Sunday, 22 November 2009

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Tantric transmutation visualizations
In Buddhist tantric practice, impure substances such as urine and dead dog's flesh, symbolising mental afflictions, are visualized as being transmuted to pure nectar of enlightenment by the power of a fierce wind-blown fire. The reaction is 'catalyzed' by addition of seed letters (These are actually syllables, as Tibetan uses a syllabary rather than an alphabet). The visualized vessel of transmutation is a skullcup, known as a kapala in Sanskrit:

Kapala - Tantric Vessel of Transformation

In Anglo-Celtic culture this imagery summons up associations with folk traditions of the witches' cauldron, into which all kinds of impure substances were added (think Macbeth) and then transmuted by recitation of spells . So is it possible that the witches were practising a form of alchemical tantra?

The female medieval peasant Wiccans ('witches') were demonised and persecuted by the Church, whereas the upper class male alchemists usually got away with their mind-expanding practices, by claiming they were engaged in transforming base metals into gold.

Despite what some Christians still claim, Wicca has nothing to do with Satanism. Wiccans no more believe in Satan than do Buddhists. Satan is a bogey-man dreamt up by Christian theologians to explain why, if God is loving, omnipotent and omniscient, there is evil in the world. Satanism is thus an offshoot of Christianity, and many of its rituals involve perversions or parodies of Christian rites.

As demonised by the Church

Karma in Wicca
Wiccans do not sacrifice any living thing, human or animal. They are specifically forbidden to cause harm to sentient beings and they believe in threefold karma - any evil they do will return to them three times over in this life or future lives. Neither do they drink blood, indeed many are vegetarian.

Wiccans may be organised into covens, though many are solitary practioners. The belief that a coven must have thirteen members is a pernicious fiction spread by the medieval Church in order to associate Wicca with Satanist parodies of Christ's Last Supper. Wicca has its origins in ancient Celtic beliefs and pre-dates both Christianity and Satanism.

Celtic Chalices, Cauldrons and Grails
In Celtic traditions, cauldron, grail and chalice symbolism abounds, so it is no surprise that the medieval witches are associated with use of 'vessels of transformation'. The story of the Holy Grail is a Christianised pre-Christian Celtic legend.

The Gundestrup Cauldron is also clearly a ritual vessel.

Healing potions
Wicca is a pagan healing religion. In pre-Christian times the knowledge of the healing power of herbs and psychological healing techniques was the province of the wise woman (or sometimes cunning man) of the village. Throughout the Middle Ages most of rural Britain, especially the wilder western Celtic areas, was only nominally Christian with ancient folk beliefs continuing to thrive.

It is interesting to note that the word 'pagan' derives from the Latin for 'countryman', and 'heathen' from those who live on the heaths (the heather-clad fells and moors of western Britain). For utilitarian purposes as well as magic, the wise women would have used cauldrons to extract the active ingredients form their herbs.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages political unrest, religious schisms and plagues led to a period of paranoia when all dissent was punished with sadistic severity. Many hundreds of thousands of traditional healers (and some early scientists) were arrested and burnt at the stake for being in league with the devil. This period is known as 'the burning times' by modern Wiccans.

Secret Wicca
The old beliefs went underground and survived in isolated areas of Britain and Ireland from the end of the sixteenth century until the repeal of the anti-Wiccan laws in 1951 (Wicca was still illegal in Britain until after World War Two !). The religion slowly emerged from obscurity and re-established strongholds in its traditional Celtic homelands (for example Glastonbury - the original Avalon of Merlin and the Arthurian legends). It arrived in the U.S. sometime in the late 1960's and found a fertile field for growth in the hippie counter-culture of that period.

Its growth then appears to have been steady but unspectacular until the mid nineties, when a combination of cultural factors and the growth of the internet led to a massive increase in numbers. There may now be as many as three million Wiccans and Wiccan sympathisers through the English-speaking world. Wiccans in the U.S. are still subject to prejudice, and many of them dare not 'come out of the broom closet'. The situation in Britain is normally more tolerant, as paganism in some parts of rural Britain has never been far below the surface.

Divine Feminine
Wicca is not a patriarchal or oppressive religion. There is no jealous, punitive sky-God. Wicca particularly venerates the feminine aspects of spirituality. In contrast, there is little or place for the feminine aspects of spirituality in standard Abrahamic monotheism.

Wicca celebrates the divine feminine with colorful ceremonies, symbolism and rituals. (Many Wiccans are accomplished artists and designers). The non-macho nature of Wicca extends to welcoming gays and lesbians, who are still treated as abominations unto the Lord by the Abrahamic religions.

In Harmony with Nature
Wicca is a nature-based religion which offers an escape from the soulless, stressed-out, dehumanised, over-regulated and proceduralised existence which is modern urban life. Nature festivals and rituals are extremely important in Wicca. There are eight of these representing turning points of the year which are the two solstices, the two equinoxes, and the four pivotal Celtic festivals:

  • Candlemas on February 1st - 2nd. Offering of lights to the Goddess in the aspect of the Maiden. Lengthening of the days becomes perceptible.
  • Beltane or May Eve on April 30th - May 1st. A fertility festival. Offerings of garlands to the Goddess in the aspect of the Mother.
  • Lammas 31st July - 1st August - beginning of the harvest.
  • Halloween 31st October. The death of the year. Festival of ghosts and spirits. Fires, lanterns and fireworks.
The turning of the year also symbolises the processes of birth, death and rebirth of the individual. To the jaded city-dweller, these ancient numinous festivals with their evocative names and customs seem to offer a glimpse of a long-lost pastoral idyll.

Seasonal festivals of the Prajnas
The FWBO has a program of ritually celebrating the female Buddhas, or Prajnas, on the day and time of the year associated with each of them. The cycle begins with the Summer Solstice and female Buddha Mamaki.

The Autumn Equinox, is a ceremony dedicated to Pandaravasini, the female Buddha of the Western direction associated with dusk and the wisdom of uniqueness.

Later in the year it is the turn of Samayatara, the female Buddha of the Northern direction associated with midnight and the wisdom of action (Halloween/Samhain); and Akasadhatesvari, the female Buddha at the centre of the Mandala beyond time and space. She is associated with the ineffable wisdom of the Transcendental. Her ceremony takes place at the time of the Winter Solstice.

 More information on Tantra in Volume 2 (downloadable) of

- Sean Robsville

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


Islam will Dominate - What Pagans and Buddhists should know about Islam

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind 

Celtic and Buddhist symbolism - triskelions

Celtic Buddhism - Buddhism in pre-Christian Britain

Honoring the Feminine in Buddhism

Alchemical Symbolism, Imagery and Visualizations in Tantric Buddhism

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Buddha Tara Mantra and Seed Syllable TAM

Buddhism, Shamanism and the use of Psychedelics

Why Beauty Matters - Spiritual Art versus the Cult of Ugliness

Buddhist Candlemas





Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog, great information. You provide a very insightful point of view. Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Wicca does not predate Christianity. Indigenous beliefs of the various peoples of Europe certainly do, but those were not Wicca.

Anonymous said...

Very informative.Thanks for the blog.