The Sword and the Cauldron

Work on my sword re-furb is progressing slowly as thread-wrapping a sword hilt is a tediously slow process requiring concentration to avoid crossing your threads as you wrap!

Sword Hilt – thread-wrapped.

Keeping your concentration on something as finicky as this is something that needs frequent breaks, and it also serves as very good meditation time, since you can be letting something stew in the back of your mind (in the cauldron, as we like to say!) while watching what your hands are doing.

That being the case, I’ve had about 24 hours to cogitate quietly on the nature of swords, while wrapping away diligently (with frequent tea breaks).

The original purpose of a sword is, of course, as a weapon – but I’m not given to swiping at people with mine! It’s the esoteric, magical correlations I’ve been considering. You only have to hold a sword upright in your hand to know it’s a phallic symbol, but beyond that, what is a sword? What does it symbolise?

Swords are a warrior symbol, of course, and the ultimate warrior, the Champion, is the King. Swords and Kingship are intimately tied together, from Arthur and Excalibur (don’t forget that Excalibur is a gift from the Lady of the Lake – that’s an important detail!) to the 6 swords amongst the Crown Jewels of England and the Sword of State amongst the Honours of Scotland, which are used in coronation ceremonies still.

In the Matter of Britain, the medieval Arthurian romance tales that preserve ancient folk tales from the dawn of British history (if not before), one of the defining story-arcs that run through the various tales of Arthur and his knights is that of the Quest for the Holy Grail. In the Matter of Britain, Sir Perceval, one of the best of the Knights of the Round Table, crosses a wasteland, a ruined land, to reach the castle of a maimed king, sometimes called the Fisher King, and while sitting at dinner there the grail appears before the company and Perceval fails to ask a vital question. He gets a second chance to do so after various further adventures and this time gets it right, asking ‘Whom does the Grail serve?’

The answer to this question is the crux of the quest for the Grail, as it restores the health of the maimed king and, with it, that of the land over which he rules. Our source for the Grail Quest is a poem by Chretien de Troyes, who died before finishing his poem – leaving this most vital question unanswered in the text! It is, most appropriately, up to each of us to find our own answer to the question.

To consider the nature of the grail, or cauldron of rebirth, I like to bring to mind two separate but related things. The first is that most famous of cauldrons, the Gundestrup cauldron, and the other is the tale of Bran and Branwen, the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, which has as one of its pivots the Pair Dadeni, the Cauldron of Rebirth.

Panel from Gundestrup Cauldron

This is the panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron which reminds me of a goddess popping dead people into a cauldron of rebirth with one hand while lifting live people out with the other.

In the same way, in Bran and Branwen the cauldron is owned by a giant and his wife and can be used to resurrect dead warriors. It is finally put out of action by a live warrior who hides amongst the Irish dead and is put into the cauldron – thus causing it to cease working, though it kills him at the same time.

Cauldrons often figure in Irish and Welsh lore – Ceridwen possesses the Cauldron of Inspiration, from which three drops spit as the boy Gwion Bach is stirring it, and when he licks them off his hand he gains the gift of wisdom. Here rebirth comes into the story, as Ceridwen realises Gwion has ‘stolen’ the gift intended for her ugly son Afaggdu, hunts him down through several shape-shifts and swallows him, after which she gives birth to Gwion as Taliesin, the pre-eminent poet.

Similarly, amongst the Thirteen Treasures (Hallows) of Britain, King Arthur has a cauldron taken from a King of Annwn (the Otherworld) which can boil meat rapidly for a brave man – but refuses to cook meat at all for cowards. This may be the same cauldron that turns up again in the story of Culhwch and Olwen, where Arthur takes it from Ireland rather than Annwn.

The cauldron thus represents the power of rebirth, to renew and regenerate. It is the womb, as the sword is the phallus, and it belongs to the Feminine, the Goddess. Don’t forget that Arthur gets his sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake – a gift from a water goddess, and the container of that water can be considered as a very large natural cauldron!

This brings us to the nature of Kingship – not in the sense of sitting on a throne and giving orders, but in the sense of being Sacred – and Sacrificial. The Sacrificial King is a very old tradition, though still extant in British folklore, thinly disguised in songs like John Barleycorn. To boil this lore down to its most basic form, Sovereignty, the Land, in the form of the goddess’s representative, the Queen, chooses her Champion, her King. He gains his authority through his marriage to her, and when he grows older, less potent or less able to fight, he’s sacrificed and a new, better model is selected.

Returning to the Matter of Britain, the Grail King or Fisher King is described as maimed, and because of his injuries his land is a barren waste. These wounds are in the groin, meaning he’s barren, and this gives us the link between the King and the Land – and also tells us why asking the right question will restore the land, not just the king. As a sacred king, his virility is tied to the fertility of the land. In older versions of the lore, I have no doubt that the knight who asks the correct question doesn’t heal the land but rather is able to slay the maimed king and take his place alongside the Queen as the new King whose youthful vigour and virility are reflected in her – and the land’s – fertility.

This vital integration between Masculine and Feminine has not been evident in European culture for some centuries, but undoubtedly it was more widely known and understood once, as it’s still evident and explicit in other traditions – Hinduism, for example, explicitly links Shiva with Shakti, lingam with yoni, and in the yin-yang symbol, the taichiju, there is a seed of black within the white half, and a seed of white within the black half. Masculine and Feminine are equal and opposite, complements, and each needs the other to make the whole.

This brings us to another concept, which is the nature of healing, because the word ‘heal’ in English is derived from Proto-Germanic ‘heiljan’ and, earlier still, Proto-Indo-European ‘kailo’, all of which mean ‘to make whole’.

It’s also worthwhile, at this point, reminding ourselves that the bodies we wear in this life are only physical – and in the same way the gender we wear, whether male or female, has no meaning to the Soul, which goes on from life to life, passing through male and female, human and other animals. Each of us expresses varying degrees of masculinity and femininity in every life but there is always a balance, however deeply we bury the complement or not in each life. Perhaps this is why shamans, across many cultures worldwide and as far back in time as we know, have a tendency to be more gender-fluid or gender non-conforming than the general population amongst whom they live. Certainly within my own training I was required to explore and integrate these elements within my own soul – King and Sovereignty, Masculine and Feminine, Light and Shadow – as part of my self-healing. I have memories, echoes, from other lives in which I’ve been male or non-human, rather than the human female body I wear in this life, and these, too, are part of my Wholeness.

Magically, then, to bring this meditative ramble to a conclusion, the Sword represents Kingship and Masculinity, and with the representation of Femininity and Sovereignty, the Cauldron (or grail) it is half of a pair of healing tools. Accordingly, since I’m spending time and effort on my Sword, I’m also making a point of devoting some time to sitting-with my Cauldron, continuing the process of integration and self-healing. Learning doesn’t stop when an apprentice shaman reaches initiation – the Wheel of the Seasons is also a spiral through time and we revisit the Lore repeatedly, seeking to go higher up and further in each time. The process of giving time and consideration to the physical tools of the trade – whether wrapping new thread around the sword hilt or polishing the inside of my big singing bowl (my cauldron) – is also an opportunity to cogitate on the Lore and to ask, what is there within me, now, that could usefully be sacrificed and replaced with an improved version? And what do I need to integrate within myself, to continue self-healing, to work towards wholeness?

Singing Bowl with tealight.

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