Do you mind if I confess a secret? Here goes: I’m not really all that sure why any of us modern Pagans bother with keeping a cauldron. There! I’ve confessed it! At long last, I can finally get that off my chest.
Mythically, I can completely understand the cauldron’s relevance to the craft. When you come right down to it, it’s this really powerful symbol of transformation. After all, when you add something to it and apply heat, it comes out permanently changed from its previous state. It may be slightly seared or entirely destroyed, but one thing is for certain: it will never be the same item again. This motif fits in nicely with mythic stories like Ceridwen’s cauldron. In Wicca, Ceridwen is held to be a goddess of transformation, change, and rebirth, and her cauldron served as an agent of that. She had two children, a beautiful daughter Creirwy and an ugly son Morfran. Since her son was so hideous, Ceridwen sought to at least make him wise, so she brewed up in her cauldron a potion to grant him wisdom. Unfortunately for the son, the first three drops of the potion splashed onto a servant who then got the gifts (the rest of the potion now being poison). Of course, the story continues from there, but in just the opening the idea of transformation is established and the cauldron made the tool of effecting the major change.
I can also see how cauldrons and witches got so intertwined in cultural association. In centuries past, I’m almost certain that anyone who was able to care for him or herself had at least one sizeable cooking vessel, and that vessel probably was probably similar to a cauldron. After all, big old iron pots are among the most versatile cooking vessels I know, since it’s the only vessel that can reasonably sear, stew, braise, and even bake. Since a lot of witches were probably community-focused, helpful people, they were most certainly able to care for themselves and had such a pot…with which they used to make up food and remedies to share with neighbors in need. Neighbors who might not have the crucial tool themselves.
Today…well, I don’t know. This tool that once had so much practical general value doesn’t really have a usable spot in today’s increasingly specialized world. Nowadays most Western magical practitioners are privileged enough to live places where there are modern stoves, hot water heaters, and interior plumbing. We don’t need a giant pot to heat all our water and create the convenient daily stew. Our diets are much more varied, and the tools we need to pull that off are a lot more specialized and numerous. Why, just for stovetop cooking alone, I personally own the following pots and pans: three All Clad steel fry pans in 8, 10, and 12 inch sizes, two non-stick skillets in 8 and 10 inch sizes, a 12 inch cast iron skillet, a Viking stainless 3 quart saute pan, three All Clad stainless sauciers in 1, 2, and 3 quart sizes, three Le Creuset round french ovens in 3 1/2, 5 1/2, and 7 1/4 quart sizes, a vintage Descoware bean pot, and three Cuisinart stock pots in 6, 8, and 12 quart sizes…not to mention a cast iron griddle/grill, a cast iron grill pan, a water bath canner, and a 23 quart pressure canner. That’s a grand total of twenty-one pots and pans! (And we haven’t even gotten to my bakeware!)
Needless to say, if I have a call to whip up some sort of potion, lotion, or tincture, I’m almost certainly going to use the modern equipment I already own to do so instead of scrounging about like I lived in the medieval ages.
So if we don’t use cauldrons practically today, what do we use them for? Well, from what I can tell from my acquaintances and the Internet, most practitioners use their cauldrons in one of 4 ways: as a burning vessel, as an offering vessel, as decoration, or as a divination tool. Unfortunately, there are other tools that can do a better job in each of these categories.
Let’s take the use of the cauldron as a burning vessel, for example. Many pagans use miniature cauldrons as incense censers, which is really quite practical in one sense as it is less likely to shatter due to thermal shock than a ceramic dish. However, unlike my ceramic, sand-lined censer, the iron conducts a lot of heat–even when sand-lined–and can become too hot to touch without a mitt. Still other Pagans use their larger cauldrons–often between the size of a cereal bowl and a 3-4 quart pot–as sort of small fire pits. I’ve often seen people pour a good bit of salt into the cauldrons (which helps prevent the pot from damage), pour a good measure of rubbing alcohol over the salt, and light the alcohol on fire. Then they feed written prayers or petitions into the flames, or use it to destroy older items whose magic is spent.
I do find this to be a fantastic magical use of the cauldron, but the cauldron itself isn’t necessary if you have a fireplace or a place outside for a bonfire. In fact, either of those should definitely be used before resorting to a cauldron. Even though alcohol fires themselves are pretty clean burning, they can produce a lot of smoke depending on what is being burnt, how much of it there is, and how clean the cauldron was before the fire (hint: oily cast iron seasoning plus fire equals lots of smoke) So unless you’re willing to endure a really smoky room (and potential smoke damage), cauldron burnings are best done out of doors. And by that point, a bonfire might just be better all around.
Another cauldron use is as an offering vessel, and this is also a pretty great use for the tool, since the physical items placed inside it are transformed into spiritual offerings for the Gods. I would expect such a cauldron to be one of those very small ones, though, as the Gods don’t really need much. In Hartwood Grove, for example, we maintain an offering vessel on the altar that gets a splash of consecrated drink and a good pinch of everything offered for cakes. In my personal practice, I do something similar or set aside about a serving’s worth of food for the Gods. Of course, since a large pot isn’t needed for this, any type of cup would do, and the heaviness of an iron pot might actually be a mark against it here. It might even be a double detraction if large amounts of offering are involved, since the weight of a large cast iron pot might make the whole mess unmanageable for some people.
Decoration is always an option, of course. I’ve seen others fill the cauldron with seasonal items before rituals, things such as cut flowers in the summer, eggs around Ostara, small pumpkins around Samhain, and so on. But, of course, the cauldron is not necessary and other containers might work better. I’m particularly fond of clear glass bowls for displaying dyed eggs, for example, or tall narrow vases to better support flower stems. I’ve also seen the cauldron used decoratively to serve food. I’ve seen friends use cauldrons as soup tureens at pagan feasts or use mini-cauldrons to prepare individual servings of different casseroles and the like. I’ve also seen cauldrons used as punch bowls. This can create a lovely effect, but it’s not really a necessary thing as any pot, bowl, or casserole would work, too.
Finally, the cauldron can be used in scrying, and often quite effectively. I’ve seen people fill their black cauldrons with water and water scry, and I’ve seen people fire scry with them by setting alcohol fires or putting a candle or twelve into the pot. But the cauldron itself isn’t crucial to either practice.
When all’s said and done, I suppose the only reason to have a cauldron these days is if you want one!