Culture & Lifestyle

The Three Cauldrons

“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.”

– Section of the The Caldron of Poesy

Art by Naomi Johanna Ilona Nowak

“The Three Cauldrons.” The name comes from the content and theme of a fascinating little collection of poetry and prose found complete only in one manuscript (TCD MS H.3.18), small parts of which which were copied in other texts. It was first edited some years ago and entitled by the editor (not the original author or scribe), ‘The Caldron of Poesy,’ a somewhat out-of-date title (and spelling) that has nonetheless been used by subsequent editors.

A more appropriate title would be ‘The Three Cauldrons,’ as this is the subject of the text. Although the extant manuscript dates to the sixteenth century, the content clearly goes back to an Old Irish original, probably dating to the first half of the eighth century. Students of early Irish belief will remember that the filid (poet-seers) were in existence at this time, as well as the druids (who had legal status into the ninth century, although their influence seems to have been waning by that point).

All photos by Isla Skye

This text is one of the few really early and really clear examples we have of a substantial text containing obscure, learned materials which would have been the providence of the filid, and perhaps even, an inheritance from the druids (as the filid were known to have taken on some of the roles and learning of the druids – but not all of it).

The text states that there are three cauldrons born into every person, whose position and state reflected the person’s level of learning – perhaps including elements of inspiration, and spiritual development as well. The three cauldrons were: Coire Goiriath (The Cauldron of Warming), Coire Ermae (The Cauldron of Motion) and Coire Sois (The Cauldron of Wisdom).

Most of the text is quite clear about the association of the cauldrons with traditional learning, wisdom, poetry and so forth, and was associated with the training, development and abilities of the learned classes. Quite a bit of on-line chit chat has gone on around this text, including the distribution of totally inaccurate or derivative ‘translations.’ There are two actual translations of the text, one by P.L. Henry, and one by Liam Breatnach, which I find superior (so there is no need for people who have discovered on-line dictionaries to claim to be ‘doing translations’ of this and other texts, simply by ‘looking up words’ one by one). 

In addition, people are claiming that these represent the ‘Irish chakras’ and have to do with healing practices, including energy work, Reiki, and so forth. It’s important to point out that the text does not actually say where in the body the three cauldrons reside. Having said that, meditations on the text have produced a distinct sensation that they reside in the belly, chest and head. This would align with the three dan t’ien in Chinese tradition, three energy centers in Andean tradition, and a form of the chakra system in which there are three primary chakras. However, we should be very careful before leaping to these types of conclusions.

For one thing, many of the people who make these claims have not actually sat and read the text; nor do they often have any idea of the time period and context in which is was written. By jumping immediately to modern perceptions and conclusions, we may actually be showing disrespect to the poets (or druids), by not setting aside our projections, egos and modern beliefs, and letting these texts speak for themselves.

Without understanding who wrote it, why, when, where etc… comparing it to other early texts and beliefs, we run the risk of obscuring, disrespecting, and actually obliterating aspects of this beautiful literature and the culture that produced it…. all in a mad rush to ‘instantly know’ something and display our ‘knowledge.’ Here we should remember that in traditional cultures, humility is often considered a virtue.

Of course, the medieval poets were often quick to sing their own praises! Their status and their next meal depended on it… but that status was the result of 7-12 years of intensive study (in the case of the poets) and perhaps up to twenty years in the case of the druids (if references to Gaulish druids are right). Concentrated, intensive study with trained elders, who have themselves gone through a rigorous program of learning, is not something that is always available to those interested in Celtic literature, myth and belief.

But we can at least be mindful of what we are doing, and take the time to let the voices of the past speak on their own behalf. If we do not, we may be contributing to the demise of the very cultures we say we wish to understand and perhaps even emulate.

Pause, breathe, be honest with yourself about what you may not yet know, and don’t be in a rush to instantly ‘equate’ the expressions of another culture with that of your own. In doing so, you may lose the opportunity to learn something both surprising and remarkable. Let the voices of the past speak, or they may eventually be silenced forever.

Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.

1 thought on “The Three Cauldrons”

  1. Thankyou for the informative information! I will search out the books mentioned too. Beannachtai☘💚

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