Coldpot: The Magic Word of the Witch’s Cauldron
by Craig Conley
HARRY: What’s the magic word?
—Mary Chase, Midgie Purvis (1963)
Magic words have the power to reawaken vestiges of humankind’s earliest communication—our ancient ancestors’ savage cries of anger or love. All such cries were commands, “originally bound up with the act” and indeed inseparable to the primitive mind. Much in the way that a small child learns to conjure up a parent from the unseen void of an adjoining room, simply by employing a magic word like “Mama,” we can reflect that “The savage called his friend’s name, and saw his friend turn and answer; what more natural to conclude than that the name itself in some way compelled an answer?”1
Eons later, words are still magic:
Dipped in the wisdom
Of our ancestors
Words pluck strings reaching far through time2
The word, “having originally formed part of the act, is able to evoke all the concrete emotional contents of the act. Love cries, for instance, which lead up to the sexual act are obviously among the most primitive words; henceforward these and all other words alluding to the act retain a definite emotional charge.”3 One needn’t look far to observe that those words which reference “the act” are indeed remarkable in their power to arouse, titillate, shock, offend, and even amuse.
Magic words, to use the colorful phraseology of diarist Anaïs Nin, are like fugitives from a subtle world of fairy tales and dreams, “beyond the law of gravity [and] chaos.” They comprise a mysterious language “which is shadowy and full of reverberations” and deep in meaning. They catch the essence of “what we pursue in the night dream, and which eludes us, the incident which evaporates as we awake.”4 They establish a sacred space where miracles can occur. And of course they trigger transformations. “‘Magic words’ . . . immediately lead to action and transform reality.”5
Delving through dusty old tomes in search of ancient expressions of enchantment, I noticed that one word in particular seems the very essence of witchery. Coldpot! With the purity of a singing bowl, this mystic word resonates alchemy and conjures images of a witch’s cauldron. Recalling the “cold pot” of metallurgy, this odd compound word fuses a rounded form (“pot”) with a degree of intensity (“cold”), suggesting alchemical coagulation.6 The more I studied this unusual word coldpot, the more magic I discovered within it. Indeed, coldpot is brimming with expectations, unlikelihoods, fulfillments of high commands, and even a dollop of danger.
Like black holes bending the very fabric of space, cold pots are famous for disrupting the flow of time. Lest you forget, “Nothing makes time pass more slowly than waiting for a cold pot to boil.”7 The quaint folk wisdom that a watched pot won’t boil actually speaks to the “observer effect” in physics, in which the act of witnessing changes the beheld phenomenon. It’s as if the cold pot is saying, “Don’t look at me—I’m merely the vehicle for the change you desire. Focus on what’s important, and take all the time you need.”
A cold pot calls for a spark, as the Sufi mystics have said. For “fire is put under the cold pot, not the pot which is boiling over.”8 Ignition and expectation—both are at the heart of the magic word coldpot. Within the word itself is contained the possibility of highly-unlikely events coming to pass. Statistically speaking, “a cold pot of water could spontaneously come to a boil; it is simply not very likely. But unlikely events are quasi-certain to happen if we wait long enough.”9 The sparkling occurrence of highly-unlikely events is the very heart of magic.
My mouth is parched for want of a cold pot.
—Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun (1964)
Granted, coldpot resonates with risk, as one is “especially [to] avoid pouring hot water into a cold pot”10 so as to avoid “rapid and uneven thermal expansion, which can easily crack the pot.”11 A cold pot would seem to demand the basic principle of homeopathy: “like with like” (cold water being best suited to a cold pot). The fact that “we can see water condense on the outside of a cold pot placed over a gas flame”12 further illustrates the concept of “like with like.” A cold pot also demands that a process (such as the heating of water) occur in its proper time (slowly warming by degrees). In terms of magic, the word coldpot testifies to an effect occurring in the fullness of time, according to resonant coincidences (“like with like”).
You’ve always got to start with a cold pot.
—Ronni Lundy, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken (1994)
The “fuzzy logic” of hybrid system science helps to illuminate how a cold pot clears one’s mind of base instincts and allows high-level mental commands (what we might call the intentions of spellworking) to be carried out unhindered by reflexes (what we might liken to undermining distractions). Physicist Michael Branicky explains:
Consider the act of picking up a pot on the stove. You plan to pick the pot off the burner and place it on a plate. On a lower level, your brain commands your muscles to perform the task. If all is right, you perform the task as planned. However, if the pot is too hot, your reflexes will override the “higher level planning” and command your hand to move quickly away from the danger of getting burned. A low level intelligence (your reflexes) refuses to carry out the “higher level” plans, saving you some pain. However, they only act when it is necessary to do so. Your hand does not jerk away from a cold pot.13
From neural nets to the web of magic, a cold pot speaks of the fulfillment of high commands, unencumbered by base instincts.
The Power is in How You Say It
It has been said that the ‘secret’ of magic words is this: “It doesn’t matter what you say as much as it matters how you say it!”14 Naturally, each of us must make coldpot our own, so that its utterance flows comfortably and seamlessly—though nonetheless mysteriously—from our lips. However, with unfamiliar words, it is generally recommended that you vocalize as much vibration as possible, “as you would any mantra. Emphasis on each syllable, so that you can hear it resonate and feel it vibrate within you, is the key. The sound of any power-word or name seeks and harnesses that power. When this sound is combined with concentration and visualization, you stir the energy and power to which you are heir” as a magic practitioner.15 The very act of “speech is the ‘Open Sesame,’ the magical power.”16 Note that the act of speech is where the magic is. Kabbalah scholar Phillip Cooper reminds us that “No word or statement contains power—power lies within the mind of the person who speaks those words.”17
Speak coldpot with all the mystery, wonder, and sense of danger of saying “I love you” for the first time. The lover who is about to make that critical verbal leap speaks with a courage that is, ideally, tempered by a healthy respect for consequences beyond his or her control. Coldpot spoken with a vivid awareness of repercussions would sound courageous but not haughty, determined but not sanguine, adventurous but not reckless. When a magic word is imbued with these intangible qualities of mystery and wonder, some people might describe it as sounding “spooky,” and indeed “This is the magic of words—a touch of the supernatural” that addresses the spirit.18
The Magnum Opus of the Cold Pot
The fire was dead, the cauldron cold,
And in it lay, in sleep unrolled,
Fair as the morning-star, a child,
That woke, and stretched its arms, and smiled.
—Thomas Love Peacock, “The Misfortunes of Elphin” (1875)
Consider these intriguing lines by the poet Tristan Corbiere which take us back to the witch’s cauldron:
For us the cold pot the kettle calls black,
Our gall ladled out is our only surplus.
To be sure it’s for that, not the honey-pot, I’m covetous.19
Corbiere begins by turning a familiar saying inside out. Instead of “the pot calling the kettle black,” he suggests that we are the cold pot that the kettle calls black. He places us inside the sacred space of the pot. The ladling out of gall alludes to entrails tossed into the pot (à la the classic recipe of the three “weird sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Transmuted by the alchemy of the pot, our gall (literally our bitterness) is purified and sweetly released. Here, described in three short lines, is the Magnum opus of the cold pot. Base matter transforms into golden honey.
Speaking of sisters around a cauldron in Macbeth, in the Santal language “cold pot” is the name for a tribe of girls.20 The name refers to a creation myth about how the children of the first human pair met. It’s the perfect name for any community that dares to begin “stirring a cold pot and stok[ing] a long-dead fire that would get things going, the outcome of which was unknown, and couldn’t even be guessed at.”21
From Cauldron to Flower Pot
Witch-pot, that never boils, nor will, till earth
Spouts up again her molten slag.
—Philip James Bailey, Festus: A Poem (1903)
Shakespeare’s three witches toiled over a cauldron in a forest clearing. The famous recipe of their magical brew actually contains exotic folk names for common medicinal herbs, some of which appear in grimoires that sought to disguise esoteric knowledge. Take away the fire, and the cauldron of witchery becomes a flower pot in the garden. Let’s explore the “ingredients” of Macbeth’s recipe to inspire our own herbal arrangement in a cold pot—a living tribute to the renowned “weird sisters.”
- Cat’s Claw / uncaria tomentosa
“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d” (Macbeth)
This anti-inflammatory medicinal plant is known as the “sacred herb of the rainforest.” It is a strong climber by virtue of the claw-like thorns at the base of each leaf.
- Hedgehog / echinacea
“Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d” (Macbeth)
This immune stimulating medicinal plant has purple, cone-shaped flowers and multiplies rapidly.
- Toad shade / trillium sessile
“Toad, that under cold stone” (Macbeth)
This broad-spectrum medicinal plant has mottled, stemless leaves and maroon petals. Mystic qualities have been conferred upon it because its leaves grow in threes, connecting it to the Holy Trinity.
- Indian Turnip / arisaema triphyllum
“Fillet of a fenny snake” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here uses a folk name for Indian Turnip. Also known as “Jack in the Pulpit” and “Snake’s Meat,” this medicinal herb (with ocular applications) features a unique spathe of green and purple streaks and a spadix with tiny male and female flowers. It emits a curious odor for which it is known by some as “Rats and Mice.”
- Daisy / bellis perennis
“Eye of newt” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here uses a folk name for Daisy. Deriving its name from “day’s eye,” this plant has numerous medicinal applications and is often associated with the protective qualities of the Sun. Its white petals surround a yellow disk.
- Bulbous Buttercup / ranunculus bulbosus
“Toe of frog” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here uses a folk name for Bulbous Buttercup. Also known as “Frog’s Foot,” this poisonous yellow flower has topical medicinal applications.
- Holly / ilex aquifolium
“Wool of bat” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here uses a folk name for leaves of Holly. The spiny-edged leaves of this plant (associated with Jesus’ crown of thorns) are diuretic, and its red berries are purgative.
- Houndstongue / cynglossum officinale
“Tongue of dog” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here uses a folk name for Houndstongue. The rough, tongue-shaped leaves and reddish-purple flowers are poisonous to animals, hence its reputation for “quieting” a dog’s barking.
- Dogstooth Violet / erythronium multiscapoideum
“Adder’s fork” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here likely refers to the folk name for Dogstooth Violet. Also known as “Serpent’s Tongue,” this purifying medicinal plant has a tooth-shaped bulb and white flowers with yellow centers.
- Wormwood / artemisia absinthium
“Blind-worm’s sting” (Macbeth)
This medicinal herb is a primary ingredient in absinthe and may be used for flavoring spirits such as vermouth. Though used in small dosages to treat digestive ailments, the pure oil of the plant is poisonous.
- Lizard’s Tail / anemposis californica
“Lizard’s leg” (Macbeth)
Also known as “Yerba Mansa,” this anti-inflammatory medicinal groundcover has yellowish-white spikes surrounded by petals with a mentholated aroma. Lizard’s Tail is poetically known for “sowing the ground with stars.”
- Owl’s Clover / castilleja densiflora
“Owlet’s wing” (Macbeth)
This plant has purple, plume-shaped flowers. Its relationship to owls and clovers is not known.
- Dragon’s Blood / daemomorops draco
“Scale of dragon” (Macbeth)
Also known as “Blood and Blume,” the resin from this medicinal plant is purgative. Dragon’s Blood is commonly smouldered as incense, its scent similar to frankincense.
- Wolfsbane / acontium
“Tooth of wolf” (Macbeth)
Also known as “Monkshood,” this medicinal herb with sedative properties is a member of the buttercup family. Its petals form nectaries and may be any of a number of colors. Wolfsbane is commonly associated with lycanthropy, either to induce or decrease the condition.
- Witch Herb / artemisia vulgaris
“Witches’ mummy” (Macbeth)
Popularly known as “Mugwort,” this medicinal herb may stimulate menstruation. Witch Herb is an aromatic perennial sacred to Druids and ritually used for divination.
- Hemlock / conium maculatum
“Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark” (Macbeth)
This highly poisonous plant is not recommended, as it may prove fatal to humans and animals even in very small quantities. Its small, white flowers cluster above lacy leaves which closely resemble fennel or parsley.
- Goat’s Rue / galega officinalis
“Gall of goat” (Macbeth)
Also called “The Professor Weed,” this medicinal plant increases lactation and reduces fevers. Its flowers are profuse, unscented, and usually purple or white.
- Yew / taxus baccata
“Slips of yew” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare here refers to the bark of the yew tree. This evergreen with poisonous bright red berries is sacred to Druids and associated with places of worship.
- Great Mullein / verbascum thapsus
“Nose of Turk” (Macbeth)
There is speculation that Shakespeare here uses a folk name for Mullein. Also known as “Aaron’s Rod,” this medicinal herb with sedative properties has small yellow flowers densely grouped on a tall stem.
- Sour Cherry / prunus cerasus
“Tartar’s lips” (Macbeth)
There is speculation that Shakespeare here uses a folk name for cherries. This red medicinal fruit contains a stony seed. Cherries have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Tiger Herb / centella asiatica
“Tiger’s chaudron” (Macbeth)
Also known as “gotu kola,” this medicinal trailing herb has round leaves and inconspicuous flowers. In India, the herb is so-named because wounded tigers often roll themselves in it. Tiger Herb is a general tonic.
- Dill / peucedanum graveolens
“Baboon’s blood” (Macbeth)
There is speculation that Shakespeare here uses a folk name for dill juice. This aromatic medicinal herb is commonly used to treat digestive ailments.
1 Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain (1953)
2 Blain Bovee, The Sabian Symbols & Astrological Analysis (2004)
3 Jean Piaget, Language and Thought of the Child (1926)
4 Anaïs Nin, Fire: From ‘A Journal of Love’: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1934-1937 (1995)
5 Anthony Olszewski, “When Baraka Blows His Horn” (2004)
6 For example, “a cold pot full of something congealed” is described in The Heirs by G. Y. Dryansky (1978)
7 This old saying is recalled by Leon Uris in A God in Ruins (2000)
8 Jalal al-Din Rumi, Tales from the Masnavi (1961)
9 Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics (2003)
10 Thomas J. Elpei, Participating in Nature (2002)
11 A. D. Livingston, Duck and Goose Cookbook (1997)
12 Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, Animal Physiology: Adaptation and Environment (1997)
13 “On-line, Reflexive Constraint Satisfaction for Hybrid Systems: First Steps,” in Oded Maler (Ed.), Hybrid and Real-Time Systems (1997)
14 Joseph Max, quoted by Azaz Cythrawl (1999)
15 Eleanor L. Harris, Ancient Egyptian Divination and Magic (1998)
16 C. Van Ripper and L. Emerick, quoted in Everybody Belongs by Arthur Shapiro (1999). Similarly, “Words are open sesames to secret caves” (Frank Lentricchia, Introducing Don Delillo ).
17 Esoteric Magic and the Cabala (2002)
18 Gladys Hunt, Honey for a Child’s Heart (2002)
19 “Paris By Day,” The Centenary Corbiere (2003)
20 Paul Olaf Bodding, A Santal Dictionary (1936)
21 Ralph Hunter, Winter’s Stormy Rage (2001)