An overview

The Cauldron is a symbol that occurs throughout Celtic Mythology – from the Cauldrons of the Dagda and Cerridwen to the Holy Grail of King Arthur. In one part of the Mabinogion, which is the cycle of myths found in Welsh legend, Cerridwen brews up a potion in her magical cauldron to give to her son Afagddu (Morfran). She puts young Gwion in charge of guarding the cauldron, but three drops of the brew fall upon his finger, blessing him with the knowledge held within. Cerridwen pursues Gwion through a cycle of seasons until, in the form of a hen, she swallows Gwion, disguised as an ear of corn. Nine months later, she gives birth to Taliesin, the greatest of all the Welsh poets.

The Cauldron of Knowledge

Cerridwen’s magical cauldron held a potion that granted knowledge and inspiration — however, it had to be brewed for a year and a day to reach its potency. Because of her wisdom, Cerridwen is often granted the status of Crone, which in turn equates her with the darker aspect of the Triple Goddess (as envisaged in modern paganism). As a goddess of the Underworld, Cerridwen is often symbolized by a white sow, which represents both her fecundity and fertility and her strength as a mother. She is both the Mother and the Crone; many modern Pagans honour Cerridwen for her close association to the full moon.

The Cauldron of Bran the Blessed

In the Celtic legend of Bran the Blessed, the cauldron appears as a vessel of wisdom and rebirth. Bran, mighty warrior-god, obtains a magical cauldron from Cerridwen (in disguise as a giantess) who had been expelled from a lake in Ireland, which represents the Otherworld of Celtic lore. The cauldron can resurrect the corpse of dead warriors placed inside it (this scene is believed to be depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron). Bran gives his sister Branwen and her new husband Math — the King of Ireland — the cauldron as a wedding gift, but when war breaks out Bran sets out to take the valuable gift back. He is accompanied by a band of a loyal knights with him, but only seven return home.

Bran himself is wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, another theme that recurs in the Arthur legend — found in the guardian of the Holy Grail, the Fisher King. In fact, in some Welsh stories, Bran marries Anna, the daughter of Joseph of Arimathea. Also like Arthur, only seven of Bran’s men return home. Bran travels after his death to the Otherworld, and Arthur makes his way to Avalon. There are theories among some scholars that Cerridwen’s cauldron — the cauldron of knowledge and rebirth — in in fact the Holy Grail for which Arthur spent his life searching.

The Cauldron of the Dagda

In the Mythological Cycle of early Irish literature, the four treasures (or jewels) of the Tuatha Dé Danann are four magical items which the mythological Tuatha Dé Danann are supposed to have brought with them from the four island cities Murias, Falias, Gorias and Findias, when they arrived in Ireland. They were accompanied by the Dagda – Danu’s son by Bile, The Dagda, or Good God, who is also known as the All Father, Eochaid Ollathair (Father of All), and Ruadh Rofessa (The Red One). One of the fabulous, magical treasures that they brought with them was the Cauldron of the Dagda from which no company ever went away unsatisfied. The cauldron was known as the Undry and was said to be bottomless. Another link between the legends of the Dagda and a Cauldron occurs on the eve of the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, The Dagda visited the camp of the Fomorii, where he was forced to eat a huge cauldron stuffed with enough porridge of milk, flour, fat, pigs and goats for fifty men. This test temporarily turned him into a fat old man, but it did not prevent him from making love to a Formorii girl, who promised to use her magic against her people.

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant

Listed as one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, The cauldron (pair) of Dyrnwch the Giant is said to discriminate between cowards and brave men: whereas it would not boil meat for a coward, it would boil quickly if that meat belonged to a brave man. The description probably goes back to a story similar to that found in the Middle Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen, in which the cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, steward (maer) to Odgar son of Aedd, King of Ireland, is among the anoetheu which Culhwch is required to obtain for the wedding banquet.

King Arthur requests the cauldron from King Odgar, but Diwrnach refuses to give up his prized possession. Arthur goes to visit Diwrnach in Ireland, accompanied by a small party, and is received at his house, but when Diwrnach refuses to answer Arthur’s request a second time, Bedwyr (Arthur’s champion) seizes the cauldron and entrusts it to one of Arthur’s servants, who is to carry the load on his back. In a single sweep with the sword called Caledfwlch, Llenlleawg the Irishman kills off Diwrnach and all his men. A confrontation with Irish forces ensues, but Arthur and his men fight them off. They board their ship Prydwen and, taking with them the cauldron loaded with the spoils of war, return to Britain. In Culhwch, Diwrnach’s cauldron is not attributed with any special power. However, the earlier poem Preiddeu Annwfn (The Spoils of Annwfn), refers to an adventure by Arthur and his men to obtain a cauldron with magical properties equivalent to the one in the lists of the thirteen treasures. In this poem the owner of the cauldron is not an Irish lord but the king of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, suggesting that the version of the story in Culhwch is a later attempt to euhemerise an older tale. Diwrnach’s name, which derives from Irish Diugurach and exhibits no literary provenance, may have been selected by the author of Culhwch ac Olwen to emphasize the Irish setting of his story. Although Dyrnwch is not himself described as an Irishman, it is probable that his name goes back to Diwrnach. The extant manuscripts of Tri Thlws ar Ddeg also present such variant spellings as Dyrnog and Tyrnog, without the Irish-sounding ending, but on balance, these are best explained as Welsh approximations of a foreign name.

The Cauldron of Manannan

Manannán mac Lir is a sea deity in Irish mythology. He is the son of the obscure Lir (in Irish the name is “Lear”, meaning “Sea”; “Lir” is the genitive form of the word). He is often seen as a psychopomp, and has strong affiliations with the Otherworld, the weather and the mists between the worlds. He is usually associated with the Tuatha Dé Danann, although most scholars consider him to be of an older race of deities. Manannán figures widely in Irish literature, and appears also in Scottish and Manx legend. He is cognate with the Welsh figure Manawydan fab Llŷr. Manannán was associated with a “cauldron of regeneration”. This is seen in the tale of Cormac mac Airt, among other tales. Here, he appeared at Cormac’s ramparts in the guise of a warrior who told him he came from a land where old age, sickness, death, decay, and falsehood were unknown (the Otherworld was also known as the “Land of Youth” or the “Land of the Living”).

The Holy Grail – Cauldron of Sovereignty

The Holy Grail is a dish, plate, stone, or cup that is part of an important theme of Arthurian literature. A grail, wondrous but not explicitly “holy,” first appears in Perceval le Gallois, an unfinished romance by Chrétien de Troyes: it is a processional salver used to serve at a feast. Chretien’s story attracted many continuators, translators and interpreters in the later 12th and early 13th centuries, including Wolfram von Eschenbach, who makes the grail a great precious stone that fell from the sky. The Grail legend became interwoven with legends of the Holy Chalice. The connection with Joseph of Arimathea and with vessels associated with the Last Supper and crucifixion of Jesus, dates from Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie (late 12th century) in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Great Britain. Building upon this theme, later writers recounted how Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ’s blood while interring him and how he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe in Britain. The legend may combine Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers.

The Holy Grail in the Mabinogion

The Welsh romance Peredur, generally included in the Mabinogion, likely at least indirectly founded on Chrétien’s poem but including very striking differences from it, preserving as it does elements of pre-Christian traditions such as the Celtic cult of the head. Peredur son of Efrawg is one of the three Welsh Romances associated with the Mabinogion. It tells a story roughly analogous to Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail, but it contains many striking differences from that work, most notably the absence of the French poem’s central object, the grail. The central character of the tale is Peredur, son of Efrawg. As in Percival, the hero’s father dies when he is young, and his mother takes him into the woods and raises him in isolation. Eventually he meets a group of knights and determines to become like them, so he travels to King Arthur’s court. There he is ridiculed by Cei and sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Cei’s insults to himself and those who defended him. While traveling he meets two of his uncles, the first plays the role of Percival’s Gornemant and educates him in arms and warns him not to ask the significance of what he sees. The second replaces Chrétien’s Fisher King, but instead of showing Peredur a ‘grail’, he reveals a salver containing a man’s severed head. The young knight does not ask about this and proceeds to further adventure, including a stay with the Nine Witches of Gloucester (Caer Loyw) and the encounter with the woman who was to be his true love, Angharad Golden-Hand. Peredur returns to Arthur’s court, but soon embarks on another series of adventures that do not correspond to material in Percival (Gawain’s exploits take up this section of the French work.) Eventually the hero learns the severed head at his uncle’s court belonged to his cousin, who had been killed by the Nine Witches of Gloucester. Peredur avenges his family, and is celebrated as a hero.

Conclusion

Originating from what may have the central source of nourishment in a Celtic household, the cauldron became over the centuries a symbol of transformation and spiritual (if not physical) regeneration. In the legend of Taliesin, it represents the source of all knowledge and in comparison to Pandora’s Box (which was actually a ‘jar’ — far more like a cauldron), it contained all Wisdom and Knowledge whereas the box that Zeus gave Pandora contained all the evils of the world. The difference in cultural approach is notable and highly significant in showing how their peoples approached their deities.

Once the cauldron of Cerridwen had spilled its’ three drops onto Gwion’s finger, it became filled with a fatal poison that spilled out onto the land. The cauldrons of the Dagda, Mannanan and Bran the Blessed seem to be much simpler in their symbology — they provide nourishment and new life or regeneration respectively. I wonder whether the latter three examples of cauldrons have lost their dualistic nature over the centuries of telling and re-telling? It is possible that the womb-like symbology of the Cauldron as a symbol of regeneration is also a later development, an evolution as it were from the cooking pot or source of nourishment, into the source of life itself.

The Holy Grail legends may well confirm this idea as it a symbol that has its roots firmly in Celtic legend as well as the widespread medieval romances of the 13th century and has lasted throughout the centuries. It may represent the highest ideal of the Cauldron symbol. Its’ loss leaves both the King and the Land in a withering state and its restoration promises new life for not only the King but the Land itself. That restoration is linked to the God, the later tales being Christian in nature so the source of the nourishment is seen as being spiritual in origin.

Each cauldron/grail may have carried a warning that misuse may result in loss of life or some other price. They seem to offer great promise, but with such power comes great responsibility (to quote Spiderman!).

I. M. H. O.

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    Gary & Ruth Colcombe

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    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

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