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Cast iron has been a tool and friend of mankind since its invention in China in the fifth century BC. While the use of bronze predates the use of iron in everyday use by several thousand years (when the myths and legends that form the basis of witchcraft and mysticism were spun), the magickal properties of iron continue to be a potent and important part of spellcraft. For any practicing magician incorporating magickal objects into his or her rituals and spellcraft, possession of a piece of iron is essential; many altars have at least one piece of iron placed upon them. Ranging from rare daggers or wands of wrought iron, to the use of cast iron nails and horseshoes as objects for magickal focus or ingredients in spellcasting, objects of cast iron are a significant part of everyday magic and ritual. Of course, a cast iron cauldron is a famous, traditional, and very useful tool for any modern witch, for tasks ranging from burning herbs and incense, to magickal scrying and divination, to kitchen witchery and cooking magick.
Before cast iron, tools and weapons of iron were made by hand, when raw iron ore was forged, beaten and shaped into useful objects; this was "cold iron" because once cooled, it felt cold to the touch. The development of blast furnaces allowed iron ore to be melted, purified, and poured into casting molds to produce iron parts and objects, rather than being forged by hand. With the advent of cast iron, "cold iron" was supplanted by molded iron with different levels of purity. "Wrought iron" was originally a type of cast iron with a low carbon content, making the iron more malleable and flexible while still retaining much of its durability; this was the type of iron originally used for iron-based construction (the great bridges spanning the world's major rivers were originally crafted from, or reinforced with, wrought iron), and for weapon smithing as well. From a purely material perspective, the distinguishing characteristic of wrought iron is that it has inclusions of silicon and sulfur – slag – which are leftover from the process by which the metal is extracted from the ore. Wrought iron is truly the classical form of iron, and back before the mass production of steel through the Bessemer process, this was the most commonly available form of iron, as steel was far more expensive.
Wrought iron was phased out of mass production when production of modern steel improved and became the manufacturing standard, around the time of the Victorian era; and wrought iron is no longer used on a wide scale. Today, the term "wrought iron" is often used to describe "iron that has been forged or shaped by hand." This gives special properties to iron that are useful and beneficial to magicians, and such objects of "wrought iron" are highly treasured. (Creating a magickal object with your own hands can be seen as a method of empowering the object with your own essence, as opposed to purchasing or finding an item elsewhere. This is one reason why hand-crafted objects of metal, including iron, have great personal value to their creators.) Meanwhile, the term "cold iron" has become purely poetic and magickal: "cold iron" is used to refer to the power iron has over Faerie folk, magickal entities and spirits. However, cast iron itself is a powerful tool, one that has seen much use throughout the ages as an essential medium for magick and spellcraft. If you are fortunate enough to own an object of wrought iron, use it with pride. But an object of common cast iron will serve you well, and will quickly become a trusted friend in your rituals.
Iron is a symbol of strength, protection, and life-giving warmth, as it is seen as a combination of the elements of Earth and Fire. Until the introduction of steel, iron was the most durable metal known to man, and this was reflected in mythology and folklore as well. Thor's hammer Mjolnir was forged of iron, and even in the Norse myths the legendary heat retention properties of iron were demonstrated: the hammer would become so hot when thrown, Thor wore iron gloves to protect his hands. The legendary strength and durability of iron makes it a natural component in spells of protection. Many a witch obtains items of iron, such as antique keys, padlocks, or spikes, and places them by the door of his or her home in order to keep out poltergeists and other unwanted spiritual visitors. In particular, iron horseshoes are seen as especially powerful charms, and of old it was said that nailing a horseshoe above one's door kept out the Fae folk – and witches, too! Even today, a horseshoe is often called a "lucky horseshoe," and many households have horseshoes hung or nailed on the wall near their religious icons.
Iron's magnetic and electrical conductive properties are also well known, and among pagans who profess belief in mystical energies of all sorts (from ley lines to orgone energy and beyond), iron is a good attractor of nearly all these forces. Iron has a place in symbolic interpretations, psychic readings, and dream interpretations. As a positive symbol, iron represents strength and durability, as it is heavy and nearly impossible to break when it is shaped. A reader or interpreter can use this to suggest that iron-clad friendships and iron-bound promises are likely to be kept. There is also a negative interpretation (as every yin has a yang): iron is heavy, a weight that presses down and holds one back. Iron shackles are notorious for their ability to keep prisoners and captives bound and prevent escape. Meanwhile, the vulnerability of iron to rust, which makes it brittle and easily shattered, can also suggest the breaking of a bond, contract, or even ending a relationship due to neglect and decay.
But when it comes to this special metal, by far the most popular piece of iron used in witchcraft is the cast iron cauldron. In Celtic mythology, the cauldron is associated with Cerridwen the Crone (or the Enchantress), the darker aspect of the Triple Goddess, keeper of the cauldron of knowledge and inspiration in the Underworld. Her magical cauldron held a potion that granted knowledge and inspiration; but it had to be brewed for a year and a day to reach its potency. Cauldrons symbolize not only the Goddess but also represent the womb (due to the fact that it holds something) and on an altar it represents earth because it is a working tool.
The brewing of magical potions in a cauldron is one of the most common and popular images of the witch, one as well known as the witch flying on her broom. Countless stories, both ancient and modern, tell of the witch mixing all kinds of impossible ingredients in her cauldron to produce a powerful potion. All of the aspects of iron come together – attracting, collecting, and retaining magickal power; the symbolic womb of the cauldron giving birth to a spell; and the usefulness of a cast iron pot as a tool for cooking, roasting, and boiling delicious, life-sustaining foods – to give a special potency to a potion or spell prepared in a witch's cauldron. For most modern-day witches, a cast iron cauldron is used to burn loose incense on a charcoal disc, to make black salt (used in banishing rituals), for mixing herbs, or to burn petitions (paper with sigils or wishes written on them).
The natural impurities (slag) and structure of antique wrought iron give it a more "organic" feel to practitioners of magic, as it gives the impression of being more "raw" and attuned to the Earth than processed steel. Unfortunately, since it mostly fell out of favor in production in the later part of the 19th century (AD), wrought iron is rather hard to come by today. True wrought iron can be scraped up at yard sales and flea markets if you know what to look for, but can be hard to distinguish from mild steel without applying a good heating. Common items to look for that are wrought iron that you may be able to find include nails, hooks, door latches, horseshoes, chain links, and anvils made before the twentieth century. The age of these items should be readily apparent, and you can tell that they have been wrought into shape by their geometric appearance - even curved and smooth surfaces will actually be composed of several small flat surfaces, from where the object was shaped by repeated blows from a hammer.
Cast iron on the other hand is very easy to come by, and it is more than adequate for use in magickal rituals. You may find some horseshoes made of cast iron, but these would be reproduction horseshoes – an original horseshoe was made of mild steel, since it needed to be bent and shaped to fit the hoof of its user; and cast iron is too brittle to do that. For a similar reason, you will never find an old nail made out of cast iron, as it would be so brittle that it would shatter if you hit it too hard. Your best bet for spotting cast iron is to look for metal objects which have clearly been cast into shape: they will often have a line that divides the two halves of the mold, called the flash or gate mark. These metals will be extremely hard and brittle. Perhaps the easiest way to identify something as cast iron is to look at its color. If it is a dark gray or black color, and has a rough surface, there is a good chance it is cast iron, as cast iron is not a stainless metal.
Most cast iron cauldrons seen with, and provided by, witchcraft suppliers are small in size, usually a few inches in diameter and a size between one pint and two quarts. Frankly, most of these shot-glass-sized cauldrons are useful only as cute decorations for your altar, and as such they're far overpriced. If you're interested in obtaining a larger-sized cast iron pot, one that can be used for actual cooking as well as ritual, these larger sized pots are available in a number of places (not often mentioned on pagan Web sites!). A modern-day cast iron dutch oven will perform wonderfully as a magickal cauldron (not to mention being a useful tool in the kitchen). If you specifically desire a cauldron shaped like the legendary medieval cast iron vessels, you can look for a European style gypsy pot, Scotch bowl, or an African potjie. In the American South, huge jambalaya pots can also be found that will serve as magnificent cauldrons – though they may be prohibitively expensive if brand new! In addition to the small pentagram-emblazoned cauldrons available from many New Age and occult stores, it is also possible to order dutch ovens from many different suppliers, ranging from Amazon to Wal-Mart. Furthermore, antique stores and fairs all across the country can be a useful source of vintage cast iron, in varying conditions. (Here's a hint: One of the largest antique fairs in the entire country is held in western Massachusetts three times per year: the Brimfield Antique Show. See also: www.brimfieldshow.com )
Finally, I offer some advice on maintaining cast iron so that it remains clean and free of rust:
…from MacBeth by William Shakespeare (Act IV, Scene 1):
A dark cave. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
[Enter the three Witches]
[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]