The Dangerous Journey into the Gundestrup Cauldron
There was a time when, from Delphi temple to Altai tombs, cauldrons were not unusual to see. The Guldestrup cauldron is a unique witness of this last world.
The Gundestrup cauldron itself does not tell us to be more than a large sacrifice bowl, whose main practical use was probably to gather the blood from a bull’s slaying, as we can see from the circular panel bottom on the left, which clearly designates a bull immolation. Anyway the decorations on the cauldron side panels suggest scenes of immersion in a regenerating substance, whose remembrance alone bestowed upon celebrants a powerful allure. In fact it was probably used in religious ceremonies connected to ruling functions.
You can see a Gallery on the last page.
In the egyptian “Book of Caverns” we read that cauldrons were used as a means of annihilation. In ancient chemistry they were used as vessels for extraction. And in mythology they were symbolically considered as a system or means of connection between earth and sky. The whole of a magic cauldron use can be summarized by these sentences, to be then reduced to one: a metaphor for giving death and rebirth. In poor words for immortality.
The Gundestrup cauldron is a magnificent silver bowl, 42 cm. high and 69 cm. diameter, composed of thirteen finely embossed panels: five inner rectangular, seven outer square and a circular one as bottom (picture above on the left). Although it was discovered in a peat bog in the danish Jutland, it has been thought to be manufactured by cimmerian people between the second and first century b.c. Cimmerians used to settle mainly in the region of low Danube, but they were known to be spread from Himmerland, where the cauldron was found, to Pontic-Caspian steppes where sometimes they clashed with scythian people. Similar ritual cauldrons were altogether discovered into scythian and pazyryk burials, called Kurgan, scattered in a huge area comprising Southern Russia, Ukraine, southern Siberia, Central Asia and Mongolia.
In my post on the Spirits of cauldron I mentioned the chinese Alchemy beliefs on the Spirits emerging from these large bowls. While in the far western island of Ireland, inhabited by celtic people, the magic cauldron concept was attributed to the three main underworld gods: Cernunnos, Karidven and Dagda. Both Karidven and Dagda magic pots were alleged to grant immortality, together with a huge prosperity. As a matter of fact behind the cauldron iconography once again pops up the Grail myth or immortality bowl.
The Gundestrup outer panels seem to represent sacrifices decorated with extravagant winged quadrupeds, gryphons and persons riding big fishes that may contribute to give an alchemical ambiance. The first two symbols mostly stand for our Mercurius Philosophorum. While the fish is something to be caught in a sea by a net, our Mercurius, so a fish may symbolize the individual or cosmic Soul/Sulphur. A person riding a fish may suggest that he/she controls his/her Soul. But, back at that time, it quite surely indicate the holder of that particular Soul. That’s to say we are before a human Soul.
The inner panels develop myths of birthing gods. The attribution of divinities is here uncertain. Perhaps the same god Cernunnos, with his deers, is depicted, together with Taranis with his wheel, and Teutates, here on left and right, who seems to be soaking a file of warriors inside a cauldron of longevity ( unless he means to wash them).
Although all decorations have been giving an idea of death and resurrection, the cauldron we are examining lacks all the very few requirements a serious immortality bowl should have ( at least the very few we know), first of all its territoriality.
Paracelsus, in his Coelum Philosophorum, itemizes the instruments required in Alchemy: ” There is need of nothing else but a foundry, bellows, tongs, hammers, cauldrons, jars, and cupels made from beechen ashes. Afterwards, lay on Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, and Luna. Let them operate finally up to Saturn.” Countless are the hermetic pictures in which cauldrons do play a leading role. In Aurora Consurgens Rhenovacensis we can find these two interesting examples of humans put to cauldron. In the watercolor on the left we are before a king inside a pot, or metallic gold being put to digest in Mercurius Philosophorum, the one on the right represents the same Universal Dissolvent while extracting the Soul/Sulphur from our alchemical metallic couple (1).
So we have learned that a head might be an allegory for a metallic Soul, that’s to say a Spirit of Life/Mercurius more digested. But very often we can see flying detached heads in religious pieces of art, and very hardly they are intended as mere metallic specimens. Religions are usually not so concerned about our metallic brothers and sisters resurrections, as we alchemists do. So are religions unrealistic or alchemists too limited? Should we search religions and myths to expand and give a supreme goal to our alchemical processes? Paracelsus states that all our planets, or phases, should start from Saturn, or putrefaction, to get up to Saturn. Which is another putrefaction. We know, from our Opus Magnum scheme, that deadly phases alternate with regenerating ones. And we also know the dismembered Osiris being black. And Osiris cannot stand only for our usual, and orthodox, metallic Soul within the Rebis. But if we want to go any further we have to ask for help to religions and myth all over the ancient world.
In scandinavian and celtic mythologies Thor was not the only one to be provided with gigantic cauldrons. The goddesses of death and rebirth, fertility and suffering, guarded the dead and sent them back to life, through the great cauldron. In Norway this cauldron is defined as the “seething cauldron”, because from it the drizzle formed from fire and ice coalesces and thus life can be formulated. One of these goddesses was Karidven mostly represented on a throne, from where she managed Death and Life. On her left hand she held the regenerating vessel which permitted the eternal sublimation of beings. She really was the divine door which the Soul looking for immortality must necessarily go through.
Mircea Eliade, deep connoisseur of celtic tradition, wrote on the topic: “ According to celtic people the cauldron is comparable to the horn, or vessel, of abundance, or cornucopia.
So there was an abundance cauldron, dispensing an unlimited nourishment, symbol for unbounded knowledge and from which nobody can get away without having being satiated. And a resurrection cauldron, wherein dead were thrown in order to be regenerated the day after; That’s to say the cauldron conferred immortality, turning the owner into an hero or a god.
The celtic mythologies are well provided with dismembering and following regenerations. The ancient British God of the Sea was said to have a magic cauldron in which he placed the bodies of men who had been slain in battle and brought them back to life again. The Son of a King who followed the old law was slain by a Giant. Sir Gawain killed the Giant and brought back the boy’s corpse, whereupon to his amazement the father took the corpse, cut it up, boiled it in a cauldron and then distributed the pieces among his chief men.
Those very ancient, and barbarian, myths were replaced by romans with the bull’s sacrifice. In fact before a battle, until the campaign in Tracia at least, a priest leading a bull, to be then sacrificed, walked it along the battle perimeter. But it is fair to say that romans took over those regenerating rituals just to ask for fortune in battles, while they remained literally scared of those celtic regenerating legends, and perhaps rites. Of course who is looking for terrestrial power cannot but be scared of immortals escaping his ruling (2).
Similitudes have been noticed between celtic and greek myths. We certainly do know very little about ancient migrations, but it seems as though there had been a common mythological layer before the third millennium b.c. In fact we find very interesting cauldron specimens in ancient Greece and often we find connection between the tripod cauldron and the bull. Still Vergilius in his Aeneid III:90: The Trojans call on king Anius, priest of Apollo and king of Delos. Aeneas prays for guidance; there is an earth tremor, and “mugire adytis cortina reclusis“, the shrine seemed to open and there was a bellowing sound from the cauldron. In homeric works the cauldron, cortina, could sometimes “moo” and breathes steam. As we will see in coming posts, the bull is an animal symbol for earth and sky connection.
In homeric times there still were some remembrance of resurrection cauldrons in funeral rites, with the heating of water in a cauldron, the washing of the body, and anointing it with oil. All this seems based on a procedure for the resurrection of the soul of the dead hero. See Iliad XVIII:343 ff., for the funeral of Patroclus.
A magic cauldron bound to give countless virtues to who daring to undergo the frightening initiation often stood in many greek legends. In Jason myth an old man recovers his youth by soaking into a cauldron. Medea, in the play of that name by Euripides, cut up an old ram and boiled it in a cauldron, then magically restored it to life rejuvenated as a young lamb. She promised Pelias that she could rejuvenate him in the same way. He consented, and she asked his daughters to cut him up. She omitted the spells, and Pelias died. Thetis plunged her children into a boiling cauldron to test their immortality. None survived.