One of the most recognizable images we see in artwork and décor at Samhain is a group of witches gathered around a cauldron, chanting incantations as they stir mysterious ingredients into the bubbling potion within.
But what is the significance of the cauldron, and why is it so strongly associated with witches and with Samhain? To answer those questions, we must travel back to the time of the ancient Celts.
CERRIDWEN, GODDESS OF SAMHAIN
Samhain originated in pre-Christian Ireland as fire festival to mark the final harvest of the year (after Lughnasadh in August and the Autumn Equinox in September), and the beginning of winter.
The ancient Welsh Goddess Cerridwen comes to us at Samhain, as we move from the light into the dark. Cerridwen represents the dark Crone aspect of the Goddess, and as such she is associated with deep, mystical wisdom. She is a Goddess of magic, mystery, transformation, divination, and prophecy, among many other things. She invites us to place the aspects of ourselves that we keep in the shadows, such as personality traits or habits we don’t like, or old stories or thoughts that no longer serve, into her magical cauldron for transformation.
In the old world, the cauldron was first and foremost a useful and practical tool, and nearly every ancient home would have had at least one. It was used as a vessel for cooking foods and liquids, as well as doing the washing-up and many other household chores.
Out of necessity, healers, midwives, and witches would likely have used the cauldrons they already had in their homes to make healing salves and brew potions, as well as cook the family meals. This practical approach would have served them well when the persecution of witches began in earnest in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their magical, potion-making vessels would have been hidden in plain sight, at at time when keeping these practices secret was a matter of life and death.
Often referred to as a “Cauldron Goddess” and “Goddess of the Witches”, Cerridwen is strongly associated with Samhain and Halloween. The cauldron is her most prominent symbol, representing magic and transformation; because it is a vessel, it also represents the womb of the Goddess and the Divine Feminine.
For me, the cauldron represents the original source of women’s mysteries, magic, divine inspiration, spiritual and physical nourishment, and the essence of creation itself. It’s a perfect symbol for the Witch, and for Samhain: the most magical time of the year.
ORIGINS AND ANCIENT TRADITIONS OF SAMHAIN
In ancient Ireland and other Celtic lands, Samhain marked the start of the New Year (and still does). The people believed that the year began in the dark winter months and emerged into the light of summer. For this reason, this is a potent and powerful time to release what no longer serves, or transform it into something better.
The in-between time of Samhain–between seasons, between light and dark–is a time of magic and mystery in which the mists that separate our world and the Otherworld are at their thinnest, and we are able to travel between them with greater ease. The boundary between the worlds becomes so porous, in fact, that spirits and the Fae can more easily make themselves known to us–and make plenty of mischief, if they’re so inclined.
The ancient Celts were very much aware of this, and they would make lots of noise, light bonfires, and wear frightening masks to keep any spirits or other beings with dubious intentions at bay. Some people would place food beneath hawthorn trees, which are sacred to the Fae, or they would leave it out in their own homes, in the hopes that the Faeries would leave them in peace. To guard their homes against any unwanted energies, they would carve ghoulish faces into hollowed-out turnips and place a lit candle inside. This practice continues today with the tradition of carving Jack O’Lanterns at Halloween. Luckily for us, pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips!
In Scotland, the tradition of “guising” began near the end of the 19th century. Children would dress up as spirits of the dead and visit the houses of their neighbors and tell stories or jokes, or sing songs, in exchange for treats like apples, nuts, or other sweets. The modern version of guising, of course, is trick-or-treating on Halloween night.
Honoring the Ancestors
Samhain was, and continues to be, an important time to honor our ancestors. Those who have passed into the Otherworld can be more easily reached now, so it’s an ideal time to create or deepen your connections with them.
Many modern Witches and pagans still practice a tradition called a “dumb supper”, which some historians trace back to the 17th century. During this special meal, which is eaten in silence, an extra place is set at the table to welcome the spirit of an ancestor to the gathering.
However you choose to celebrate Samhain, I hope the information shared here has helped to deepen your understanding and reverence for this ancient holiday and its Celtic roots.
If you’d like to learn more about the Celtic and Avalonian Goddess mysteries and spiritual traditions, please consider joining my year-long course, The Celtic Almanac.
Wishing you many blessings at Samhain and in the new year to come!