Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,…
… Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
– Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I
In this fabulously eerie scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy, the three witches brew up an evil potion whilst reciting a litany of shiver-inducing ingredients. But are the ‘fenny snake’, ‘scale of dragon’ and ‘baboon’s blood’ which they add to the pot really as ghastly as the playwright would like us to believe? Were the crones actually using juicy amputated animal gobbets to weave their spell, or is this an allegorical device? What really was the ‘tiger’s chaudron’ dumped into that hellish cauldron?
Turns out we shouldn’t take the recipe quite so literally. ‘Eye of newt’ and ‘wool of bat’ et al. are simply arcane and exotic-sounding aliases for ordinary plants and animals that by their true names would have been well-known to most Tudors. The witches are casting a hocus pocus spell – deception by bedazzlement – in order to trick Macbeth and the audience into thinking he’s all-mighty and invincible. Witchcraft was reviled at the time the Bard wrote this scene, and practitioners were in constant danger of persecution, as well as theft of their spells by other witches. By using fancy-pants words for common objects, the hags are covering their own sackcloth-clad cabooses by keeping the components of their craft secret.
Shakespeare probably consulted a herbalist to get his facts straight; many of these plants had real medicinal applications or are irritating, foul-smelling or toxic. Perfect ingredients for a nasty hell-brew!
I’ve listed some of them here, in the order they appear in the play:
Fenny snake: Fenny refers to the boggy fens of eastern England; probably not a snake at all, but a leech (‘snake’s head’), which was used extensively in medicine for bloodletting.
Eye of newt: Any flower with “eye” in its name, eg. Eyebright or Ox-eye Daisy (which means ‘day’s eye’), most of which were associated with the sun, health and protection. Another interpretation is black mustard seed, which was thought to be vital for casting a spell of discord, confusion and disruption.
Toe of frog: A species of buttercup, Ranunculus bulbosus, otherwise known as ‘Frog’s-foot’; toxic to livestock when fresh.
Wool of bat: English holly (Ilex aquifolium) leaves, otherwise known as Bat’s Wings. Holly is toxic (although not usually fatal) to humans, and the berries act as an emetic.
Tongue of dog: Houndstongue (Cynglossum officinale), a herb once carried by thieves because it was believed to stop dogs from barking.
Adder’s fork: Either Plantain or Adder’s-tongue fern (also known as Christ’s spear), both of which are reputed to have healing properties.
Blind-worm: Okay, this one’s not allegorical; it’s a tiny, venomous snake.
Owlet’s wing: Possibly cleavers or goosegrass, a straggling, creeping plant with sticky hairs that clings to animal fur. Can cause an unpleasant rash but was also used medicinally and cooked as food.
Scale of dragon: Possibilities include Calamus (Dragon’s Blood), Tarragon, a.k.a. Little Dragon, for its potent taste, or Bistort, which was also called Dragon Wort.
Witches’ mummy: Powdered mummy (as in ancient Egyptian, not your mother) was used as medicine for conditions such as epilepsy and gout.
Root of hemlock: Deadly poisonous hemlock, which is referred to elsewhere in the play as the insane herb, “digg’d i’ the dark”. Shakespeare may have been referring to the traditional practice of sowing and harvesting crops and foraging for food and medicinal herbs by the light of the moon, according to the time of month or season. Or maybe just ’cause it’s spooky.
Slips of yew: This tree was often planted in graveyards, and the wood is an irritant and poisonous; thus, a double association with death.
Tiger’s chaudron: This one really is gory – the entrails of a tiger.
Baboon’s blood: A spotted gecko, which was known in alchemical circles as a Hamadryas Baboon. Also, blood referred to a tree’s sap or the juice from a plant.
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Such a spine-tingling way to welcome Samhain! From sunset to sunset October 31 to November 1, we celebrate the ancient Gaelic festival of the final harvest, the coming of winter, and the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
Samhain marks the halfway point between Mabon (the autumnal equinox) and Yule (the winter solstice). Pronounced variously SAH win, SOW in, SEW in, sah MAIN or sew VAN, this time of feasting and sacred ritual melded over time with the Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints, or All Hallows (November 1), and All Hallows’ Eve (or Even), October 31, lending many of its pagan rituals and symbols to the modern-day Hallowe’en.
The foundations of this festival are the end of summer and the beginning of the darkest part of the year, fire and its association with the life-giving Sun, and communion with the souls of the dead.
To prepare for winter, folk brought their livestock in from summer pastures, passing the healthy ones through the purifying smoke of bonfires, and culling the old or weak ones for food. Fire was thought to hold back the darkness of winter (we still do this today whenever we light a candle) and was used for divination. Home fires would be extinguished, then relit from a communal bonfire, serving to strengthen the bond between one villager and the next.
Most importantly, Samhain is the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and communication with the spirits of deceased kin was considered possible. This tenuous “twilight” was mysterious but not frightening, and was welcomed with food, drink and partying. Places were set at the feasting table for the souls of departed loved ones. Costumed mummers, impersonating winter spirits (or possibly disguising themselves from mischievous faeries, which could cross the otherworldly boundary along with the good spirits) would put on entertainments in exchange for refreshments. The custom of children dressing up as scary beings (to confuse those pesky sprites), carrying turnip lanterns and going from door to door asking for sweets and money, originated in places such as Ireland and the Isle of Man – and, of course, still goes on today.
Samhain symbols include the sickle, scythe and ale (the harvest), candles, fire, turnips and pumpkins (keeping darkness and evil at bay), nuts, apples and bones (used to predict the future), masks (worn by mummers) and besoms (sweeping out the old year, negativity and evil influences).
Perhaps you will take time this night to honour in your own way the old traditions and remember the cherished spirits of those who have passed before us to the Otherworld.
Stay tuned for November’s theme: The Charm of Making