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Celtic Cauldron by Joann Keesey

"...Welcome was made to them, and they were taken into Mac Datho's stronghold. This was one of the five chief hostels of Ireland at that time, and there used to be boiling water in it always. There was the hostel of Da Derga among the men of Cualu in Leinster, and the hostel of Forgall Monach beside Lusk, and the hostel of Da Reo in Brefne, and the hostel of Da Choga in Westmeath. Seven doors there were in each hostel, seven roads through it, and seven fireplaces therein. Seven cauldrons in the seven fireplaces. An ox and a salted pig would go into each of these cauldrons, and the man that came along the road would thrust the fleshfork into the cauldron, and whatever he brought up with the first thrust, that he would eat, and if nothing were brought up with the first thrust, there was nothing for him."1

"In Celtic tradition there is the legendary magic cauldron, horn of plenty and platter that could never empty. With roots in the same image is the Chalice, sacred vessel, that represents both the illuminating goal of the quest and the heroic quest itself."2

These two Irish views of the cauldron, separated by some 1700 years represent the two characteristics of the cauldron for the Celt, magical and utilitarian. The first quote is from the Ulster or Red Branch cycle story of Mac Datho's Pig. The great stronghold of Emain Macha, associated with Navan Fort outside of Armagh in Northern Ireland, was the seat of ancient Ulster, and was destroyed sometime in the fourth century. "Archaeologists speculate that the original "Red Branch" of Ulster (Craeb Ruad), Conchobhar's bruidenn or feasting hall, was named after a sacrificial tree trunk erected in the domestic nemeton excavated at the site of Emain Macha. It is suggested that the trunk was named the Red Branch because it was reddened with the blood of sacrificed animals; a trace of blood was found in the decomposed remains of the wood."3 In the late twentieth century, an Irish singer would use the transmutation of the cauldron into the Holy Grail or chalice to describe her chalice of a dozen songs that exemplify the public and private strands of the Celtic soul.

Legendary cauldrons are to be encountered throughout the body of Celtic myth. The Tuatha de Danaan who brought the four great treasures to Ireland, counted the Daghda or "good god" as one of their outstanding deities. His cauldron, brought from the city of Murias, was of such bounty that none would go away unsatisfied. His other insignia was the club which gave protection. In Gaul, his counterpart was known as Sucellos ("the good striker") whose identifying accouterments were the hammer or club and pot. Wales, in the second branch of the Mabinogi, gives us the story of Bran the Blessed, who gives his sister and a marvelous cauldron to the king of Ireland. She is humiliated and mistreated and finally word reaches her brother who wades across the Irish Sea to her rescue while the army of the Men of Britain sail beside him in ships. The climactic battle does not go easily to the Welsh because the cauldron has the power to rejuvenate the slain warriors who rise on the morrow as good warriors as they were before. The Britons only prevail when one of their number contrives to get in the cauldron and smashes it by stretching to his full length. Also from Wales comes one of the earliest Arthurian pieces, and possibly the forerunner of the Grail Quest, as Arthur goes into the Otherworld to retrieve the Cauldron of Annwn:

I draw my knowledge from the famous cauldron,
The breath of nine muses keeps it boiling.
Is not the head of Annwn's cauldron so shaped:
Ridged with enamel, rimmed with pearl?
It will not boil the cowardly traitor's portion.4

These cauldrons of legend are more than matched in the archaeological record. One of the finest is the silver Gundestrup cauldron found in Jutland in 1891 having a capacity of 28 gallons. Leaving aside the question of its manufacture, the cauldron reveals a wealth of iconography and has had scholars speculating about its idiosyncratic Celtic religious art since its finding. One of the elaborate silver plaques that forms the top half of the cauldron may represent the story of Bran and his marvelous cauldron of regeneration. Warriors pass in procession on either side of the tree of life which springs from the cauldron in which the sacrificed blood is collected. Warriors approach on foot meeting a dog, often the herald of death. The cauldron is presided over by a gigantic figure who immerses the men head first. They leave on horseback led by a snake. This could also be a scene of sacrifice as described by Strabo in his Geography (VII,2.3):

Among the women who accompanied their warlike expeditions were prophetesses who were also priestesses. They were grey with age, and wore white clothes and, over these, cloaks of the finest linen, and metal belts. They were barefoot. These women would enter the camp, sword in hand, and go up to prisoners, crown them, and lead them up to a bronze vessel which might hold some twenty measures. One of them would mount a step, and, leaning over the cauldron, cut the throat of a prisoner, who was held up over the vessel's rim. Others cut open the body and, after inspecting the entrails, would foretell victory for their countrymen.5

One of these krater was actually found at Vix, on the northern Seine in France. It stands about five feet, five inches high, weighs 470 pounds and would have held about 1,200 litres. On each side of the handles were the gorgon heads, while round the neck was a frieze of warriors, some marching and others in chariots. On the lid was the figure of a woman resembling a seeress, wearing a veil over her head and shoulders and with one arm outstretched. Hilda Davidson believes with the evidence of Strabo and that of Herodutus (I,51) who mentions two huge craters sent by Croesus to Delphi and placed in the temple there, that the woman at Vix was a priestess or seeress, though she might also have been a princess and that the vessel belonged to a local shrine, possibly on Mount Lassois near the grave.6 Davidson comments that it's a long way from this sixth century B.C.E. grave to the writings of Strabo,who died in 25 C.E. However, it's probably either a testimony of persisting practices or a plundering of earlier material from Herodutus and Posidonius.

Ronald Hutton notes that Llyn Fawr in Glamorgan, Scotland had large deposits of cauldrons, axes, sickles, harness and vehicle fittings dating to around 600 B.C.E. In Britain, the site of Flag Fen in Peterborough was used from around 1200 B.C.E.- 200 B.C.E. and contained many fine weapons and ornaments. Virtually all the material was deposited on one side of a line of some 2,000 great oak posts. Archaeological evidence suggests it was a sanctified ritual site by the presence of loose human bones, a boar's tusk, a bracelet, and the skeletons of dogs around the bases of the posts. In Wales, Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey was in use from the second century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. This holy lake of the Druids is one of the very few "closed" sacred sites I have encountered. In Ireland, the Golden Bog of Cullen in County Tipperary has yielded over 100 cauldrons, spears, swords, axes, gold bars, and various ornaments of dress. The items seem to start earlier than Llyn Cerrig Bach and continue until around 500 C.E., unlike Llyn Cerrig Bach which was abruptly terminated in 43 C.E. by the Romans who were determined to wipe out the Druids. During the late Iron Age, cauldrons replaced swords as the favorite items to be dedicated.7

In Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, a comparison of early Scandinavian and Celtic religions, Hilda Davidson comments that:

Food was placed in both Celtic and Germanic graves from an early period, and tough cauldrons suitable for cooking over a fire as well as more fragile ones to hold liquor have frequently been found; one from Sutton Hoo, for instance was big enough to hold a sheep. The heating and cooking of meat on the hearth was in itself an image of the link between man and the Other World. Fire and cooking are constantly emphasized in the Fenian tales, while ‘fire-dogs' to hold the logs in place, with horned heads of bulls, found in chieftains' graves of the La Tene period, are likely to have possessed ritual significance.8

A sixth century B.C.E tumulus in Hochdorf in the Baden-Wurttemberg region of Germany, when excavated in 1978-79, contained among other artifacts a large bronze cauldron, decorated with lions around the rim, which bore the remains of a substantial quantity of mead. Since nine drinking horns were also found in the grave, it is likely that this was for a symposion, or Greek drinking party.9 An inexhaustible cauldron of mead was to be found in the Other World:

There is a cauldron of invigorating mead,
For the use of the inmates of the house.
It never grows less; it is a custom
That it should be full forever.10

This image from the "Sick-Bed of Cu Chulainn" appears again in the "Adventures of Art Son of Conn" who visits a shapely hostel thatched with birds' wings with doorposts of bronze and doors of crystal, with a full drinking horn and a vat of finely wrought blue crystal with three golden hoops where he can bathe and refresh himself.11

The persistence of cauldrons in the Other World or Faery Realm was attested as late as the nineteenth century in the Carmina Gadelica, a Scottish collection of hymns and incantations. It is worth repeating the story of the fairy and the pot:

A woman came to a house in Vallay, and the goodwife said to her: "Whence art thou come, woman?"
I am come from Buchain, I am come from Bachain,
I am come from Gabasdal, From the Loch of the Little Bird,
From the Loch of the Big Bird, And from the Big Division
In Vallay.
"I am come to ask for the cauldron to boil meat," said she with a dignified air. The goodwife knew not what to say to her, and she went to an old man who was in the townland, and she told him how it was, and how she was coming every day for the pot and taking it away with her. "Say thou this to the little woman when she comes again:
A pot deserves a bone, And to be brought home whole;
A smith deserves coal to heat cold iron.
The woman forgot this one night, and the pot never again came home from the fairy hill. The fairy woman went off with the pot in her hand and the lilt from her mouth, and this is the verse that she had:
Over the cattle I will not watch,
Over the cattle I will not be;
Over the cattle I will not watch,
For my joy is in the fairy hill.
Though I have given up the herding,
My mind is somewhat troubled,
That my gentle lover will leave me,
And my pale child in the fairy hill.12

The meat most often cooked in cauldrons for sacrificial feasts was that of bulls, boars, and horses. The Sick-Bed of Cuchullain story recounts a description of the Bull-Feast at which Lugaid Red-Stripes is elected king over all Ireland. The immolation of a horse survived into the twelfth century where Giraldus Cambrensis could rail:

There is in the northern and farther part of Ulster, namely in Kenelcunill, a certain people which is accustomed to appoint its king with a rite altogether outlandish and abominable. When the whole people of that land has been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as a chief, but as a beast, not as a king, but as an outlaw, has bestial intercourse with her before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces, and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all his people, and all, he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup, or using his hand, but just dipping his mouth into it round about him. When this unrighteous rite has been carried out, his kingship and dominion have been conferred.13

Pot However, the most popular sacrificial meat was that of a boar. The god Manannan had a supply of pigs which could be totally devoured but then were alive again on the morrow ready to start the cycle anew. "A pig perpetually alive and a roasted swine and a vessel with marvelous liquor, and never do they all decrease." In the Norse Gylfaginning, the boar Saehrimnir also provided the warriors of Valhalla with unending pork. He was boiled every day and came to life every evening. The pig's use as a religious symbol, according to Davidson may account for the prominence of swineherds in the Irish tales and their association with Otherworld wisdom. The two bulls in the Táin started out as two rival swineherds. In the twenty-third book of his Histories, Posidonius describes the fierce competition for the rights of carving the carcass of the boar and who had the rights to the best portion, the thigh. If anyone was challenged, they then engaged in single combat.14 These customs were remembered in the tales of Bricriu's feast and the aforementioned Mac Datho's pig.

It's a little impractical these days to cook an entire horse or a bull but it is possible to prepare a nice sacrificial feast of pork in your cauldron. Take a four pound picnic roast of pork, trim the fat and cube the rest of the meat. Put the leg bone from the stew in a cauldron with enough water to cover. The longer the bone stews, the more marrow flavors the broth. Take a cup of beans which have soaked overnight or been boiled separately for five minutes and add them to the cauldron along with the cubed meat, four chopped carrots, six cubed potatoes, one diced onion, three to four chopped cloves of garlic, one chopped shallot, a handful of juniper berries, half a bottle of dark beer, half a teaspoon of sage, half a teaspoon of marjoram, and half a teaspoon of thyme. Top the water off so everything is covered. Simmer for four hours which is long enough for most rituals. Give some of the leftover beer to the ancestors and house wights and drink the rest or put it into the stew. When the stew is done, give a small slice of the pork to the ancestors and house wights as well. Eat, enjoy and thank the pig!15

Besides cooking a sacred meal in the cauldron, it can be used to remind one of the powers of change and transformation inherent therein. One of the most famous cauldrons of change belonged to Ceridwen. Hutton makes an excellent case that she was a creation of the Gogynfeirdd or early Welsh poets who flourished from about 1080 to 1350 and created a new mythology, elevating human or semi-human figures to the status of deities. Other examples were Gwyn ap Nudd and Arianrhod.16 Nevertheless, there is much of worth in this story of the birth of Taliesin. In the days of Arthur, king of the Britons, there lived a woman of power named Ceridwen, and she had an extremely ugly son named Afagddu. She realized he was not going to get anywhere with his looks and she determined that his only recourse was to excel in wit and wisdom, but there again he was sadly lacking. She consulted her books of wisdom and found in the arcana of Virgil the Gaul the spell for the cauldron of inspiration. She gathered together wheat, honey, incense, myrrh, aloes, precious silver, and fluxwort. These were mixed in the cauldron and she added the red berries called ruddy gem, that the Welsh call "borfes y Gwion." She stirred in the cress known as fabarion and the herb vervain, culled in the rising of the Dog Star. And she set the cauldron to boil for a year and a day, instructing her servant boy Gwion Bach, to stir it slow and well and keep it ever at the boil.

Day in and day out he minded the cauldron until one morning near the year's end three drops splashed on his finger. All the inspiration for Afagddu was distilled in those three drops and as soon as Gwion cooled his scalded fingers, he knew all the past, present, and future. He knew that Ceridwen, the white sow, meant his death and he took to his heels as the cauldron cracked behind him. Ceridwen hearing the crack at once gave chase. Gwion became a hare for speed. But she became a hound and followed him closer. He became a fish to foil the hound but she became an otter and followed him closer. He became a dove to foil the otter. She became a hawk and followed him always the closer. In the failing of his strength at last, he became a grain of wheat in a pile of wheat but she became a black hen and scuffed at the wheat until she found the one grain that was Gwion and swallowed him whole.

But that was not the end of him for in time Ceridwen produced another son who was too lovely to kill outright so she bound him in a bag and cast him into the sea where he fetched up in the salmon nets of Gwyddno Garanhir there to be caught up by the luckless Elphin who was hoping for a more bountiful Beltaine boon. In the words of the poet Taliesin, who emerged from the bag:

I have been a blue salmon
a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain
a stock, a spade, an axe in the hand
a buck, a bull, a stallion
upon a hill I was grown as grain
reaped and in the oven thrown
out of that roasting I fell to the ground
pecked up and swallowed by the black hen
in her crop nine nights lain
I have been dead, I have been alive, I am Taliesin.17

Similar shapeshifting elements are present in the magical ballads of the "Twa Magicians" and the "Fith-fath Song." Caitlin Matthews devotes over forty pages to this subject, reprinting the text for these ballads along with much other traditional material that bears on the subject.18

I like to use one of my cauldrons for water gazing as it seems to exemplify the use of the cauldron for inspiration and divination. The Celts used augury or divination with their cauldrons and accouterments. Some had movable pieces in the cauldron. Ann Ross records in a marvelous footnote a precious cauldron suspended from chains of brass and gold associated with the arts called the Coire Seinte. "Each of their companies had a cauldron and it was a cauldron of white silver, and their were nine chains of brass from each cauldron and there was a hook of gold on each chain, and the reason it is called Coire Seinte is that they used to put into it all the gold and silver they got. Or it was called cauldron of pleasantness because they used to drink pleasant ale out of it, and the nine host of the company were playing melody around it while the poem was being sung." Alternatively, the nine hosts put the point of their spear in the hole of the chain nearest him while the company sang. Ross notes the existence of the Hallstatt cauldron chariot from Skallerup. The vessel is on four wheels, and from the cauldron come pendentives ending in pieces of metal like miniature spear points.19 A fleshfork decorated with movable ravens and swans was discovered in Dunaverney, Ireland. Proinsias Mac Cana notes that Irish legal and literary texts mention fleshfork and cauldron together as important items of a person's household goods.20

For part of our "modern" full moon ritual, we are fortunate that the temple room faces toward the arc of the full moon and I prepare the room in darkness, invoke Ceridwen and Manannan Mac Lir, raise the shade, and as the light of the moon falls on the cauldron, place one of the Irish animal coins to catch the light, and begin water gazing. Since John Gibson wrote his fine ritual for the Nine Cauldrons, I also include his invocation of the Cauldron of Wisdom:

I invoke the Cauldron of Wisdom. The cauldron that is our connection to Manannan Mac Lir, Bile, Danu, along with the Gods and Goddesses of the Tuatha De Danann. It is the cauldron from which divine inspiration flows to the fili who bring forth Poetry, and the Bard who brings forth Song. It is the connection to the divine to our mortal world.21

I hope that this short glimpse into the ritual sources and artifacts of the Celts inspires you to take a fresh look at that three-legged pot you've been using. I leave you with some of my own thoughts on the matter:

May the inspiration of the water birds flow in time,
May the champion's portion be ever thine.
May the cauldron at your door guard your threshold ever more!

Joann Keesey would have been a medieval scholar but earning a living precluded that. She comes from Irish peasant stock on her mother's side, i.e., the only land they owned was in a window box. Her father's side favored the Plattdeutsch peasantry. To these ancestors, she owes her good humor and pleasing personality.


Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1992).
Cross, T. P. and Slover, C. H., Ancient Irish Tales, (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1988).
Davidson, H.R.E., Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988).
Davidson, H.R.E., The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, (Routledge, New York, 1993).
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), The History and Topography Of Ireland, (London: Penguin Books, 1993).
Glob, P.V., The Bog People--Iron-Age Man Preserved, (New York: Ballantine Books, Inc., 1971).
Green, Miranda, The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, (Frome Somerset: Hippocrene Books, Inc, 1991).
Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, (Oxford: Blackwell, Ltd., 1991).
James, Simon, The World of the Celts, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993).
Mac Cana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, (London: Hamlyn, 1970).
Mac Crossan, Tadhg, The Sacred Cauldron, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1991).
Matthews, Caitlin, Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain, An Exploration of the Mabinogion, (London: Arkana, 1987).
Matthews, Caitlin and John, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, (Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1994).
Nemeton mailing list in all its wondrous glory.
Ross, Anne, "Chain Symbolism in Pagan Celtic Religion," Speculum, V. 34, Issue 1, January, 1959.
Williamson, Robin, The Wise and Foolish Tongue, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991).

1. Cross & Slover, Ancient Irish Tales, "The Story of Mac Datho's Pig," p. 199. The entire tale is recommended reading for a great satire on the champion's portion and the importance of the pig. They served no swine before its time.
2. Noreen Ryan is one of the great exponents of sean nos or Irish ancient oral singing. Any of her six CDs are worth listening to for an understanding of that illusory boundary between Christianity and paganism that is the hallmark of the Celt.
3. Mac Crossan, Tadhg, The Sacred Cauldron, p. 141. Tadhg is a modern exponent of a system of Druidry which he sought to base on archaeological and textual evidence. It comes across as a bit heavy-handed and sexist at times but there are some fine nuggets in amongst the dross. Incidentally, he is reliably reported to have become a staunch Catholic since the publication of this book.
4. Matthews, Caitlin, Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain, p. 107. Some Celtic scholars think her Welsh translations are less than adequate but this seemed quite reasonable to me.
5. Glob, P.V., The Bog People, pp. 122-123. Glob cites the full text of Strabo here but the entire book is worthwhile for a full discussion of Iron Age burials and depositions, how the archaeological evidence accords with Tacitus's descriptions of Nerthus and her cart progressions, and linking up the early Greek and Roman descriptions with the actual in situ finds.
6. Davidson, Hilda, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, pp. 14-17.
7. Hutton, Ronald, Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, pp. 185-187. This is a fine compilation of some of the most recent scholarship combined with a sympathy for the pagan viewpoint. His second edition records his pleasant surprise at being so favorably received by modern pagans.
8. Davidson, Hilda, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 46. See pp. 48-58 for an extended discussion of the principal animals for sacrificial feasts.
9. James, Simon, The World of the Celts, pp. 26-27. If you can afford only one good book on the Celts, try to obtain this one. The color photographs are excellent along with the illustrations, maps, textual extracts from the ancient sources, and a clear, concise write-up of many if not all of the salient points needed to grasp an appreciation of who these Celts were and are.
10. Cross & Slover, "The Sick-Bed of Cu Chulainn," p. 189.
11. Cross & Slover, "Adventures of Art", pp. 494-495.
12. Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, pp. 514-515. This is an affordable redaction of the eight volume set with many items of interest. The footnotes at the end also report on similar material collected in other regions and expound on the good minister's anecdotes travelling to the remoter regions of the highlands and islands of Scotland searching out the prayers, charms, invocations, and stories of the inhabitants.
13. Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, p. 110. Gerald is one of more interesting medieval historiographers. His personal quest for the episcopacy of St. David's is a fascinating chapter in the Norman church while his books preserve those "quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore."
14. Davidson, H. E., Myths and Symbols, p.48.
15. Sorcha, Keeper of the House of Three Ravens, Nemeton internet list, December 3, 1995.
16. Hutton, Ronald, Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, pp. 322-324.
17. Williamson, Robin, The Wise and Foolish Tongue, pp. 74-76. This reprint of the Crane-Skin Bag is worth searching out for Robin's excellent treatment of many of the old stories and bits of bardic lore. Some of his tapes are also good sources but they are much more difficult to obtain.
18. Matthews, John and Caitlin, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, pp. 146-184. This book is subtitled "a Celtic shaman's sourcebook." This is not the article to go into why Celtic shamanism raises hackles on both my pagan and historical back. Some of their stuff is very good, some is derivative from Native American shamanism or other sources and was never done to our knowledge by Celts, and other stuff needs to be taken with a large salt shaker. The section on shapeshifting in Chapter Six was for the most part worthwhile. Your mileage may vary.
19. Ross, Anne, "Chain of Symbolism...," pp. 54-55. Dr. Ross's books on the pagan Celts and Scottish folklore are worth searching out in the remainder sections of Barnes and Noble. Her book on Pete Marsh or the Druid Prince as her eponymous title calls the body found in the British bog in 1991 is flawed by a number of hasty conclusions.
20. Mac Cana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology, pp. 82-83. Sadly this book is out of print, but can be found used. There is a fine photograph of the Dunaver-ney fleshfork. Good discussion of mythology and civilization along with representative photographs not only from the British Isles but also many of the Gaulish sites.
21. Gibson, John, "Ritual for the Nine Cauldrons," Nemeton list, August 1995. John is from the Chicago area and wrote some fine bits of ritual. We have not heard from him for several months. He is also reliably reported to have turned to Catholicism. John, your many friends admire you regardless of the path you walk. May the deep peace of the shining wave be with you always.