Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Cauldron is Deep

Icelandic manuscript
Odin, in the form of an eagle, steals the Mead of Poetry.
From 18th c. Icelandic manuscript IB 299 4to.

In Welsh myth Ceriden, the hag-goddess*, bears a child called Afagddu (his name means ‘utter darkness). Knowing he would never attract a mate Ceriden mixed herbs of inspiration in her magical cauldron. She tasked wee Gwion with the job of stirring the reeking stew, but he fell into the cauldron by mistake. Thus the laddie gained the powers of poetry and was later known as Taliesin, the great bard. However Ceridwen wasn’t the only one to own such an inspirational cauldron, the Welsh hero Ogyrvran possessed one through which inspiration arose in the form of fey folk. 

Such notions are also reflected in Norse mythology:  The gods created a supreme being called Kvasir, but two dwarves slew him. They poured his blood into two cauldrons and a pot, then sweetened his juice with honey - whoever drank this mead  would become a great poet. Of course it was the god Odin himself who eventually stole this potion for his personal use. 

Copper Cauldron from Bronze-Age Ireland.
Copper Cauldron from Bronze-Age Ireland.

In her book The Well Of Five Streams,  Erynn Laurie discusses an interesting link between cauldrons and poetry. Translating a 7th century Irish poem, “The Cauldron Of Poesy”, Erynn elaborates upon the text's reference to three inner cauldrons, through which poetry is born. 

Apart from being associated with inspiration and poetry the cauldron is also often blessed with rejuvenating properties. The myth of the great replenishing cauldron is not restricted to Northern Europe. It featured in the Greek classic Jason and the Argonauts. The hero's wife, Medea, was a powerful sorceress who rejuvenated Jason’s father, Aeson, by filling a cauldron with a stew of magical herbs. She sacrificed Aeson, slitting his throat, releasing his old blood and then poured her magic potion into his gaping wound. As soon as the potion filled him Aeson was restored and returned to being a young man. Via this method she also rejuvenated a ram after it had been hacked to pieces and placed into the cauldron.

Interestingly in Celtic myth we see parallels of the use of a magical cauldron to restore the dead. Indeed in the Welsh otherworld (Annwn) there existed a cauldron of plenty which was never empty. This might be the same cauldron that the hero, Arthur, stole in one of the many ancient stories relating to his exploits. In the Mabinogion we find the tale in which the Irish king Matholwch used a Magical Cauldron that once belonged to the Welsh giant Llassar Llaesgyfnewid. Matholwch employed the cauldron’s properties against the invading Welsh forces of Brân The Blessed. The dead were heaped into the cauldron to be reanimated! 

One of the panels of the infamous Gundestrup Cauldron portrays a scene that some interpret as the use of a cauldron in such a fashion. Warriors are lined up while a giantess transforms them into horsemen (the horse was a powerful status symbol in those days). Note that they are following a serpent, which is a chthonic symbol; so they may be 'reanimated' for the Otherworld**. 

A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron, 2nd -1st c. BC, Denmark but Celtic themed

These themes of abundance and rejuvenation abound in Celtic myth. Another example is the Irish god, Dagda. He possessed a cauldron that was forever filled with good things (this being one of the mythical four treasures of the Tuatha dé Danaan, which originated in the city of Murias, travelled to Ireland with the Dé Danaan and is also linked with the holy well on the island of Iona -  whose waters were said to rise from the sacred cauldron itself). There was a Cauldron of plenty stored in an Irish cave, Oweynagat. Or the one belonging to the goddess Bláthnat, which the legendary hero, Cúchulainn stole from the Otherworld (along with the goddess and her magical cows).  The Smith God of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, Goibniu, purportedly possessed one that was forever filled with youth-restoring beverage. In Irish myth Cú Roí, (a mythical hero of Munster, or possibly an ancestral god),  kept a huge magical cauldron inside his keep. 

As we'd expect there are parallels in Norse mythology. In Valhalla Eldhrímnir is the name of the sooty cauldron in which the boar Saehrímnir is cooked everyday for the Einherjar. 

Bronze cauldron from Shipton-on-Cherwell.
One of the oldest so far found on British shores and dating to around
the 1st millennia BC. It was discovered in the river bed
and was possibly plunged into the river as a votive offering.

Heroes and gods, goddesses and the land itself possessed cauldrons of abundance and inspiration. We can imagine that the cauldron was probably the focal point of many people’s existence. These large pots, blackened by smoke, would have hung above the fire, around which the family gathered. Ritual cauldrons, such as that found in Gundestrup, Denmark,  were employed in communal gatherings. For ceremonies they were filled with both food and drink. Sometimes the blood of sacrifices may have been poured into them. It is obvious that cauldrons were important to the lives of the people. The pot was a container in which food or herbal brews were prepared, it was a tool of transformation whose presence in the household possibly imparted other qualities than purely functional. It is no wonder that there appear a great many stories of cauldrons whose contents never empty. Surely that would be a dream to many, especially in times of hardship. 

That these stories should overlap is not altogether so weird. Between Norse, Germanic and Celtic tribes there was interaction and with this came the cross-pollination of ideas. There is also some evidence to suggest that some myths come from way, way back, before the Celtic migrations. They are like core myths, mutating as tribes split, migrated, forming new ideas, adapting their mythology to the terrain and the fauna that surrounded them. According to some scholars this powerful notion of  rejuvenating cauldrons transformed in to the later Grail myth in the Medieval  Arthurian tales (themselves the retelling of earlier Celtic stories). 

Cauldron from the Hochdorf burial
Cauldron from the Hochdorf burial, a Celtic site dated to around 530 BC.


Ceriden seems  likely to be the same goddess as the Scots Cailleach (Callech, Caillech, Cailliach, Cailleach, in Ireland she was known as Bhéirre, Birrn, Béarra, Bhear, Beare or Birra)  who also possessed a cauldron of plenty. She was an ancient deity and some scholars believe she is of pre-celtic ancestry. She was primarily a goddess of abundance and fertility, although she is also linked with many landscape myths; in which she was a creator deity. 

Once again we glimpse an idea that could have cross-pollinated between cultures. For in this we perhaps glimpse the essence of the righteous warrior dead fighting in the afterlife. It is not unrealistic to see how this idea evolved into later Norse myths of Valhalla.


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