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Celtic Cauldron: Ancestral Rites,
Head Cults & The Seunan of Three
by Lily Hallock
As the Seasons wind toward Winter, and we journey farther into darkness, thoughts traditionally turn inward to family and hearth; fire and hob. To the family units of the Pictish people, the ability to keep and hold a fire was equated with civilization and the continuation of life–The ability for future generations to thrive.
While inching toward a more modern and comfortable means of survival, the Pictish civilization had evolved from a cave-dwelling people, to one that built crude round thatched-roof homes of mud, sticks and stone which provided a security not seen in the generations which had come before.
The average family unit would number 16 to 20 people with the extended family of mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles and grandparents, living and working side-by-side in each dwelling to ensure their mutual survival.
The central focal point of the Pictish home would be the pulsing orange heart of the fire and a cauldron, the means by which to cook and feed their families. (Fig. 1)
With the introduction of the cauldron as a means of cooking , the Pictish household was able to enjoy a wider variety of foods and drink that had higher nutritional and better taste value, overall. As recorded by Positions, the food prepared in an early Celtic household would consist of wheat, beef, pork, grains, leaves, roots and herbs. Most of the Pictish people would have survived on a steady diet of mainly vegetables and fruits. Turnips and leeks, watercress, parsnips and an indigenous root, braonin, very likely provided nutritional sustenance for the Picts. Those who lived on the shoreline would cook and eat shellfish such as oysters and mussels. Among the fresh berries enjoyed by the early Celtic people were blackberries, aitnach and blaeberry, which they ate raw or simmered in the cauldron as mead or herbal concoctions.
The establishment of salt mines and salt working during the Celtic Iron Age ensured some of the better established Pictish families had preserved meats throughout the year. Around 100 BC, Posidonious notes that the observed Celtic people gathered around the common table and sat “beside hearths blazing with fire, cauldrons and spits of large pieces of meat”. They ate with their hands and drank from shell vessels or wooden cups. It is believed that the coastal-dwelling Picts used cockle shell vessels with which to hold meads or other drink. The Highland-dwellers used a wooden cup called a “quach” which consisted of various pieces of colored wood, joined at intersections, and sometimes hooped with silver. The use of such a cup carried down through the ages and became known as a “quaich” during the Medieval years. A traditional quaich resembles a miniature cauldron as it has two handles riveted on and is used even in modern times for celebrations and ritual use specifically in Scottish culture. (Fig. 2)
The chief of a Pictish tribe would ceremonially offer visitors to drink from the whole horn of an ox or stag, commonly designed with silver ornamentation. This was considered a gesture of honor and quite possibly, a means to test their loyalty of the outsider to the tribe.
Although little is still known about the exact dining practices of the early Celtic families, archeologists have unearthed flat round stones ranging in size from very small to dinner-plate dimensions at certain Iron Age burial sites. These items are believed to possibly be examples of what the early Celtic people would have used to eat from.
In the family cauldron, meat, grains, leaves, roots, and herbs would be simmered slowly over the fire. The combining of these ingredients is known to us today as a “pottage”. The Pictish people were also known to have brewed honey and water, which they fermented into mead which was flavored with fruits and herbs. It is also believed they boiled unhopped beer by germinating and fermenting barley and wheat. These recipes could take many hours or days to complete.
Three-legged metal or clay-fired pots came down through the ancient cultures and evolved as different materials became available to the nomadic tribes. The evolution of the traditional cauldron of the Celtic people can be traced from simple, flat-bottom pots fired with clay to those constructed with thin bronze sheeting and later, three-legged pots cast from bronze or iron sheeting. An early example of a cauldron with a rounded bottom and no legs was unearthed at the Iron Age site of Blackhorse Road in Hertforshire, England. (Fig. 3)
The earliest examples of the traditional three-legged pots with two loops riveted on the side for suspension above an open fire, have been found at lake and bog archeological sites in Scotland and Ireland and were made of bronze-sheeting. It is believed that one method of maintaining cooking temperatures in such a vessel would be to heat stones in the fire and then dump them into the water–ensuring more even heat throughout.
The highly decorative, ritualistic vessel known as the Gundestrup Cauldron is composed of a combination of silver, gold gilding, soldering tin and glass. The cauldron is mainly composed of silver and there is tin incorporated for soldering. The gold that gilds the deeply incised lines allows the figural narratives on the vessel to stand out and glass rounds were added to clearly define the figures’ eyes with shine and color. (Fig. 4)
The Gundestrup Cauldron was unearthed in 1891 by archeologists and found disassembled in a peat-bog in Raevemose, which is in the proximity of Gundestrup, Jutland. It is most likely a ceremonial item that was used in ritual initiations. Judging by the materials used and the way the object was constructed and molded, the cauldron is most likely of Thracian-tribal origin. The mythological narratives and figural symbolism on the object, however, are of strictly early Celtic derivation. Careful analysis of the cauldron has led researchers to conclude that the decorative and narrative elements were added by artisans over a span of many hundred years and can therefore be considered a cumulative cultural record of the Celtic people’s evolution in the way they depicted their spirituality through decorative art.
The object of the cauldron itself is symbolic on both practical and spiritual terms. The symbol of the cauldron as the center and heart of the Pictish home is one of innovative practicality that allowed the early nomadic people to enjoy a level of unprecedented physical and psychological comfort in their daily lives and it ushered in an evolution of their society toward modernized culture.
The image of a cauldron at the hearth with steam rising like a gheist above wild orange flames, stirred by a cloaked figure in shadow, has become an archetype of the Celtic tradition of Samhain and practitioners of early Druidry.
In this article, we will see how this rudimentary yet practical cooking tool has come to represent the many facets of Pagan spiritual identity; which at its core is specifically Celtic in derivation.
The elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit are all represented in the simplified and direct image of a cauldron. It is from the metal, stone or clay of Earth that it is cast. It is Air with the steam that will rise from the cooking of ritual meals and herbal healing meads. It is Fire for the heat of life that is transferred into the food and drink. It is Water that is consecrated with spell-casting intent into the pottage of summoning. It is Spirit for the energy of the practitioner who stands watch over the food and healing spells that will coalesce within. In essence, it is Life.
The cauldron, as a representation of “life”, has traditional Feminine associations. In early Celtic culture, the cauldron was seen as the womb-- where life and spirit are molded and spring forth. In Celtic iconography, the full moon is many times represented as a womb or regenerator of life.
To the Pictish people, the cauldron may have represented on a more personal and immediate level, early stone circles wherein ritualistic fires were set, and which took many hands and hours to build. These stone circles were used as a means of tracking the seasons–especially for the Autumn months with the harvesting of crops for food. The cauldron could be seen, then, as a cornucopia or horn of plenty which brought forth in its most beneficial form, the wealth of the harvest. The Roman goddess Pomona was most closely associated with the abundance of the Harvest, with her Celtic derivation being Rosemerta. In one instance, the goddess, Rosemerta, is depicted on a stone plaque as standing with the god, Mercury, with a milk churn or cauldron-like object between them. (Fig. 5)
The milk churn and cauldron both have mythological associations with the infinite abundance of the harvest and with the concept of regeneration as it is associated with feminine fertility and the power to give birth.
Within the Celtic pantheon, Caridwen is the goddess who is depicted as Mother, regenerator and keeper of all aspects of the moon, most notably at the height of its fullness. The symbol of the cauldron is most closely associated with the goddess Caridwen, whose name is known in earlier derivations as, “Kerid”. She is known as the “keeper of the cauldron”. (Fig. 6)
Most likely, it is because of Caridwen’s lunar associations that the cauldron came to represent the power of the full moon in Druid and other Pagan magic ritual.
It is said, the Cauldron of Wisdom belonged to Caridwen. In it, she brewed wine, honey, barley, malt and water–a basic mead. In the Celtic belief, Caridwen had three children, one of whom was a son named Gwion, who was born physically deformed and would have been considered hideous by common social standards. With a mother’s empathy and concern, she set about to brew a potion that would allow Gwion to be favored in society for his wit, wisdom and intelligence in the absence of an acceptable physical appearance. She assigned Gwion to guard and watch the cauldron in her absence; with the warning for him to not touch or ingest it. The cauldron over-boiled, tempting Gwion for a taste of the potion. Upon his touching and tasting this forbidden brew, Gwion gained knowledge; far beyond his years and capacity to put it to wise and ethical use. From there, the myth follows Caridwen’s vengeance on her son for his moral disobedience.
The popular imagery of the traditional figure of a witch in silhouette brewing a potion that is both mysterious and forbidding has direct associations with the ancient mythological visual precept of Caridwen fomenting a powerful spell in her cauldron. (Fig. 7)
The Celtic goddess Brigid or Brid in Scotland, is oftentimes associated with the symbolism of the cauldron for its use of fire. Brigid is widely represented in triple Goddess form as the Pagan patroness of home, hearth and fire. It is noted that until the 18th Century, the eternal flame of Brigid in a cauldron was tended to by a group of Celtic virgin priestesses, who were later co-opted into the Catholic Church as “nuns” when their shrine was taken over and changed into a convent.
The depiction of the cauldron in magic ritual has a very rich ancient lineage in Celtic culture.
One early example of a cauldron being depicted in Pictish symbolism is on the stone cross-slab known as the Ulbster Stone. The Ulbster Stone dates from the 6th to 8th Century AD and is an example of Pictish Class II representation. On the left side of the cross shaft, one finds the image of a large round object set between two incised kneeling human figures. It is believed these figures possibly represent the survivors of a shipwreck depicted on the obverse of the stone and that they were preparing a ritualistic meal in the cauldron to honor those who died. (Fig. 8)
Another depiction of the cauldron in Pictish art is found on what is known as the Glamis Manse Stone which dates from the 9th Century AD and is also categorized as Pictish Class II ornamentation. On the lower right quadrant of the slab, there is a depiction of three connected circles which are each incised as double, tubular rings. The top and bottom rings are small and the middle one is larger, giving it the appearance of a cauldron as seen from above. A deer’s head appears in profile above the connected rings. (Fig. 9)
It is my opinion that the combined imagery of the deer head in relation to a cauldron, may symbolize the horned god, Cernunnos, who is closely associated with the stag in early Celtic iconography. It can also be noted, that the way the three connected circles of the cauldron on the Glamis Manse Stone are incised, closely resemble the way Cernunnos’ torc is represented throughout early Celtic art. In this way, the Glamis Manse Stone shares elements in common with the Gundestrup Cauldron, which dates from the earlier period of 200 to 300 AD.
In early Celtic spirituality, the number three was believed to hold very powerful talismanic and apotropaic properties. It can be observed that the Triskele spiral, a design prevalent in early Pictish stone sculpture, also resembles a series of three cauldrons as seen from above. We see this favoring of the number three in the observation of Brigid and Ceridwen as triple goddess figures.
Although it’s easy to associate cauldrons with the feminine aspects of fertility, the moon and regeneration, when considering the Gundestrup Cauldron, one sees the association being made between the male aspects of divinity and ritual magic. Along with enigmatic female and male heads that appear on the exterior portion, the figure of Cernunnos is represented distinctly on a solitary panel of the object’s interior pictorial narrative. On the Gundestrup Cauldron, Cernunnos is presented in frontal form with legs folded and a pyramidal triplicate of symbolism surrounding him. He holds a torc in his right hand, a snake in his left and horns of the stag are depicted on his head. (Fig. 10)
In observing the placement of these items in sharp triangular form, it is clear that the creators of the Gundestrup Cauldron understood perfectly well, the shamanic power of using the number three in visual representation and the importance it held for early Druidic practitioner.
A characteristic distinction of early Celtic art is the depiction of disembodied heads on decorative panels. This is a direct visual outgrowth of the earlier head cults that existed wherein actual human skulls would be interred in niches as part of the architectural structure of temples. In the temple of Roquepertuse, which dates from 200 BC, human skulls are set in the pillars of porticos and serve as lasting reminders of the importance of the human head in early Druidic and Pagan ritual. (Fig. 11)
It is common to find floating modeled heads depicted in groups of three. The Gundestrup Cauldron is no exception to this rule. In fact, one may view it as an evolutionary step from more primitive head-cult symbolism in Celtic culture. The exterior of the cauldron has a series of panels chiseled out, and from each side, three large heads can be seen. The heads are molded in high-relief and their features are mask-like; each with very similar characteristics, as they stare straight ahead. Each panel contains a floating large solitary head. Most of these heads are depicted with thin gangly arms that serve more as anchoring devices, holding up symbols associated with each particular deity. Some of the panels also depict one large head with smaller tubular figures that curve around them. Compositionally, these additional figures serve as formal decorative framing elements and most likely, represent facets of that particular god’s characteristics–such as the phoenix or wolf. (Fig. 12)
The articulation of arms and the hint of part of an upper body with the heads on the Gundestrup Cauldron is certainly a step forward compared to earlier stylistic derivations of heads such as the “Three Mothers” stone from Burgundy and the very crude carvings of stone heads at Entremont, which both date from about 200 BC . (Figs. 13 & 14)
Head cults were known to have existed throughout the ancient Pictish lands. The head was used in ritual to represent the entire body and was considered the nexus of human power; the place where the human soul was contained. The practice in Druidic Pictish culture of keeping and collecting the heads of enemies and others is well-documented and the depiction of the floating, god-like faces on the Gundestrup vessel could very well symbolize the use of cauldrons in ancient shamanic head cult rituals.
Nowhere is the early Celtic people’s obsession with the supernatural aspects of skulls and severed heads more fully observed than in the mythological tale, “ Children of Llyr”. In the story, Bran, the Blessed was the leader of a very incarnation of Britain and he was also a giant who possessed a magic cauldron. He bestowed the cauldron to the King of Ireland as an offering of alliance and peace when he was to wed Bran’s sister, Branwen. The cauldron of Bran was said to possess the power of regeneration and resurrection of the dead. When fighting the Irish over his sister’s later punishment of servitude to her King, Bran’s brothers were said to have chopped off the heads of the servants and thrown them into the cauldron which they had since repossessed. When the heads of the Irish soldiers were thrown in, they were regenerated and the soldiers resurrected to go on fighting again.
At a crucial point during the on-going, years-long war to rescue their sister and hold dominance over Ireland, Bran’s brother, Evnissyen, was wounded and was attempting to reach the cauldron of regeneration. The Irish warriors caught him and tossed him inside. As he struggled, he stretched his body out to cause the cauldron, which had caused so much damage and cost so many lives on both sides, to break. It shattered into four pieces. A while thereafter when Bran became wounded in battle, he asked that his head be severed from his gigantic body and more easily transported back to his land. It is said his head was able to speak with the seven comrades who traveled with him and it could prognosticate future events. He foretold that the remaining seven men would remain with him in Gwales upon their return and that in eighty years, one of the seven would open the door to a forbidden place. After this occurred, they were to bury his head in the White Hill area of London.
The Arthurian legends, from which many diverse mythologies have sprung, are pervasive throughout Celtic culture for the use of the symbolism of a hero seeking an item which takes the form of a most holy artifact–a Holy Grail–that is usually either a cauldron or chalice. At the root of all these stories lies a magic vessel with the ability to regenerate life. In some tales, the vessel is comparable in symbolism to a womb–which brings forth life, or a cauldron which holds powerful herbal potions for magical transformation. In later Christian details, the womb-like feminine cauldron has been divested into a chalice, which holds Christ’s blood and which through the ritual of communion, ensures ever-lasting life for those who partake. All of these representations share a common lineage in the horn of plenty and the
Roman figure of Pamona–who symbolized the regeneration of life at harvest.
The earliest known references to a cauldron as a magic or “holy grail” originated in Ancient Ireland with the mythos of the Tuatha De Danaan–a culture of powerful mages and sorcerers who had arrived and settled on Celtic lands from the Northern islands of the world, and were forced underground by successive groups of invading peoples. They came to be known in early Celtic tales as the “people of the hollow hills”. The people of the Tuatha De Danann held four cultural treasures, each one representing one of their original land’s four cities: Murias, Falias, Gorias and Findias. One of these four items is a vessel known as the Cauldron of Dagda. Dagda, or “All Father” was known as their paternal deity. It is said that Dagda’s cauldron provided an endless stream of porridge made from milk, flour, fat, pork and goat meat, to the people who partook of its bounty. The other items the hollow hill people brought with them were a stone, known as the Stone of Fal; a spear of Lug, who was the Celtic god of the sun, fire and metallurgy; and a sword belonging to Nuadu, the first king of the Tuatha De Danaan.
It is from the mythology of the hollow hill people that the earliest visual representation is made comprising the symbolic balance of a vaginal or womb-like cauldron with the phallic image of a spear. The spear of Lug, being another of the four treasures held by the Tuatha De Danaan.
The archetypal Dagda image of a druidic male figure holding a cauldron in one hand and a spear or mallet in the other, is the basis from which many later Arthurian legends of divine spears or swords were devised. The direct visual representation of overt sexual symbolism implies a very strong correlation between the male and female aspects of the Divine in early Celtic spirituality. (Fig. 15)
The inherent symbolism of the Cauldron as essential to Celtic spirituality has been carried down through the ages in Druidic and other Pagan rituals. To the Druids and Witches, a cauldron is as crucial an item in ritual as the altar, and perhaps more so because of its ability to keep and hold sacred flame; to cleanse, to transfer energies from a pottage of dead, dried leaves and flora into tinctures that heal and assist the body in generating life force.
The cauldron is a womb of spiritual energy exchange. It holds the potential for life and death; renewal, regeneration and endings. It can heal and hex. It holds ashes of the past; divinations of the present through herbal offerings and roots that release their essence to the heat; and can assist in scrying the future with what is left after the energy has been transformed. The cauldron is used as an energetic focal point in Druidic ritual and as such, if used with proper knowledge and experience, can amplify the natural psychic abilities of clairsentience and clairvoyance.
One needs look no further than the archetypal Samhain image of a female witch with pointed hat in pitch-black silhouette, tending a bubbling cauldron blazing with orange heat, as smoke rises, conjuring a ghostly stream; to see the rich ancient lineage of symbolism inherited from this most basic and essential of primitive cultural items–the cauldron. (Fig. 16)
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