The image of women around a cauldron was cemented in Western literature by its inclusion in the stage directions of The Tragedy of Macbeth by Shakespeare. The couplet of “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”, appearing in Act 4 of the play, has been copied, referenced, and parodied thousands, if not tens-of-thousands, of times since its first appearance. Yet, even this inclusion of women around a cauldron was not new. At the time, it was already a cliché.
It was easy to reference a cauldron and have some women around it, as audiences would know what this meant. In the post Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Bronze Cauldron, Stephanie Appleton (2011) notes how the cauldron was a common, everyday item for audiences of Macbeth. An etymology of the word places it sometime circa 1300 CE with its roots in the Latin word calidus (“warm, hot”). Transformed through French and into English trying to mimic Late Latin, the word “cauldron” appears in the more modern vernacular as more closely associated with its more magical nature than the cooking tool used by the audiences to Shakespeare’s plays.
Yet, and as noted by Appleton (2011) directly and Shakespeare more indirectly, the cauldron is closely tied to feminine domesticity. Cooking was considered a deeply feminine act to Shakespeare’s audiences, as it was connected to taking care of a household. The cauldron would be something women would stand around while they were cooking, boiling, or doing any number of household tasks. The witches in Macbeth are a reference to this practice, but also a much more specific image. As Appleton (2011) explains, the witches “are not providing for their families by cooking food in the cauldron, as they should have done; they are instead using it to brew potions for their own evil ends” (para. 6). Evil perverts the domestic role of the cauldron.
The main character of Horizon: Zero Dawn is a daughter without a mother. This may seem a strange thing to note, but most of the game is deeply focused on roles in society. The game opens with a baby, Aloy, being named by her adoptive father and then proceeds to teach the player how to hunt the machines roaming the lands around the nearby tribe, the Nora. A couple of hours into the game, as Aloy grows from a baby into a young woman, the issue of her lacking a mother who can teach her repeats again. This time, she cannot be a part of the Nora tribe, as she is without a mother to sponsor her and her adoptive father is exiled from the tribe. However, as the game explains, there is a solution: if Aloy can prove she is a warrior by taking part in their trials and outperforming the other candidates for the role of brave, she can become part of the Nora tribe. There is, with all things in the Horizon: Zero Dawn world, a cost: as part of the tribe, she cannot talk to her adoptive father. If accepted by the tribe, she would have to follow its rules.
As controlled by the player, Aloy would have won the contest. However, another tribe attacks, murdering members of the Nora tribe, and somehow forcing the normally docile machines to attack them. Her adoptive father is killed and Aloy becomes a brave as one of the few survivors of the trial. It is then revealed by one of matriarchs of the tribe a secret only they know: Aloy was birthed by the holy mountain. She does not have a mother because the mountain created her. In a scene where Aloy confronts the “mountain,” the player learns something it takes Aloy much of the in-world time to learn: she was created by a machine. Unlike the other people of her now tribe, she was created in the image of another woman, one from the past.
Since the “holy mountain” speaks to Aloy, the matriarchs task her with finding out why the other tribe attacked and machines are becoming more hostile. She is then thrust into the larger world, leaving her homeland, grave of her adoptive father, and all the family she has even known behind her. This is the cost of being a brave for her people: she must give up her needs for the needs of the community. They need answers, so she must seek them out.
In the first town she encounters outside of her tribe’s area, Mother’s Crown, Aloy encounters a character named Dral. The purpose of this minor character is to tell the player about a new, recurring element in the game. Dral explains how she found some machines guarding what looked like a large door on the side of a mountain, but there was no way to access it. After being attacked for being too close, Dral managed to escape and find her way back. These Cauldrons, as the game supplies for the player, are in various positions throughout the world. The nearby one, marked on the player’s map, is named SIGMA.
Found where Dral points out (and the game’s map includes), Aloy finds a large door she can access. Inside is another, strange world to the more natural setting of the game. Large machines move around and the walls are lines with tubes and smooth edges. As the player quickly learns, these Cauldrons are where the machines are born. They are created here to be released in other places. As Aloy progresses into SIGMA, she and the player also learn something else: they are well-guarded. Adventuring into the innermost sanctum prompts a fight with a large machine in close quarters. Winning this fight, though, grants Aloy control over certain machines for a short period of time.
One after another, the player can take on these challenging locations and grant Aloy more control over the machines of her world. At the same time, something else becomes evident: these Cauldrons are not working as they should. They have been taken over by some other entity and forced to make more aggressive machines. Something beyond the original design of these “birthing” processes is making them break from their role.
During the climax of the game, Aloy learns about her past and why she was created. She was made in the image of Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, the leader of project Zero Dawn. After a glitch caused some robots to continue to expand beyond the controls of their inventors and convert all available biomass into new units in an exponentially growing army of killer robots, it was decided the only way to survive was to let the world die and for to be reborn in a new “dawn.” Dr. Sobeck created project Zero Dawn with the purpose of creating a series of artificial intelligences to restart humans after the machines had finally been stopped. Humans would die off as an AI spent the decades to crack the encryption and then broadcast the stop codes to all of the machines devouring the world. Once they had been deactivated, the AI were to then re-create humanity and build new machines to terraform the old world anew.
Once the machines had been deactivated and this new “dawn” plan started, something went wrong. HADES, an AI tasked with restarting the plan back to zero if anything should go wrong the first time, gained greater control. Instead of being in reserve, it began to grow and slowly take over other AI and processes. Soon, the guardian AI, GAIA, was faced with a problem: it could not win against this cancer program and was being absorbed into its processes. The solution was to find the perfect, protected place for a child and then re-create her own creator. Using the DNA on file, GAIA used the machines who previously were used to re-make humanity to do one final act: make a clone of Dr. Elisabet Sobeck. Thus, as GAIA was consumed by HADES, Aloy was born in the Nora area.
Aloy does not have a mother, but she does, as she learns late in the game, have a past role model to follow. One who gave up everything to preserve a future for humanity. And her task, as given to her by GAIA, is to defeat the corruption of HADES as it tries to bring the entire world back to “zero” through taking over the Cauldrons and forcing them to make aggressive machines to defeat humanity.
The use of the word “cauldron” in Horizon: Zero Dawn is supposed to evoke a place of fire and danger. All of the Cauldrons in the game are challenging areas where the player must overcome puzzles, enemies, and then defeat some last threat. Yet, like with Shakespeare’s use in Macbeth, it also carries with it the strong association with feminine domesticity. After all, as the player learns, the Cauldrons are supposed to be the birth places where the machine who are trying to restore the Earth are created. At the same time, these machines are supposed to be fairly docile, as their tasks are to mimic now extinctic animals and help fix the ecosystem through caring for their “household,” the world. HADES corrupted both and twisted them to a new purpose of destruction.
This connection with feminine domesticity and the game’s focus on how people play “roles” in society goes much deeper than its simple use of the root meaning of “cauldron” as a place of “warm, hot,” through. As with the revealed sacrifice of Dr. Sobeck to give up her life to save others, the final act of GAIA to create life, and even Aloy’s own action to leave her home to find answers to her tribe’s questions, Horizon: Zero Dawn wants to ponder why mothers act as they do for those under their care. However, the answer the game comes up at the end is that mothers must give up themselves. The good of society, of humanity in the case of Dr. Sobeck, is to sacrifice for others. When given the opportunity, a mother must die.
The prize for finishing a Cauldron in Horizon: Zero Dawn is greater control for Aloy. She gains the ability to override machines and have them fight for her. She also learns more about the world that came before her. Yet, in being granted this new agency, the game reminds the player of their own goal: they cannot stay with any one group of people, ever engage in a romantic relationship, or even get to know any character beyond running errands or protecting them. No, Aloy must stand by the Cauldrons. She must protect the world. She cannot have a life once she becomes a “mother” to the world. Like GAIA and Dr. Sobeck before her, she must move on, move out, and take care of others around her. This is her role, passed from mother to daughter.