Perhaps the item most associated with Witches these days is the cauldron, an iron cooking pot used in most households in the UK until the early 20th century. It was immortalised in folk memory by its central role as the tool the three Wyrd Sisters were making a potion in while waiting for Macbeth to pass by. The refrain “Hubble bubble boil and trouble” is still connected with the interesting ingredients added to the brew, such as tongue of dog, wolf’s teeth and wool of a bat. That these were herbal practitioners of the time terms for the herbs Hounds Tongue, (Cynoglossom Officinale), Ergot, and dried moss, does take away some of the macabre atmosphere of what the Witches were doing. Sadly, although the Goddess Hecate makes a personal appearance later on in the scene, we never find out what the potion was going to be used for.
Cooking with a cauldron usually demanded an open fire with plenty of hot ash. In most cases people used a small cauldron with a lid, similar to a Dutch Oven.. This was set in the coals, almost to the point of being buried in them sometimes, and the temperature and cooking time varied by moving and varying their depth and heat. Bigger cauldrons were used in Bronze Age times for big events such as clan feasts, major rituals, and special events such as the accession of a king to power.
The most famous cauldron from these times is the Gundestrup Cauldron that was found in a peat bog in 1891. Being made of pure silver, with substantial amounts of gold for the gilding, it is almost certainly a symbolic rather than practical vessel. The latest scientific investigations suggest it was made and added to over a period of several hundred years. One source suggests “Between 200BC and 300AD”. There is also evidence that it had been deliberately hidden where it was found suggesting that it might have been used in Pagan rituals not in keeping with the state spirituality of the time. How and where it was made are also areas of strong controversy but modern Pagans I have spoken to who work in the field of archaeology have suggested that the images have strong Indian roots. Particularly in the way the main figure is seated, the depiction of wheels, and a female figure who looks a lot like the Indian Goddess Lakshmi.
In the west cauldrons and Goddesses were strongly connected. The Cauldron of Cerridwen, from Welsh Mythology is perhaps the best known amongst the Pagans of today because of its inclusion in the Mabinogion, the cycle of Welsh myths frequently told at Druidic and Celtic gatherings. This cauldron is known both as the ‘Cauldron of Knowledge’ and the ‘Cauldron of Rebirth’ by some modern Pagan groups. However the cauldron was not exclusively connected to the Goddess, as Gods such as the Dagda, native to Ireland, also had one of similar, although not identical, properties.
Today the cauldron seems to be more a coven tool than a personal one, both because of cost, and because it is used to hold the ritual fire when this is performed outdoors. Also cauldrons are hard to come by, unless you are aware of Duch Ovens or can find, or acquire, an original one. I found mine being used as a flowerpot and was able to barter my skills and items I had with me for it. The former owners seemed to find that a reasonable bargain – especially as I said why I wanted it.
Unless they are using one of the smaller Dutch Oven types of cauldron that fit on or in the stove few Pagans use a cauldron for making potions and unguents. Its most common use these days is for meditation and scrying, the latter being done at the time of the full moon. The cauldron is half filled with water and a silver disk or coin is dropped in to sink to the bottom and act as a focus point. In Celtic styles of Paganism a request may be sent to the Undines, the Elementals of water, or a particular Deity such as Mananon, or Hecate for their aid. Then the practitioner stills their mind and waits for images- symbolic or reality based – to appear to them in the cauldron or on the surface of the water. In meditation the coin is used as a focus but the intent is to still the mind and balance the emotions.
In the Tarot the cauldron equates to the suit of cups. This suit is connected with feelings and emotions. As such if I am casting a traditional circle, using the Tarot to outline it, I start with the Ace of Cups and continue round in a clockwise direction working through cups (West), to Wands or Swords (South) –depending which feels right for the operation. Thence to whichever remains from the two doubled suits (East), through to the Ace of Pentacles (North), and consolidating the circle working through this suit back to the Cups. If I am doing a particularly intense ritual then I might work through the casting several times, looking at key images from each suit as I go, building and intensifying the energies and raising the cone of power. (of which more in another article).
Finally, as a small aside, many practitioners of the magickal arts consider that a cup or glass is a small cauldron, or a small cauldron balanced on a stem. This is the basis of scrying or divination through tea leaves, coffee grounds, or even the foam on a cappuccino after it has been stirred. As with the cauldron scrying the art is to focus slightly beyond the surface, and allowing the images to form.