Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into some of the magical beliefs of that time.

 

out of; (c) Royal Shakespeare Company Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights hast thirty one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,

Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,

Liver of blaspheming Jew,

Gall of goat, and slips of yew

Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,

Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,

Finger of birth-strangled babe

Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,

Make the gruel thick and slab:

Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,

For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.”

The Jacobean audience believed that witches brewed such diabolical charms, and seeing this dramatic scene live on stage they would likely have been terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let us take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to the London theatres. Therefore, it is not surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed that all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression, and that explains why the majority of accused witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat – are added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It did not matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  Much more important were the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!

Witch Circle

Sources:

Beale, Nigel. “Macbeth and what was in the Witches Brew” (Literary Tourist) http://literarytourist.com/2009/10/macbeth-and-what-was-in-the-witches-brew/ accessed 2/2/2015

Foy, Catt. “A Witch’s Brew: Recipe by Shakespeare” in Witches & Pagans #29 (Oregon: BBI Media, Spring, 2014) pages 24-26.

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie Books, 2010)

Stuart, Malcolm. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987)

Love Potions

Night hearts

The topic for this Valentine’s week is love potions!  What are they made from?  Who uses them?  Do they work?

In Wicked Enchantments, Joyce Froome describes an array of magical charms used throughout the ages and recorded in the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall, England.  These include: sticking a certain number of pins into an apple or onion while chanting a rhyme; specific astrological symbols engraved on a box as a love talisman; carrying henbane root to make you appear more attractive; piercing knotted cords with pins; throwing salt on the fire while reciting a chant on three consecutive Fridays;  melting a wax heart over a hot tile while casting a charm that will bind the lover to your will;  and pushing pins in the sleeve with a prayer for each one so you will dream of your future spouse.  And quoting from The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, Froome explains that a typical magical drink contained items such as periwinkle, houseleek,  and earthworms!

Candle hearts

Over the centuries love potions have appealed to young women in search of a husband; those who’ve lost their sweethearts and wish to lure them back; lovers in search of willing bed partners; and insecure people needing outside support, especially when they’ve already been rebuffed.  Cunning folk were only to happy to oblige and had a fifty-fifty chance of providing satisfaction, though of course they were conjuring up sexual allure and attraction, rather than genuine love.

There is some scientific research suggesting that modern-day “love potions” may actually affect human mood  – for example, those based on odors containing jasmine, rose, and vanilla.  Smells can trigger pheromones and create longing, attraction, or remind the person of happy erotic memories from their past.  Several products on the market contain chemical pheromones which supposedly make the wearer sexually irresistible.  Likewise, in the time before Viagra, certain herbs were used to increase the blood flow and stimulate arousal.  But did they really work?  What do you think?

Source:

Froome, Joyce. Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2010)

Fairy Dust

A few wires –

a leap from reality –

and Peter Pan took flight

through fairy dust

in front of us

on an ordinary weekday night.

And glitter

shone in the eyes of the child

sat there all evening

stock still – grinning –

finger in mouth –

catching his breath and believing

every tick

of the crocodile’s tock-clock,

and each brave sword blow,

walking the plank –

taking the plunge –

without ever needing to slow.

Peter Pan

And I ask

myself why the magic is

sham and corrupt,

in failing to

 ward off those

pirates of old –  our growing up?

(Degrassi Wiki Gif in Public Domain)

What Do You Believe?

For thousands of years people believed in magic.  They were simple folk – often afraid and confused – unable to grasp the scientific world around them.

Sabbat

They struggled to:

* explain natural events

* understand why bad things happened

* barter with fate

* accept their place and rank in society

* influence things around them

* blame unseen forces when things went wrong

* believe in, and belong to, something bigger than themselves

* grapple with supernatural forces and events

* worship a greater power as part of a divine plan

* and find solace in a harsh, unfair world.

 

According to Sigmund Freud, each civilization passes through three distinct stages of development.

In the Magical Phase the primitive does not understand a natural phenomenon like rainfall, but he knows he needs water to survive.  By creating a ritual – rain dancing for example – he believes he can influence the weather to obey his wishes.

As society progresses the community enters the Religious Phase.  The rain-seeking ritual develops into an intricate rite of prayer, song, dance, and sacrifice, whereby the worshippers barter with the gods for their precious water.

But once the mechanics of rainfall are understood as a process of evaporation and cloud formation, that society progresses into the Scientific Phase.  At this point, Freud argues, there should be no more need for religious or  superstitious belief.  “Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality” without which the masses “could not bear the troubles of life and the cruelties of reality.”

Was Freud correct though?  Even in today’s super-scientific space age a huge portion of the globe still follows the religious beliefs of their ancestors, and paganism is on the rise.

It turns out science does not have all the answers.  It might satisfy the mind but it cannot soothe the wounded soul!

Source:

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion.  New York: Norton, 1989.

Bruce Springsteen’s Magic

MAGIC

(Bruce Springsteen)

I got a coin in your palm,
I can make it disappear.
I got a card up my sleeve,
Name it, and I’ll pull it out your ear.
I got a rabbit in the hat,
If you wanna come and see.
This is what will be.
This is what will be.

I got shackles on my wrists,
Soon I’ll slip and I’ll be gone.
Chain me in a box in the river,
And I rise up in the sun.
Trust none of what you hear,
And less of what you see.
This is what will be.
This is what will be.

 

magic

I’ll cut you in half,                                                                                                                                                                I got a shiny saw blade.                                                                                                                                                   All I need’s a volunteer,
I’ll cut you in half,
While you’re smiling ear to ear.
And the freedom that you sought,
Drifting like a ghost amongst the trees.
This is what will be.
This is what will be.

Now there’s a fire down below,
But it’s coming up here.
So leave everything you know,
Carry only what you fear.
On the road the sun is sinking low,
Bodies hanging in the trees.
This is what will be.
This is what will be.

And here’s The Boss himself:

Abracadabra!

  • Abracadabra is the famous magical word that is still used today by stage conjurers.
  • It may have derived from an ancient Jewish cure for sickness that went:

Ab Abr Abra Abrak Abraka

Abrakal Abrakala Abrakal

Abraka Abrak Abra Abr Ab

  • Another theory is that it came from the followers of Basilides who worshipped a god called Abraxas.   He ruled the 365 days of the year. The 7 letters of his name may represent the 7 astrological planets that control fate.
  • The first recorded use of Abracadabra was made by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, who was the doctor of the Roman Emperors Caracalla, Geta, and Severus.  In 208 AD he accompanied Emperor Severus on his expedition to Britain.
  • The word was used as a healing charm set out like this:

Abracadabra

  • These letters were written on paper and tied around the patient’s neck with a length of flax.  After 9 days the charm was thrown backwards over the shoulder into an east-moving stream.  As the words shrank away, so did the fever.
  • According to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) people thought the Black Death was caused by an evil spirit taking possession of the body.  A similar Abracadabra spell was used to ward of the sickness using the power of magic.
  • Many favorite charms were written in pyramid form.  These amulets would be worn on the body, kept under the bed, or placed in a box and hidden somewhere about the home.

Sources:

Man, Myth and Magic.  “Abracadabra” (London: Purnell, 1970)

Wikipedia. “Abracadabra,” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abracadabra