Cauldrons and flesh-hooks: between the living and the dead in ancient Britain and Ireland
Behind the scenes at the British Museum sometimes resembles Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So when the British Library asked to borrow a 3,000-year-old cauldron for their exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic, we were delighted!
The cauldron that is on loan was found in the River Thames at Battersea. It was made around 3,000 years ago, crafted from many separate sheets of bronze and skilfully riveted together. It was among the largest and most sophisticated metal objects of its day. The capacity of the cauldron is around 70 litres – enough to boil meat or brew beverages for a mighty feast. But it’s not just a technological masterpiece, it was also a cherished object. All over its body are repair patches and pegs from heavy use, probably over several generations.
We know cauldrons were important, symbolic objects because they were often deposited in unusual and special places in the landscape, for instance in bogs and rivers. These locations are often considered to be powerful because they are betwixt-and-between the domains of the living and the dead.
Cauldrons feature in later writings, including the Book of Leinster, which reflects earlier oral traditions. In these Irish stories, cauldrons are closely linked to chiefs and kings and their ability to redistribute food and drink as a symbol of their power. The most famous was the magic cauldron belonging to the Dagda, a protecting god and father figure. His cauldron overflowed with abundant food, could heal any wound, and even restore life to the dead – warriors killed in battle were lowered into the cauldron to be brought back to life. The link between cauldrons and supernatural powers is most famously captured in the witches’ scenes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories are likely to echo much older beliefs about the power and magic of cauldrons, stretching back to the cauldron dredged from the Thames at Battersea.
We would also like to highlight this 3,000-year-old ‘flesh-hook’. As its rather sinister name suggests, it was used in the course of feasting, probably in combination with cauldrons – its curved prongs serving and stirring meaty portions. It was found in a bog in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in an area that contained other objects associated with ancient ceremonies and rituals.
The rod-shaped flesh-hook is made up of three metal and two wooden parts. The most remarkable feature is the seven little bronze birds that decorate the metal sections. There are two birds of the crow family (probably ravens) and a family of swans (two swans and three cygnets). They appear to float along the flesh-hook in a bird-on-bird face off. The birds bob on small rods connected to metal rings dangling beneath their bellies. These could have been used to tie on other objects, perhaps even feathers taken from real birds.
The two sets of birds may have represented opposing forces in the world of ancient people. Swans are white birds of the water but also associated with the sun and light, and the family group suggests fertility. The ravens, on the other hand, are black birds of the air and divine communication, connected with wild uplands – their dark colour and gruesome dietary habits were connected with war and death. These differences may have represented the competing forces of good and evil in the world.
Similar ideas come to us from much later sources including the Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn) and the Ulster Cycle (an Rúraíocht), written down in the 8th century AD. In these myths, ravens are associated with war, death, land and goddesses. In the central tale of the Ulster Cycle, the goddess Badb takes the form of a crow or raven and causes chaos when she perches on the shoulder of the hero Cú Chulainne, predicting his death. Both swans and ravens were connected with shape-shifting gods, objects of worship and foretellers of the future.
The places where cauldrons and flesh-hooks are found are associated with burnt mounds (fulacht fiadh) in Britain and Ireland, sites used for ritual feasting connected to seasonal cycles. The most famous festival mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature is Samhain (pronounced so-ween). This ceremony marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter when the ritual fires were relit and the dead were honoured, an early version of some aspects of Halloween. It was a liminal time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could be easily crossed.
As you settle down to a scary movie this Halloween or reach for a Harry Potter book, imagine for a moment a late October evening in an ancient land. Cauldrons bubble and fires burn in the darkening days of autumn. A flesh-hook is wielded by a village elder, a renowned storyteller. She tells a tale of shape-shifting gods, of divine spirits in the form of birds and competing forces – good and evil – that bind the world.
Perhaps not so much has changed, after all.