The Renaissance Beliefs about Witchcraft as Illustrated in Macbeth

Jennifer Hawk, LLL


The beliefs about witches during the Rennaisance were influenced by old legends spread throughout the British Isles by bards and minstrels.  These tales tell of a pagan past when it was common for people to practice magic and when many different gods and goddesses were prayed to.  These ancient deities had both good and evil facets.  It was not uncommon for a goddess to be destructive as well as creative.  This duality was unreconcilable to the Christians, who demonized these deities and the people who worshipped them.  During the time of Shakespeare, witches had become Satan worshippers, subject to deaths usually assigned to heretics.


Shakespeare, 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, Duncan the King is supplanted by Macbeth, who murders him.  The sacrifice of a king at the hands of a new king who will take his place is found in the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King.  The Holly King struggles against the Oak King, eventually killing him, thus bringing about wintertime’s dearth.  It is only when the Oak King returns to take the Holly King’s place that the fertility of Spring is brought back.  This simple tale is illustrated in Macbeth.  Macbeth plays the part of the Holly King who kills the good Oak King.  The world can only be brought to rights by the death of the Holly King and the rebirth of the Oak King, in this case, Malcolm (Graves 45).


Witches 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.  Duncan says to Banquo, “Welcome hither!  I have begun to plant thee, and will labor to make thee full of growing…(1.4.27)”  Banquo replies, “There if I grow, the harvest is your own.”  During the final scene of the play, when Malcolm is named king, Malcolm says, “What’s more to do Which could be planted newly with the time,…(5.8,66)”  With the new king Malcolm will come a renewed fertility.


The 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 (Graves, 70).”  This type of goddess is both good and evil. Shakespeare hints at this pagan duality in Macbeth.  The witches in the first scene of the play, use the phrase, “When the battle’s lost and won” and “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”.  Later, Macbeth comments on their prophecy in Scene 1.3, line 131 that “This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good.” 


The 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 death (Graves, 167).”  Cerridwen, a powerful goddess, often appeared as a hag.  She ate Gwion, who was then reborn as Taliesin, a famous bard.  In the story of St. Samson of Dol, a medieval hero, a “…grey-haired, red-garmented hag with a bloody trident in her hand…” accosted St. Samson.   She “…was one of the nine sisters who lived in those woods with their mother-apparently the Goddess Hecate (Graves, 400).”


Hecate 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 Scotland, as the Queen of Elfin or Faerie (Graves, 401).  Because of these connotations of old women as hags, many witches were depicted as old and even monstrous.  Briggs says in his book, “Pale Hecate’s Team”, “It seems that the witches persecuted in the seventeenth century in England, were generally old, almost invariably poor and ignorant, and usually of an ill life (23).”  It may be that old people in general were considered a burden on society and thus easily disposed of, but it may be that the old stories of murderous hags in service of a malignant goddess may be more likely to blame for the victimization of old women at that time.         


One 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 Essex in 1645, confessed that “…a ragged man, with such great eyes that she was afraid of him, gave her three imps like moles, which she called Margaret, Annis, and Susan…(Briggs, 20).”  Familiars were also depicted as animals, rather than spirits, as in the case of the three witches.  Grimalkin is a cat according to the editor of The Necessary Shakespeare, and Paddock is a toad.  Summers, author of The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, asserts that all sorts of animals were kept as familiars, including cats, dogs, ferrets, etc.  He writes, “…Frequently the witch did actually keep some small animal which she nourished on a diet of milk and bread and her own blood in order that she might divine by its means (Summers, 101).”


Toads 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 Garden of Hesperides, and the hundred-clawed toad wearing a precious jewel in his head…both belonged to the ancient toadstool mysteries…(Graves 45).”  Toadstools were well known for their hallucinogenic properties.


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).”


The 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 (Graves 27).  In the three witches’ brew, Shakespeare includes “…the slips of yew, slivered in the moon’s eclipse, a poisonous tree, associated with death…(Briggs 80).  Their cauldron is not being brewed for contructive purposes, it is being brewed to destroy.  Here Shakespeare is making clear that the witch’s are pure evil, as Hecate’s minions would be expected to be.


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.


 Works Cited

1.      Briggs, K.M.  Pale Hecate’s Team.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962

2.      Graves, Robert.  The White Goddess.  New York:  Farrar, Strays and Giroux, 1948

3.      Summers, Montague.  The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.  New York:  University Books, 1956