There’s a chill in the air. The nights are drawing in. And shops across the land are filling up with pumpkins and sweeties. That must mean it’s almost Halloween! So I’m taking a look at some of the symbols and trappings of spooky stories. Why are some elements so popular? What’s their deeper meaning? Read on to find out!
This time we’re looking at…
Eye of newt, toe of frog… the image of the witch standing over her bubbling cauldron is a familiar one to most of us. It’s part of our culture from earliest childhood. From the cooking pot of the strange “woodworker” in Brave, to the cauldron poor Gobbolino is pitched into to wash off his magic in Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat, or Snape presiding batlike over a classful of concoctions in Harry Potter’s potion lessons, this symbol is certainly pervasive.
So what’s the fascination?
Taking a glimpse into the roiling contents of a cauldron is to quite literally come face to face with fate, with the unknown. The effects of the potion being brewed can be unpredictable; one slip of the wrist when adding ingredients can have dramatic consequences. Take Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. She accidentally added cat hair to her otherwise perfectly crafted Polyjuice Potion and ended up turning herself into a cat-human hybrid!
In more modern settings, the cauldron is more commonly found at the heart of a state of the art laboratory than a grimy cave in the mountains. Take Wolverine from X-Men, who emerged from the laboratories of the Weapon-X program with an adamantium-infused skeleton. Or the fate of the unfortunate victims of the angels in Angelfall, horrifically transformed in individual chambers as part of the angels’ experiments.
The cauldron is also a symbol of birth and rebirth. Does that sound crazy? It’s an idea that has a good pedigree. Dating from the 13th Century, The Mabinogion contains the story of Bran the Blessed. Part of the Red Book of Hergest, in Bran’s story, this King of Britain gifts the King of Ireland a magic cauldron that has the power to bring slain warriors back to life. But once again, underlining the idea of ungovernable power, Bran’s gift to Matholwch backfires when he later finds himself at war with the Irish King. King Bran’s army is vastly outnumbered, as the Irish forces use the cauldron to reanimate their warriors. By the time it is destroyed, it’s too late for Bran, he has already received a mortal wound.
So let’s recap on cauldrons. They’re symbols of birth and rebirth, symbols of of power, symbols of mystery. And they also carry the warning that the powers they bestow may have unforeseen consequences.
What additional meanings for the cauldron as a symbol have you found?