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Everyone Loves A Cauldron: An Anthropological Study

When I was looking up information for another article, I sort of found myself in a rabbit hole on cauldrons. Weirdly, the cauldron has some of the deepest, most significant lore associated with it human history across continents. Like, somehow, the cauldron has become a defining aspect of humanity, an archetype plucked from the collective unconscious – yet often having little to do with food. Like, I may have just stumbled into some kind of anthropology thesis if I ever get the urge to go back to school.

In that spirit, here’s an overview of the mythological, folkloric, and religious significance of the humble cast-iron pot.

Something Wicked

Western folklore often associates the cauldron with witches – look at Macbeth, Hocus Pocus, even Harry Potter. Witches = brewing potions in cauldrons. Sure. However, cauldrons have a deeper significance in Western folklore. Consider the leprechaun, a fairy of no small power from Irish folklore. Where does he keep his magic gold? A cauldron. Then there’s the Eldhrímnir, the cauldron that the Norse gods would feast from each evening. The Olympic Flame has been set ablaze during the eponymous Games for thousands of years… in a cauldron. What about the Holy Grail of Christian mythology? Interestingly, the Holy Grail was originally referred to as a cauldron for hundreds of years.

Inquiring of the Ding

On the other side of the supercontinent, cauldrons held significance in Chinese mythology as well, in the form of the ‘ding’. Dings had incredible significance as symbols of power in ancient China, denoting dominion over a land. Dings were not symbols of literal domination, only symbolic, like a crown or a sceptre. Dings were, however, used in ritual offerings to the gods and even for cooking for important events. An ancient Chinese saying actually comes from dings, “inquiring of the ding” means to engage in a quest for power. One of the most famous dings in Chinese history were the Nine Tripod Cauldrons, cast by Yu the Great, which have the same kind of cultural significance as Excalibur does to Western folklore.

Sticks & Skulls

One of the most interesting uses of the cauldron in religious belief comes from Central America in the form of Palo Mayombe. While I am simplifying it greatly, this belief system is a mixture of West African gods and Cuban rituals. Central to this system is the belief in what is called an nganga, a large iron cauldron wrapped in heavy iron chains. Ngangas are used in rituals to attract spirits of the dead to be used to do the practitioner’s bidding, often filled with sticks, gemstones, rum, spices… and bones, skulls, and blood. Yeah, ngangas can get pretty gruesome in the wrong hands.

The throughline here (I think) is that people in pre-modern times clearly viewed the cauldron as something of great value – it was central to their lives in more ways than we can understand in the 21st century. For the average peasant before the 1800s, a sturdy cauldron and a few utensils were likely the only thing with which they could cook food. As such, it’s no wonder that so many stories of power and wealth became associated with cauldrons, whether it be brewing magical potions or having it be a fountain of life. Cauldrons were where life literally came from to these people, and they incorporated it into their belief systems to match.

So, what do you think? Are cauldrons way more important than we give them credit for? Or are they only good for some perpetual stew?

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Tayla Blaire

Tayla Blaire is a South African writer, teacher, epicurean, and (most importantly) mother to all cats. Tayla has been thinking (and subsequently writing) about food since she was a tiny tot after her mother taught her that measuring ingredients was for the weak. If you’re interested to see what Tayla has whipped up recently, check out her Instagram profile @tayla.blaire to see the recipes that she has lovingly filmed in her very own too-small kitchen.

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