As it’s Halloween, I thought I would take a look at the witch’s cauldron in history and myth. It turns out that as well as being an ancient household cooking vessel and a witch’s potion pot, the cauldron has been a mystical symbol of life and, in some stories, an instrument of death…
At its most basic a cauldron is a large metal container for boiling or heating liquids over an open fire. Some cauldrons had a handle for hanging up, some stood on feet. The word comes from the Old French caudron, from the Latin caldarium, meaning a hot bath, from calidus, meaning hot.
But it was once much more than this. As well as being probably the most important family possession for cooking, brewing and holding hot or cold water, the cauldron gained ritual significance. Many beautifully crafted cauldrons have been found in wells, lakes and springs as offerings to the gods of water – and who knows what else the Celtic druids used them for…
Here are some of my favourite cauldrons…
The Battersea cauldron, England, late Bronze Age/early Iron Age
The Battersea cauldron dates from around 800BC to 700BC, around the time the Bronze Age was moving into the Iron Age. It is made from seven curved sheets of bronze riveted together.
It has the traditional cauldron shape, narrowing at the top, presumably to stop hot liquids splashing out, and a flared lip. It would have been used for feasting – important for chiefs to make an impression – and probably flesh hooks would have been used to lift meat from the pot.
The cauldron was found in the River Thames during dredging in 1861 and it’s now on display at the British Museum in London.
The Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark, early Roman Iron Age
Richly decorated and made from silver, the Gundestrup cauldron was obviously not a practical vessel. It probably dates from between 200BC and 300AD, in the early Roman Iron Age. Although it was dug out of a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup in Denmark in 1891, most people think its origins are Gaulish (modern France) or Thracian (modern Bulgaria).
The cauldron’s plates were taken apart before it was deposited in the bog and it is assumed the very rich object was some kind of ritual offering. Images on the cauldron show elephants, lions, human faces and a character believed to be Cernunnos, the horned god. Read more about the images here.
I saw this cauldron on a visit to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen while on an archaeological field class in 1976. I was so impressed I bought the postcard! Photography has improved since then. It didn’t seem nearly as shiny…
The Mušov cauldron, Roman
The so-called Mušov cauldron, made of bronze, is a Roman object found in a Germanic chieftain’s grave in Mušov, in the Czech Republic, in 1988.
It dates from the 2nd century and is decorated with four heads showing Germanic men with their hair tied in a Suebian knot, decorating the handles.
To read more about the finds in the chieftain’s grave at Mušov click here.
Cauldron of rebirth, Celtic myth
There are several magical cauldrons in Celtic folklore. My favourite is Pair Dadeni – the Cauldron of rebirth – also known as the cauldron of Bran the Blessed, which features in The Mabinogion, a famous collection of Welsh myths.
There’s a lot of fighting in Wales and Ireland and the cauldron changes ownership several times, but the key point is that it can be used to revive dead warriors, who return alive but mute.
Read more about this Celtic cauldron story and others here.
Cauldron of death – Ishikawa Goemon
Ishikawa Goemon was a Japanese Robin Hood. Living from 1558 to 1594, he was a semi-legendary outlaw hero who stole gold and valuables to give to the poor.
He was boiled alive (but eventually dead!) along with his son in public in Kyoto after a failed assassination attempt on the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The gruesome story says at first he held his young son high above his head to protect him, then plunged the boy deep into the pot to kill him quickly, then held the boy’s boiled body above his head again to defy his enemies as he succumbed to his injuries and sank into the cauldron. Nice…
Cauldron survivor – St Vitus
St Vitus was a Christian saint from Sicily, one of several persecuted and martyred by the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. He died in the year 303 after being tortured in Rome.
He is represented as a young man in a cauldron, because there is a legend that he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling tar and molten lead, but miraculously escaped alive and unscathed. Clearly not for long, though?
The name “Saint Vitus dance” was given to the neurological disorder Sydenham’s chorea, which causes sudden jerking movements. This is because in the late Middle Ages some people celebrated the feast of Vitus by dancing in front of his statue. When I was a child in less politically correct times my parents used to ask if I had Saint Vitus dance if I wouldn’t stop fidgeting.
The ancient Chinese cauldron or ding stood on legs, had two facing handles and often a lid. These ritual bronzes came in two shapes – round with three legs and rectangular with four. They were used for cooking, storage and ritual offerings to gods or ancestors. The earliest examples found are ceramic, but they came into their own in the Bronze Age.
This next one looks more like a plant pot and is not a ding. It is a large iron cauldron used to store water in case of fire in the Forbidden City (the old imperial palace in Beijing). In winter hot coals were placed under the cauldron to stop the water freezing…
The witch’s cauldron
Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
That’s what the three witches say in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Not, you will note, “Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble”. See the full witches’ chant here.
I do wonder if all our mental images of witches with their cauldrons are based on that single scene where the Weird Sisters cast a spell to prophesy the future of Macbeth? But let’s face it, if you think of a witch you have to think potions and spells, and to mix them up you would need some kind of pot. In the days of open cooking fires, the cauldron just happened to be the cooking container of the time. If we created the idea of witches in our folklore now they would no doubt use a saucepan, casserole or wok – or even a microwave dish!
But traditional witches still prefer a cauldron and this is where Harry Potter and friends would have bought theirs…
The industrial cauldron
The sporting cauldron
It’s a bit of a journalistic cliché – football and rugby arenas are often described as cauldrons when they are full of thousands of rival fans cheering on their opposing sides. But of course there is a physical manifestation of the cauldron every time we have the Olympic Games. In this case the fire is INSIDE the container.
The flaming torch carried all over the world to the host city of the modern Olympics commemorates the stealing of fire from the gods by Prometheus in Greek mythology. The big moment when the games start is the lighting of a huge cauldron with that torch. These simple bowls and dishes of fire have changed a lot over the years as designers have used their imaginations…
Who can forget the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the lighting of the remarkable cauldron made of 204 individual “petals” representing each of the competing nations?
The volcanic caldera
The word caldera is Spanish for cauldron and we use this word to mean a large volcanic crater.
That caldera lake looks an ideal setting for a ritual offering of a precious metal cauldron to symbolise life and death, written in fire and water…
Here are some of my Halloween offerings from previous years