During the 7th century CE, an Irish fili or sacred poet composed a poem
on one of the mysteries of the Irish wisdom tradition. This poem is preserved
in a 16th century manuscript (1), along with the glosses in 11th century language explaining some of its more obscure references. When it was finally "discovered" by modern scholars, it was named "The Cauldron of Poesy" for its references to poetry being created in three internal cauldrons.
Three translations of this text exist, published by the Celtic scholars P.L. Henry (2) and Liam Breatnach (3), and by the well-known occultist Caitlin Matthews. (4) I am aware of two other discussions of the text in the Pagan press, one by the Canadian druid Sean O'Tuathail (5) and the other in my own work under the name Erynn Darkstar. (6) In this article, I offer my own translation of the poem and commentary, along with some theories and suggestions for working with the internal cauldrons as a path to poetic and magical achievement.
There is some debate in the scholarly community about whether the filidh were a subclass of druid, or an independent order of poets and magicians. Fili is cognate with vates, a Gaulish religious functionary, and ovate, a similar British station. The highest ranking filidh were called ollamh. The word fili probably means "seer." (7) The word derives from the Archaic Irish *weis by way of the Insular Celtic word *wel- which had the original imperative meaning "see!" or "look at!" and is related to the Irish verb to be. (8) Their work included divination, blessing and blasting magic, creating praise poetry for their patrons, the preservation of lore and genealogies, and occasionally the rendering of judgments. Cormac's Glossary derives fili from "fi, 'poison' in satire, and li 'splendor' in praise, and it is variously that the poet proclaims." (9)
The early Irish filidh wore cloaks of birds' feathers called tugen and were sometimes ecstatic hermits known as geilta (10), composing their poetry and seeking mantic visions through various techniques involving incubatory darkness, liminal times or places such as dawn and dusk or doorways, and the ingestion of raw substances such as the meat of sacrificed animals. (11) The chewing or eating of raw flesh is apparently a link to the Otherworld, for spirits and the inhabitants of the Sídhe mounds are said to eat raw foods. (12) By the 14th century, the filidh were divided into seven grades of achievement, requiring at least twelve years of study to attain the highest grades. During the eighth year of study, mantic and divinatory techniques began to be taught, and those capable of practicing them were known as ollamh. (13) This title is still in use in Ireland to denote a university professor.
During the time of the Christianization of Ireland, the druids were repressed or absorbed, and the filidh subsumed many of their social functions and status in Irish society. Filidh were often associated with monasteries, and this association was maintained until at least the 17th century, when the English began earnest attempts to destroy Irish Catholicism. (14)
My translation of this fili text is offered with the understanding that my command of the Old Irish language is not perfect. I render some lines and words very loosely and others with a stubborn literality, choosing that which suits me and attempting to make the whole understandable as an important magical text. It should be understood that every translator has biases, whether or not they are spoken. For the most complete understanding of the text, I can only recommend that you undertake to make your own translations.
The commentary that I offer on the poem is based not only on research, but also on personal intuitions and practical workings. Some of it will be quite subjective, and your own experiences may lead you to other conclusions. I encourage every would-be modern fili to study and work with this material from many angles and in its several translations in an ongoing search for enlightenment.
My true Cauldron of Incubation
It has been taken by the Gods (15) from the mysteries of the elemental abyss
A fitting decision that ennobles one from one's center
that pours forth a terrifying stream of speech from the mouth.
I am Amirgen White-knee
pale of substance, gray of hair,
accomplishing my incubation
in proper poetic forms
in diverse color.
The Gods do not apportion the same to everyone --
tipped, inverted, right-side-up;
no knowledge, half-knowledge, full-knowledge --
for Eber and Donn,
the making of fearful poetry,
vast, mighty draughts of death-spells
in active voice, in passive silence, in the neutral balance between,
in the proper construction of rhyme,
in this way it narrates the path and function of my cauldron.
I sing of the Cauldron of Wisdom
which bestows the merit of every art,
through which treasure increases,
which magnifies every common artisan,
which builds up a person through their gift.
Where is the root of poetry in a person; in the body or in the soul? They say it is in the soul, for the body does nothing without the soul. Others say it is in the body where the arts are learned, passed through the bodies of our ancestors. It is said this is the seat of what remains over the root of poetry; and the good knowledge in every person's ancestry comes not into everyone, but comes into every other person.
What then is the root of poetry and every other wisdom? Not hard; three cauldrons are born in every person, i.e., the Cauldron of Incubation, the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom.
The Cauldron of Incubation is born upright in a person from the beginning. It distributes wisdom to people in their youth.
The Cauldron of Motion, however, after turning increases. That is to say it is born tipped on its side in a person.
The Cauldron of Wisdom is born on its lips (upside-down) and it distributes wisdom in every art besides (in addition to) poetry.
The Cauldron of Motion, then, in every other person is on its lips, i.e., in ignorant people. It is side-slanting in people of bardcraft and strophes (mid-level poetry). It is on its back in the "great streams" (highest poetic grades) of great wisdom and poetry. On account of this not every mid-level person has it on its back because the Cauldron of Motion must be turned by sorrow or joy.
Question: How many divisions of sorrow that turn the cauldrons of sages? Not hard; four. Longing, grief, the sorrows of jealousy and the discipline of pilgrimage to holy places. It is internally that these are borne although the cause is from outside.
There are then two divisions of joy that turn the Cauldron of Wisdom, i.e., divine joy and human joy.
In human joy there are four divisions among the wise. Sexual intimacy; the joy of health untroubled by the abundance of goading when a person takes up the prosperity of bardcraft; the joy of the binding principle of wisdom after good (poetic) construction; and, joy of fitting poetic frenzy from the grinding away at the fair nuts of the nine hazels on the Well of Segais in the S¤dhe realm. They cast themselves in great quantities like a ram's fleece upon the ridges of the Boyne, moving against the stream swifter than racehorses driven in the middle-month on the magnificent day every seven years.
The Gods touch a person through divine and human joys so that they are able to speak prophetic poems and dispense wisdom and perform miracles, as well as offering wise judgment and giving precedents and wisdom in answer to everyone's wishes. But the source of these joys (the Gods) is outside the person although the actual cause of the joy is internal.
I sing of the Cauldron of Motion
streaming poetic inspiration as milk from the breast,
it is the tide-water point of knowledge
union of sages
stream of sovereignty
glory of the lowly
mastery of words
craftsman of histories
looking after binding principles
distinguishing the intricacies of language
moving toward music
propagation of good wisdom
through the working of law
comparing of ranks
pure weighing of nobility
with fair words of the wise
with streams of sages,
the noble brew in which is boiled
the true root of all knowledge
which bestows after duty
which is climbed after diligence
which poetic ecstasy sets in motion
which joy turns
which is revealed through sorrow;
it is lasting power
I sing of the Cauldron of Motion
What is this motion? Not hard; an artistic turning or artistic after-turning or artistic journey, i.e., it bestows good wisdom and nobility and honor after turning.
The Cauldron of Motion
bestows, is bestowed
extends, is extended
nourishes, is nourished
magnifies, is magnified
invokes, is invoked
sings, is sung
preserves, is preserved
arranges, is arranged
supports, is supported.
Good is the well of measuring
good is the dwelling of speech
good is the confluence of power
which builds up strength.
It is greater than every domain
it is better than every inheritance,
it brings one to knowledge
adventuring away from ignorance.
Amirgen, one of the most powerful Irish filidh, is credited with the authorship of the poem. The practice of crediting famous and powerful poets with the creation of poems is common in Irish and Welsh literary practice, as one can see from the immense body of poetry of many periods said to have been composed by the Welsh poets Taliesin and Aneirin, or poems ascribed to Fionn Mac Cumhail. While this may be simply a device to garner honor for the poem, I have to wonder if, in some cases, it was not believed that a poet may have been possessed by the spirit of these great filidh during the process of composition.
The poetry is said to be composed for Eber and Donn, both of whom were brothers of Amirgen. Eber was one of the kings of the Milesians, and Donn became a God of the dead. He is said to greet the descendants of Mil at Teach Duinn, the House of Donn, after their deaths. This house is often described as being on or in a rock by the same name that is found off the furthest southwest point of Ireland. I believe that this line refers to the poet's duty of creating praise poetry for kings and patrons, and of making poetry for the Gods and for the dead so that we remember them.
In this poem, three cauldrons are described. I have rendered them as the Cauldron of Incubation, the Cauldron of Motion, and the Cauldron of Wisdom. The word used to indicate "incubation" (goiriath) may equally mean "warming," "sustenance," or "maintenance." These three cauldrons are said to be born in every person, taken by deific forces from out of a great mystery. The cauldrons are described as bestowing nobility upon people through the process of the creation of poetry, the pouring forth of "a terrifying stream of speech from the mouth."
My own experience, and the comments of others, lead me to place the cauldrons within the body as one might understand the positioning of chakras. It should be understood that the cauldrons are not identical to chakras, and their functioning is different. Rather than "wheels" of energy, they are containers, holding or pouring out different substances. Within these cauldrons one may heat, boil, or brew one's health, talents, emotions, and wisdom or poetry.
The Cauldron of Incubation is in the abdomen, upright in every person. It is upright because it is necessary for maintaining one's health and basic survival needs. This cauldron might spill onto its side in cases of severe illness, and turn "on its lips" or upside down at the point of physical death or during a near-death experience.
The Cauldron of Motion is in the chest. It is said to be born on its side in some people. This is the cauldron which processes and expresses our emotions, and from which the beginnings of the poetic art arise. In its side-slanting position, it holds only a little, and it must be turned through the understanding, expression, and transformation of powerful emotions in order to attain a fully upright position. I believe that this central, pivotal cauldron is the one that determines access to the next cauldron according to our inborn talents.
The Cauldron of Wisdom is in the head, and is born "on its lips" in all people. This cauldron is turned through training and through deific inspiration. Its gifts are not limited to poetry, but are said to be "every art besides." In the imagery of the Well of Wisdom as described by Manannan (16), the people with this cauldron active are those who have drunk from both the well and all of the streams of the senses issuing from the well. This cauldron "magnifies every common artisan," taking them beyond human capacity into a semi-divine level of functioning, and "builds up a person through their gift." The Irish believe that every person was capable of exceeding the limitations of their initial station in life, saying "a man is better than his birth" (17), and this philosophy is clearly shown throughout the poem and its commentary.
The qualities of these cauldrons can be thought of as similar to a triad of yogic concepts (18) in the same way that the cauldrons themselves bear a passing resemblance to chakras. This may point to a common Indo-European heritage for these concepts of internal energy structures and their workings.
The first of these yogic concepts, tamas, meaning obscurity or heaviness, could be related to the qualities found in the Cauldron of Incubation. Physicality is conceptually "heavier" and denser than thought, motion or inspiration. In yogic thought it "obscures" the spirit or soul, hiding it within a veil of flesh and mortal weakness. The Irish Celts dealt with this dichotomy by announcing that the seat of poetry was in both the body and the spirit.
Rajas is the concept of energy. Motion and transformation are ways that energy is transmitted into or through objects. The Cauldron of Motion moves and transforms our emotions, and our emotions are said to "move" us in many ways. Energy is found at liminal points between this realm and the Otherworld, between day and night, summer and winter. The Cauldron of Motion is at a significant, liminal point between the body and the illumination of pure wisdom. It is the gateway between.
Sattva is the concept of illumination or purity. The Cauldron of Wisdom provides illumination and enlightenment through the processes of poetic composition and creativity, ennobling a person, "purifying" them of their baser components.
The poetry that results from the activation of the cauldrons is described as "a terrifying stream of speech," "fearful," and "vast, mighty draughts of death-spells." These are no mere rhymes. They are words and images of immense magical power, truth summoned from the Otherworlds and named by the fili, who is acting with passion and intensity. Through our poetry, we reach into the liquid fires of creation, the fire that arises from the Well of Wisdom. The fire fills us until we can hold no more, and then fills us even further. The creation of this true, fearful poetry is inherently ennobling, raising the poet from the basest of conditions into enlightenment.
We can see from these phrases that the translation of the word imbas as "poetic frenzy" is not an overstatement of the condition. This Celtic form of enlightenment is no gentle melding with the oneness of the universe. Instead, it is a passionate, sometimes uncontrollable engagement with the fabric of reality. The energies accessed when all the cauldrons are turned into their upright positions does indeed feel like fire flowing through the head, expanding, quickening, and burning, as when Amirgen proclaimed "I am a God who shapes fire for a head."
The tilted condition of the cauldrons is equated with the state of knowledge of the poetic practitioner: "no knowledge, half-knowledge, full-knowledge." It is stated outright that not everyone has the same capacity and talent, but also implied that what we have can be worked with and improved, whatever our initial state. We each have gifts that are given to us, and it is our sacred duty to take those gifts and hone them to a fine edge. In doing this, we show our divine origin as children of the Gods, becoming aes dána, or "people of art."
There are several references in the poem to poetic forms and grammatical construction. The line which I rendered "in active voice, in passive silence, in the neutral balance between" is more literally a reference to the grammatical gender or words in the Irish language. Since English does not have these distinctions of word gender, it seemed necessary to phrase this concept in more easily understandable imagery. Traditional Irish poetry is a mix of grammatical rules, metre, voice, and silence, and a certain balance is necessary for the entire composition to hold together in a powerful and pleasing manner. Irish magic was largely a matter of poetry, composed and chanted for particular purposes. The rules of grammar, therefore, might be thought of as the building blocks of magic. The proper creation of poetry, and of magic, is "the path and function of my cauldron."
Along with the grammar and metre, proper breathing was considered important. The Auraicept tells us "proper to bard poetry, i.e., its measure to suit the ear, and proper adjustment of breathing," and "five words are adjudged to be the breath of a poet." (19) These are probably references to breath control techniques. Some discussions of bardic training refer to a technique called "stone upon their belly" that may describe one way for ensuring that proper breathing was maintained. (20) I believe that breath control was a part of the process of learning to turn the cauldrons, just as it is a part of the practice of yoga.
The filidh debated whether poetry was at root a thing of spirit, sparked by the Gods, or whether it was a characteristic inherited from one's ancestors. The phrase that I have given as "ancestors" actually refers to one's father and grandfather, but in Irish society women were also known to be poets. Brighid, one of the most popular and powerful of the Celtic Goddesses, was a poet and the patron of filidh. These powerful Irish women have long been ignored, just as many women poets through the ages in many civilizations have been left in obscurity. I believe this was, and continues to be, an injustice to the many inspired women poets of the world. Socially speaking, the highest ranking poets were those whose parents or grandparents had been filidh, but without the spark of imbas, or poetic inspiration, even the best genealogy was not enough.
An interesting feature of the question regarding the "root of poetry" is that the word indicating the origin of poetry (adtuithi, atuidi) may imply "from the north (atúaid)." Mythologically the north is the place in which the Tuatha de Danann learned their druidic and magical arts. In the tale of the Second Battle of Magh Tuired, it is said that they were "in the northern islands of the world, studying occult lore and sorcery, druidic arts and witchcraft and magical skill, until they surpassed the sages of the pagan arts. They studied occult lore and secret knowledge and diabolic arts in four cities: Falias, Gorias, Murias and Findias." (21) Note that all of these cities are in the north, not scattered to the four directions as many occult authors insist.
For the turning of our cauldrons, joy and sorrow are specifically mentioned as necessary, with subdivisions of both emotions. Where some modern philosophies encourage the banishment of sorrow and other so-called "negative" emotions, the Irish magical tradition insists that we must embrace the entire range of our emotions and experience them to the fullest possible extent. Through the transformation of these emotions we are able to create poetry and magic of immense power.
Longing, grief, and jealousy are explicitly named as emotions that turn the cauldrons of sages. Some of the greatest songs of the Celtic musical tradition are based around these emotions, and this musical tradition arose directly from the earlier poetic tradition, where poets were often accompanied by instrumentalists. (22) Much popular music is still written around these emotional themes.
The discipline inherent in pilgrimages to holy places is also mentioned. Such disciplines often included restricted diets and particular rituals to be performed when the holy site was reached. Many still-active holy wells in the islands are associated with neolithic megaliths, and have never been linked to Christian saints. (23) These sites and the rituals associated with them may be a direct, if very diluted, survival from the earliest Pagan past. To travel to one of these sites implied the proper observation of times and rituals, which might be a hardship upon the pilgrim. Some pilgrimages were best, or only, to be undertaken at particular times of year. Modern Pagans are often driven by a desire to make pilgrimages to the old holy sites in response to this need generated by the cauldrons and the subsequent burst of creativity.
Joy is divided into two types, human and divine. Divine joy is not described in the text, but I believe that the joy one feels welling up within at the sights and sounds of nature can be considered divine joy. The joy sometimes felt when meditating upon the Gods and their manifestations is also a form of divine joy. And those moments of pure bliss that arise out of nowhere unexpectedly are also joy of divine origin.
Human joy is found in four categories. The first is the joy of sexual union. This elation needs no explanation for those who have experienced it. This category of human joy could give rise to unfounded speculations about secret Celtic techniques of sexual magic. It should be noted that there does not appear to be much evidence to suggest that the Pagan Celts were advocates of celibacy. In the tales of many Celtic traditions, sexual unions with the territorial Goddess or the personification of sovereignty are common, and often signal significant transformations in the hero.
Good health is the second category of human joy. This state of health does not imply physical perfection, but rather refers to being free from illness and reasonably hale. Many famous filidh and musicians were said to be blind or blemished in some way. There are a number of tales about poets who were hideous in form but perfect in poetic knowledge. (24) Their deformation may be evidence of a link to the Otherworld, for many Otherworldly beings of great power are described as having a single arm, eye, or leg. Cú Chulainn in his battle frenzy of ferg displays the same deformations. Bóann, in bringing the power of the Well of Wisdom into this world, loses an eye, an arm, and a leg, and it should not be forgotten that parallels are found in Norse mythology, where Odhinn sacrifices an eye in exchanges for wisdom at a well. It could be said that those with "second sight" have one eye in this world and one in the Other.
This lack of a requirement for perfection opens up the basics of poetic craft to nearly everyone, regardless of their physical condition. The only substantive qualifier is the potential for the development or possession of the spark of imbas. We can contrast this to the Celtic institution of kingship, which required absolute physical perfection as a necessity of the king's right to rule.
The third joy is the joy of good poetic construction, and probably refers to the ability to follow the proper rules of grammar, rhyme, and structure to compose poetry. Well-wrought poetry can be a joy to the ear in addition to being a powerful verbal spell, and the ability to construct such poetry brings many of its own satisfactions.
Fourth, and most esoteric, is the "joy of fitting poetic frenzy" which results from "grinding away at" or eating the hazels of wisdom. These nuts are found in the S╠dhe realm, at the center of the worlds. They fall into the Well of Wisdom, which is said to be the source of the Boyne, and of every other river. The well itself is found under the sea. The nuts of wisdom swim up the river, possibly in the form of salmon, every year, or every seven years, during the 'middle-month' of the year carrying wisdom with them. Their movement is 'swifter than racehorses," reflecting the lightning flash of poetic inspiration and frenzy, and the silver lightning of the quick flashing salmon. In many tales, filidh wait on the banks of the river for years awaiting the passage of the salmon so that they may catch and consume it to obtain knowledge.
There is fascinating unstated imagery here that bears mentioning. In the brilliant but difficult book Hamlet's Mill (25), a conceptual bridge is built between the themes of well, cauldron, whirlpool, and the cosmic mill or sampo that grinds the stuff of reality. In Finnish mythology, the sampo was a mill created by the smith-God Ilmarrinen (26) that ground prosperity and happiness, later grinding salt. This mill deteriorated and now is said to grind sand and stone, generating a vast whirlpool at the bottom of the sea. The mill had a many-colored lid that was the vault of the sky, and its central post was the world-tree.
Next to the Well of Wisdom stand the hazel trees that can be seen as the Irish world-tree image. The ogham tracts of the Book of Ballymote (27) describe the ogham alphabet as a tree that is "climbed" by the poet, and in the poem we are examining, we are told that within the Cauldron of Motion is "the true root of all knowledge... which is climbed after diligence, which poetic ecstasy sets in motion."
Poets of different grades are described as being part of the tree, with the lower grades of poets at the roots, and the highest grades sitting at the top of the tree in the "seat of Baiscne." Baiscne is the grandfather of Fionn Mac Cumhail, the Irish hero, and his name means "a great tree." (28) The grade of poet two grades below the highest rank, or ollamh, is known as the druimclí, a name which means "the top of the ridgepole of knowledge" (29), or simply as the clí, implying that the poet was the tree itself.
The ogham glyph called the Féige Find, from the Auraicept [figure 1], illustrates what I believe to be the ogham as world-tree, arrayed as stars in the vault of heaven. The phrase is often translated as "Fionn's Window," but féige means "ridgepole" or "rooftree," and is the tree which supports the house, and therefore the personal cosmos. Each ogham letter has a color assigned to it in dath or color ogham, and this may be a later echo of the many-colored cover of the Finnish sampo. It would seem that the hazel nuts of wisdom must be ground in the mill of our internal cauldrons in order for poetic wisdom to find its true outlet.
In Irish, the word coire means both "cauldron" and "whirlpool." It is fascinating to see the implication of motion and turning in this wordplay. Our cauldrons must turn like whirlpools, tilt from their lips to an upright position in order to contain what is ground in the mill of the cosmos. The results of this process are announced in detail; the poet will speak in mantic verse and prophetic poems, dispense wisdom, perform great feats of magic, have "mastery of words," harm with "reddening satire," and offer wise judgment.
The Cauldron of Motion in its action is "streaming poetic inspiration as milk from the breast." This bounty is offered up by B█ann, who brings the rivers from the Otherworld into the physical realm through her act at the Well of Wisdom, circling the well three times counterclockwise. (30) F. Marian McNeill says "the hazel was associated with the milk-yielding goddess because of the milk contained in the green nut."(31) Bóann's name means "white cow," and in the tale of the Táin Bó Fráich, she gives birth to the three harp strains which are capable of producing joy (gentraige or "joy strain"), sorrow (goltraige or "crying strain"), and sleep (suantraige or "sleep strain"). (32) Joy and sorrow have already been specifically named as the mechanisms for turning the cauldrons within; the poem tells us that the "noble brew" of our cauldrons is that "which joy turns, which is revealed through sorrow." The cauldrons are even described as "moving toward music."
Sleep, the third harp strain, can be a metaphor for the act of mantic trance itself. In the ritual of imbas forosnai, the fili enters into a three- or nine-day (nómaide) period of incubatory sleep to seek visions after offering the appropriate sacrifices. (33) We can speculate that the fili who undertook this process was one whose cauldrons were all in their proper upright positions, giving "swift understanding."
These talents and rewards were not dispensed without effort. Both duty and diligence are mentioned as necessary ingredients in the cauldrons. Regulation, at least in the filidh associated with the courts, is implied with "looking after binding principles... through the working of the law." The filidh had long and arduous programs of study lasting for many years, involving the memorization of incredible numbers of poems, cryptic oghams, and texts. The Cauldron of Motion gives the fili the capacity of "distinguishing the intricacies of language," which may refer not only to the complex rules of grammar and poetic composition, but to the riddling languages used by the wise. (34)
The goal of these studies was promised as "lasting power, undiminishing protection." In fact, the person of the fili was generally held to be inviolate. Filidh could cross borders with impunity and confer protection and the privilege of border crossing on others by giving them the bunsach comairce or "rod of safe conduct." (35) In a more metaphoric sense, the fili provides "safe conduct" for poetry and images from the Otherworld realms into mortal time and space.
The motion of the cauldrons is described as "an artistic journey" that "bestows good wisdom and nobility and honor after turning." Gathering knowledge from Otherworldly sources is sometimes described in tales through the image of journeying. The fili must strive to artfully examine and relate the journey in order to utilize this knowledge and wisdom in the mortal realms. This "turning" does not always seem to refer to journeying, but may refer to "turning" toward the Otherworlds to be receptive to visions and dreams that proceed from places and entities that dwell there. Aisling or dream tales are common in the literature, and once again, this would bring us back to the sleep strain of the harp which "turns" the Cauldron of Wisdom.
The final segment of the poem gives us a list of the nine virtues of the cauldrons. The virtues seem obscure, but taken in conjunction with the glosses (not given in this article) they begin to become clear.
The cauldron "bestows, is bestowed." This refers to praise that is given by the fili and which is then bestowed upon the poet for the proper practice of the craft of praise poetry. It "extends, is extended," which refers to extending, in the same manner as territory, its influence covering great distances. The cauldron "nourishes, is nourished" through the telling of tales and the making of poetry for those who have come to hear the fili. It "magnifies, is magnified" by providing a high honor-price for the poet, greater than that of an ordinary craftsman.
The cauldron "invokes, is invoked" by the requests of the people for knowledge from the fili through her contact with spirits and Gods who provide wisdom and answers to questions. It "sings, is sung" through the singing of spells and poetry for various purposes, which might include blessings, healing satire, divination, or other desires of the poet and those who have employed her.
The cauldron "preserves, is preserved" through the making of binding spells, or through the laws which bind a person in a judicial sense. Another rendering of this line is "delays, is delayed," which refers more specifically to the legal aspects of binding a person to appear before judges. These bindings were apparently believed to work on both the person bound and upon the one doing the binding, linking both persons together for the duration of the litigation.
Caitlin Matthews makes some interesting comparisons of these virtues of the cauldrons with the "genealogy" of Nede mac Adne from the tale of The Colloquy of the Two Sages. She says, however, that "no part of either text has been reordered to form this poetic riddle" (36), which is not the case. She rearranges her translation of the virtues of the cauldron to better suit the order of Nede's genealogy. Still, these connections seem to offer a good way to make sense of this part of the poem, and they are certainly worth time and meditation.
The cauldrons are described as "the source of measuring" of poetic verse and metres. The "dwelling of speech" is found in the cauldron "in which is the fire of knowledge." (37) The cauldrons are a "confluence of power which builds up strength" in both a social and a spiritual sense.
The knowledge and activation of these cauldrons is "greater than any domain, it is better than every inheritance, it brings one to knowledge." The power, prestige, and knowledge available to one who could access all three cauldrons was unequaled within early Irish society.
The word "adventuring" (echtraid) is the same word used to describe the genre of Irish tales that tell of adventures into the Sídhe mounds. This takes us back to the "artistic journey" that we make when we begin to turn and activate our cauldrons. It seems to be a significant word choice, and one which is apparently missed by the other translators.
In working with the cauldrons, there are several things to consider. The first is that not everyone will achieve the same results because not everyone's cauldrons are in the same starting positions. It is implied that few will be able to achieve the activation of all three cauldrons. Also, once a cauldron is turned, there is no reason to believe that it will stay permanently in one position. The cauldrons are always in motion, their processes dynamic. Entering a new emotional state may turn a cauldron upright, or it may tip it back onto its side or its lips.
In my own practice, I have developed two "cauldron breathing" patterns that I use to activate or to examine and meditate upon the contents of the cauldrons. The first pattern, the "breath of fire," is used to activate the cauldrons which are upright. This method is to inhale slowly for a three-count, hold for a three-count, exhale for a three-count and hold for a one-count. This should be repeated nine times for each cauldron, and produces a feeling of energy movement.
The second pattern is the "breath of introspection," and is used to examine the contents of the cauldron and to meditate upon their symbolism and significance. It produces a much calmer, internalized, and meditative feeling. This pattern is to inhale slowly for a three-count, hold for a three-count, exhale for a three-count and hold for a five-count.
Neither of these breathing patterns is particularly suited for the chanting of poetry, which was apparently at least part of the intent of the Irish tradition. They are intended as more passive methods of opening and examination. I would add, however, that the breath of introspection can be used to gain information and examine images, which can then be spoken and explicated in chants and rhythmic speech. This may feel awkward at first, and may require some practice to get into the spirit of the working. At other times, you may feel as though you cannot control the speech, that it bursts from you in torrents and that you could not hold it in if you wanted to. I believe that this is the state that the filidh strove to inhabit in their creation of poetry.
In using the "cauldron breathing" patterns to examine and meditate upon the contents of the cauldrons, you may find yourself experiencing various sensations. The cauldrons may vary in temperature, which can be an indication of their state of activity. Cooler cauldrons are less active, while warmer cauldrons are usually processing something.
The contents of the cauldrons may be solids, liquids, objects, or symbols. You may perceive these things as having various colors. I have found the color ogham to be a useful tool in helping to interpret the meaning of colors found within the cauldrons. The colors of the twelve airts or winds of the directions (38) can sometimes also provide clues. Symbols or objects that appear may have their source in the literary tradition, or you may find pictures of similar objects in books of Celtic artwork. For this reason it is necessary to be fairly knowledgeable about the symbolism in tales and poetry. You may see herbs or animals reflected in the cauldrons which may be able to give you information through conversation.
With some practice, you will find that you can sense the positions and contents of the cauldrons within others. You may find this useful in doing magical workings, divinations, or healing for them. While my experience and divination does not suggest that we can turn or fill the cauldrons of others, the contents of their cauldrons can be interpreted, cleared of intrusions and various kinds of contaminations, or clarified to help with the other person's understanding of their own internal processes. We can also place images into the cauldrons of others for them to work with and assimilate.
In working with others, as for yourself, the creation of poetry is important. Being able to state what you perceive in poetic form is an important part of the process of working with the cauldrons and transforming their contents. The poetry itself generates a certain amount of magical power that should never be discounted. Poetry provides a context for information and power, and a matrix within which to work. It ritualizes the information and becomes the ritual through which power flows.
I have found that the filling of our cauldrons is a joint process. It is possible to put things into our cauldrons to be heated through intense meditation and visualization, cooked by breaking down and interpreting the contents and symbols, bringing them from their "raw" Otherworldly state into a "cooked" condition of being understandable in this realm, and brewed through deliberate work toward inner and outer transformation. It seems, however, to be the Gods who have the active role in providing the majority of the contents. Our task is primarily to process the contents through heating, cooking, and brewing them into useful poetry and magic, containing or dispensing the images and energies according to need.
The keys to the cauldrons are experiencing, working through, and transforming the emotions, a deep and detailed study of the tales and lore of the Irish corpus, and constant practice in the use and composition of poetry as a path for working magic. Without all three of these keys, the process of turning the cauldrons and using the wisdom and energy generated through them cannot be accomplished.
ERYNN ROWAN LAURIE has been a student of Celtic myth and religion for nearly a decade. She is the moderator of the Nemeton-L e-mail list for Celtic reconstructionist Pagans and Druids and is the Author of A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts. Erynn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A review by Murtagh an Doile of:
A CIRCLE OF STONES: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts by Erynn Rowan Laurie
29. O'Curry, Eugene, Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, (Dublin, 1878). "Druimclí, i.e., he who has (or knows) the top-ridge (or highest range) of learning; a word compounded of druim, the ridge of a hill or the back of a person, or the ridge of the roof of a house; and clí, a form of cleith, the column or tree which in ancient times supported the house; and the man who was a druimclí was supposed to have climbed up the pillar or tree of learning to its very ridge or top, and was thus qualified to be a ferleiginn -- a professor, or man qualified to teach or superintend the teaching of the whole course of a college education." Return to text.
38. Matthews, Caitlin, The Elements of the Celtic Tradition, (Longmead: Element Books, 1989) is the most easily available source for these colors. Return to text.