Friday 22 November 2019

​Martin Duffy: The Sorcerous Cauldron at Nameless Arte

​Martin Duffy gave a talk called The Sorcerous Cauldron at The Nameless Arte conference on traditional witchcraft last weekend. In my earlier write-up, I promised to blog more about this exploration of one of the most familiar accoutrements of witchcraft.

Martin looked at artwork depicting witches, focusing on how cauldrons were portrayed and what that can tell us about views of their magical uses and symbolism. He started by pointing out that historically, cauldrons were cooking vessels associated with women's traditional role in preparing food. However, many pictures of witches from the 17th century show them using cauldrons filled with skulls and other human remains, suggesting that witches brewed up poisons rather than nourishment. It implied the cauldron was an inverted motif of female domesticity.

This is also shown in Scene 4 of Macbeth, which starts with witches around a boiling cauldron and the words:
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
They put in things that are vile and poisonous and it seems they are brewing a potion. One of the potions most associated with witches is flying ointment, which was reputedly used for both out-of-body experiences and for travelling to the Sabbath. They might also brew love potions and special fluids in which to baptise poppets.

As in Macbeth, words would be chanted over the pot. Symbols could also be traced on its edge. Scents arising could be used to attract spirits to aid in spellwork or for divination. The steam could be sent to raise storms, and the vapour could be sent as mist to conceal people or to confuse enemies.

The cauldron was often placed in the centre of the circle, just as one would be the hub of the home. In the circle, it is a symbol of gestation and birthing. It transforms things and unites them, and also symbolises the vagina. Its use in poppet-making symbolises the child gestating in the womb.

Martin pointed out that cauldrons are still used by many modern witches and are an important symbol in various magical traditions. However, rather than being full of gruesome things, nowadays they are more often depicted as being positive symbols. In the picture by Waterhouse, the cauldron is filled with light and is helping keep at bay the night-time creatures outside the magic circle.

Doreen Valiente describes a method of scrying by filling a cauldron with water, placing inside a silver coin representing the moon, then peering into its depth by moonlight or candlelight. Last year at The Nameless Arte I bought a cauldron, which I have used for scrying that way.

Doreen's Charge of the Goddess also includes the words: "...mine is the Cup of the Wine of Life, and the Cauldron of Cerridwen, which is the Holy Grail of Immortality."

The cauldron represents birth, life, death and rebirth as well as the underworld; in the fires that heat it, the living world in the nourishment it contains, and the heavens to which the steam from it rises.

Pictures: Witches Sabbath by Hans Baldung and The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse.

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