the word "hag" is a derivative term of the Greek hagia which meant sacred or sanctuary. The three drops that flew from her cauldron are the mystical Awen ("ah-oo-en"), Divine Inspiration considered similar to the eastern "Aum." Beloved of the Druids, a shape-shifting, triple goddess of the moon, Cerridwen is the Great Mother, a prophetess and the Nurse of Seeds.
Cerridwen’s vessel unites the four elements of Life; fire to heat the vessel, water to fill it, the green herbs of the earth to cook within and elemental air that rises with steam. Her bubbling round pot is the womb of the Goddess, the feminine principle through which all things are transformed and reborn.
In the Celtic era, heroes embarked upon quests to obtain the magical cauldron - the strong but still disappearing feminine. With the debasement of the feminine in the Christian era, the cauldron itself transformed into a grail, the sacred blood within it now that of a man, instead of a woman.
Today the cauldron appears from time to time in popular culture -- from a Thanksgiving horn of plenty, to the vessel from which the infamous Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame is reborn to its disguise as the grail in novels such as "The Da Vinci Code."
The work of our age is to tend that great vessel once again. To celebrate feminine creativity and masculine energy and to understand the mystery of mixing, waiting and beginning again, even in the darkest of times. The cauldron bubbles quietly, the Cailleach awaits.