Jennifer Hawk, LLL
beliefs about witches during the Rennaisance were
influenced by old legends spread throughout the
as a Renaissance bard and playwright, would have been familiar with these
bardic tales, as would have a great majority of
the population. Storytelling was, no doubt, one way to pass
the time, and a popular means of entertainment.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, display pagan themes
found in the old bardic tales. In the play Macbeth,
would have re-enacted this resurrection story in their own rituals, as Graves
writes in his book, The White Goddess, “The May-eve goat, as is clear
from the English witch ceremonies and from the Swedish May-play, Bukkerwise,
was mated to the goddess, sacrificed and resurrected: that is to say, the
Priestess had public connection with the annual king dressed in goatskins,
and either he was then killed and resurrected in the form of his successor,
or else a goat was sacrificed in his stead and his reign prolonged (404).” The sacrifice of the King was done to grant
fertility to the coming year. Shakespeare
alludes to this ancient myth in the many similes and metaphors of planting.
Three Witches of Macbeth give us the closest glimpse of witchcraft beliefs
in Shakespeare’s time. The significance of three witches is that the
number three, was an important symbol of paganism, as it eventually became
for the Christian church in the form of the Trinity. The goddess of the witches is the Moon Goddess,
which traditionally has been attributed three phases. “The New Moon is the white goddess of birth
and growth; the Full Moon, the red goddess of love and battle; the Old Moon,
the black goddess of death and divination (
witches could also be a reference to the Three Fates, of which a Renaissance
audience would have been familiar. The
Three Witches can tell the future, and thus have learned to manipulate the
fate of men. The third witch says to Macbeth, “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none (1.3,67).” The legends of three hags was also found in
the ancient legends of the Celts. “In
the Cuchulain saga three hags spitted a dog, Cuchulain’s sacred animal, on rowan twigs, to procure his
is mentioned in Macbeth, as the leader of the Three Witches. Hecate, the goddess,
has been the most affiliated with witcraft. She is the death aspect of the three phases
of the goddess; the hag. Hecate was later known, especially in part of
very popular myth of the witch alluded to in Macbeth, was the witch’s familiar. Most witch’s depicted in modern day, usually
have a black cat at their side. Familiars
were often believed to be spirits given to the witch by the Devil.
Rebecca Jones, a witch tried in
were a common familiar. “They seem to have been associated with sorcerer
owing to the repugnance they generally excite…(158).” Toads were thought to be poisonous and may even
cause “palpitations, spasms, convulsions, and swoons (158).” It is not surprising that toads were also an
important part of ancient magic as well. Familiars
may have arisen from the worship of certain animals that were considered sacred
to certain gods and goddesses. Toads were associated with the toadstool.
“The hundred-headed serpant watching over the jeweled
Cats were also worshipped by the Celts, in particular the Irish. “In The Proceedings of the Bardic Academy the Knowth burial chamber is said to have been the home of the King-cat Irusan, who was as large as a plough-ox and once bore Seanchan Torpest, the chief-ollave (poet) of Ireland, away on its back in revenge for a satire (Graves 221).” Horses were also considered sacred to the goddess, hence the enduring taboo on eating horseflesh. Horses were only eaten in honor of the goddess. During the inauguration of a petty king, a symbolic rebirth from a white mare was played out. “He crawled naked towards her on all fours as if he were her foal; she was then slaughtered, and her pieced boiled in a cauldron. He himself entered the cauldron and began sucking up the broth and eating the flesh. Afterwards, he stood on an inauguration stone, was presented with a straight white wand, and turned three times from left to right, and then three times from right to left (Graves 384).”
witch’s cauldron is also made mention of in Macbeth.
In it, the Three Witches concoct their spells.
The cauldron has always been a symbol of the goddess. In the Romance, Mabinogeon,
of Welsh origin, Cerridwen, the goddess, has two
children; Creirwey, the most beautiful girl, and
Afagddu, the ugliest boy.
She decides to make the boy very intelligent to off-set his ugliness.
So, she creates a cauldron of inspiration and knowledge (
The adjective Weird is used to describe the witches. This also solidifies their antagonistic nature. The adjective could mean simply strange and outlandish, but weird can also mean rival or other half. “The weird, or rival, often appears in nightmare as the tall, lean, dark-faced bed-side spectre or Prince of the Air, who tried to drag the dreamer out through the window, so that he looks back and sees his body still lying rigid in bed…(Graves 24)” The sisters are the pure destructive part of nature, the rival to the constructive force of man. They are the storms that send sailors to their deaths at sea. They are the ones who give Macbeth the insight that leads him to murder the King. Through them, nature’s destructiveness becomes all to prevelant. It is up to the new king, Malcolm, to set the world to right.
One feature of Shakespeare’s witches that remains noticeable absent it the appearance or mention of Satan. Renaissance beliefs in witches, as evidenced in the witch trials, always included lurid meetings with a Satan figure. Shakespeare ommitts him. It may be that Shakespeare was delving deeper into the past, seeking the root of the beliefs in an ancient bardic past. The witches are depicted as legends come to life, rather than the mundane witches read about in the witch trials. Rather than merely copying the beliefs about witches prevalent in his time, Shakespeare has successfully brought to light elements of the ancient past.
Briggs, K.M. Pale Hecate’s Team.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess.
Summers, Montague. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.