Irish mythology tells of four mysterious artefacts the enigmatic Tuatha de Denann brought with them when they invaded Ireland. These items were known collectively as the Four Treasures of Eirean, and consisted of Nuada’s Sword of Light; Lugh’s Spear; the Lia Fail, and the Dagda’s Cauldron. They were said to be talismans of enormous magical power.
I always felt that the Dagda’s cauldron seemed a little ‘out of place’ amongst these treasures; the Lia Fail was the sacred stone of knowledge which recognised and proclaimed the High King’s right to rule, the sword and the spear were symbols which upheld this right, testament to his strength and power.
But the cauldron is surely a domestic item. Not only that, but it is also a very female one. So how did it wind up in the hands of one of ancient Ireland’s best loved Kings and deities, and why was it considered such a precious treasure?
We know that ancient peoples venerated fertility, of the land, of animals and of themselves; it was fundamental to their success and continuity. Fertile land meant plentiful crops and food to sustain them. Fertile livestock perpetuated that theme. According to the Temple of Danann, the cauldron, chalice and cup are feminine symbols which represent the womb, the ultimate place of creation, and thus cannot possibly be owned by a male, but protected by him.
We see these exact qualities represented in the Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos. In Irish mythology, he was called Uindos. As the Lord of the Hunt, he was associated not only with animals, but with abundance, virility and fertility. He was also the Consort of the Mother Goddess, in other words, not her husband, king or master, but her guardian and protector. He was the defender of the sacred womb which ensured the success of those mortals who worshipped her.
Now the importance of the cauldron and all it represents begins to make sense, and we can see why it has earned such a lofty place among the treasures of the Gods.
The most famous vessels which spring to mind are the Holy Grail of Arthurian fame, and the Gundestrup cauldron.
The former is a mythical chalice associated with Joseph of Arimathea, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph was said to have received it from Jesus in a vision and sent it with followers to Great Britain.
Some dispute that this object was ever a cup at all. Building on the theme of the sacred womb, some believe that the Holy Grail was in fact Mary Magdelane, who was pregnant with Jesus’s child. This theory has been made popular by the writings of Dan Brown, for example, in his novel The Da Vinci Code.
The Gundestrup cauldron is a real silver vessel discovered in a peat bog in Denmark. dating back to the La Tene period of the Iron Age (200-300 BC) and measuring 69cms in diameter, it is richly decorated on its exterior and interior surfaces, indicating ceremonial use rather than practical. The depictions show several bearded male figures and several females accompanied by various animals and mythical creatures. Cernunnos is represented on one of the inner engravings.
Interestingly, there is also a scene in which a large being is holding a smaller one head first in a cauldron; some say this represents ritual sacrifice by drowning, but if one considers the cauldron as a symbol of the sacred womb, it is more likely to symbolise a kind of baptism or rebirth.
But what of the Dagda’s cauldron? Well, the Dagda was seen as something of a protector and father-figure to the ancient people. In fact, one of his epithets is Eochaid Ollathair, meaning ‘all-father’. He was many-skilled like Lugh, a big powerful man with great magic and knowledge, a warrior and accomplished harper, and became High King of the Denann, ruling for seventy to eighty years. He certainly sounds like a fitting candidate for the guardianship of the cauldron.
According to the Lebor Gebála Érenn, the cauldron was made in the northern city of Muirias by a skilled druid named Semias, and was known as the Coire Unsic, or ‘the Undry’, because it never ran dry of food. It says of the cauldron that ‘no one ever went from it unsatisfied’. It’s power was so potent, that it overflowed with abundant food, could heal any wound, and even restore life to the dead.
So what did it look like? Well strangely, I have not as yet been able to find a description for this wondrous object, other than that it was large. Perhaps this has something to do with the Christian scribes who collected and wrote down these stories, who refused to see the divine or the magical in such feminine symbolism, or perhaps such knowledge has simply just been wiped from memory by the passage of time.
A four foot granite stone basin found in the great central mound at Knowth, part of the Brú na Boinne complex (also known as Newgrange) has been tentatively identified with the Dagda’s cauldron. The interior is decorated with a rayed solar design. The outside has a band of seven horizontal grooves running around it, and is bisected on the front by an engraving of a circular solar or lunar motif. There are also four vertical grooves carved on the outer right hand side of the cauldron. Archaeologists think it is more likely to be a repository for the cremated remains of the dead.
A Swedish academic by the name of Ulf Erlingsson believes that the circular engraving on the outer surface of the vessel depicts the three concentric lakes of the city of Atlantis as described by Plato. It is an interesting theory which raises more questions than it answers. He’s certainly not the first to have suggested Ireland as the location for this mystical island.
If you want to see the cauldron for yourself, you can view a replica in the Visitor Centre at Newgrange. The original artefact remains buried deep within the mound where it was found, safe from curious mortal eyes, or so we are told. After all, whilst such a powerful magical object ‘from which all leave satisfied’ could do much good in the world, just think of the harm it could do if it fell into the wrong hands…