When folks ask me “how can I begin to practice Celtic Paganism”, or even more specifically, Gaelic Polytheism, I suggest three broad areas: get to know and interact with your local landscape, find ways to incorporate daily devotional practices based on a study of folklore, and study and engage with the Myths. The heart and soul of a people, a tribe, a culture, is encoded in their Arts, through images and symbolism streamed from their mythology. We must study and commune with our myths; therein lies their power. We must enter into this mythic consciousness and make the myths meaningful in a deeply personal way. Without that kind of experiential understanding, we are just tourists. This begins with the art of listening.
“I was a listener in the woods, I was a gazer at the stars…” ~ from The Instructions of King Cormac
As I ponder what I call “National Leftovers Day”, i.e. the day after Thanksgiving in the USA, an image that keeps popping up is that of the cauldron. An ancient tool with deep and wide-ranging symbolism within Celtic cultures, the cauldron is a metaphor for many aspects of life, both practical and mystical. In accord with the idea of connecting to our myths in personally meaningful ways, I have for a long time worked with The Cauldrons of Poesy, or The Three Cauldrons, from Irish mythology, as a system of connecting to and channeling my creativity through self-awareness and as foci for meditation and energy work.
The Three Cauldrons/Cauldrons of Poesy hail from a 16th century Irish language manuscript dealing largely with the forms and functions of poetry. While I do indeed literally write poetry, I extrapolate a broader meaning here to apply to the greatest poem or art of all, the music of what happens, which is life itself. For me this means the person I have cultivated myself to be, and the way I choose to live. Each person’s own life – who they are as a person, the quality of their heart, mind, and character - is their poetic masterpiece. Whether it inspires beauty or horror is a matter of the choices we make.
As I relate to them, the Three Cauldrons are three internal metaphorical “cauldrons”, energy vortexes, often likened to chakras, which are sources of empowerment and awareness in life. The first is situated within the belly, and it said to be always upright; the second cauldron is in the heart region of the thoracic cavity and is initially on its side. The third cauldron is located at the head, initially turned downward “on its lips”, and only turned fully upright by the “masters of art”, which for me in a spiritual sense means those whose self-awareness is clear and creative flow is unblocked, are fully awakened to their true nature, and have achieved a deep level of self-mastery.
The second and third cauldrons are “turned by joy or sorrow’; they can be tilted up, containing and radiating vitality and blessings, or tipped downward, draining its contents through devitalization, dispiritedness, and disconnection. The process either way happens many times throughout the course of one’s life and is not always a conscious or intentional process. Fully embracing what life reveals to you, feeling it, learning from it, then letting it flow through you rather than staying stuck in attachment to any particular aspect of experience, is a key to the process of being a master of the poetry of one’s life.
There are all kinds of correspondences and analogies to be found here within Celtic mythology. I find relevant connections between the concepts of the Three Cauldrons, the Triskele (Triple Spiral), the cosmological idea of Land, Sea, Sky and Underworld, Middle World, Upper World, and also with the Sacred Center/Sacred Well and Five Streams, containing the Salmon of Wisdom within. They are all related and interwoven in a cultural tapestry of ancestral memory and consciousness.
Coire Goiriath: The Cauldron of Warming. Potentiality. Grounding. Needs. Stillness. Listening. This is the place of incubation, the dark womb which contains the elements of our creativity with which we craft our greatest art – our life. Here swirls one’s pool of inherent proclivities, talents and gifts. A bittersweet truth is that we are each not created equal in the sense that we are not each endowed with an equal measure of talents and abilities. Every person is unique in this regard. This is a foundation of the interplay between bri - qualities or attributes that are inherent, and bua – that which is generated and conferred through action.
Coire Ernmae: The Cauldron of Vocation. Motion. Right Action. Relationships. I use the word “action” here rather than “will”. The reality and condition of our lives is not just a matter of asserting and directing one’s own will in the world. The fact is that our reality is always interdependent and partly conditioned by the will or action of others. We do not achieve successes or failures all on our own. Others create the conditions into which we are born and raised, and through which we must each make our own way. My prosperity, safety, and health are co-created by the goodwill, or not, of others. It is this action – what we *do*, what we actively put forth into the world – that matters.
Coire Sois: The Cauldron of Wisdom: Integration. Understanding. Unity. Resolution of Opposites, which in this context relates to aspects of the soul that became fragmented through trauma and suffering. In my experience, it is something of a misunderstanding to think of self-mastery or spiritual evolution as ascending up from the underworld and darkness into the celestial realms of eternal love and enlightenment. A more apt truth of human nature is the concept of integration. The goal is wholeness, and this requires honest self-examination with often painful subsequent realizations and coming to terms with all aspects of oneself. Growth is not easy. Shifts in consciousness can cause turbulent cognitive dissonance. But the path to being fully alive and living with an awakened heart is through knowing one’s shadow and light – and integration of both into a new whole, a fresh state of being, an evolved soul. “Cracking open the nuts of wisdom” is a term from Irish mythology that I use for this process. We are each the salmon in our own sacred well of experience, flowing in the mythic stream from the “dark speech” of primal being to the “bright knowledge” of consciousness.
As we plunge deeper into this season of lengthening darkness, what seeds do you set to incubate? What qualities will you draw from your cauldron of warming, begin to actualize with motion in the world, and integrate into a new cycle of life? With what words, actions, and intentions will you master the poetry of your own life’s art?
May you be blessed; may you be whole. May you be a master of your every art.