“When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightening or in rain?”
(W.Shakespeare – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Macbeth 1.1, page 858, lines 1-2)
The Witches of Macbeth are recognised throughout the Western World as an archetype which has been popularised over centuries, spawning dozens of interpretations, spin-offs and reincarnations in production and literature. Even Harry Potter, which recreates witches in a benevolent light, referenced Macbeth in its third movie The Prisoner of Azkaban, using the spell from act 3, scene 1 for the song ‘Double Trouble’.
Needless to say, we are all very familiar with these characters, who struck such terror into the heart of King James I that he banned the play for five years after first watching it. It is possible, however, that these well-known characters are actually echoes of much older figures in mythology. The play’s Scottish setting, as well as certain passages, lends itself to the idea that Shakespeare’s Witches may actually be faeries in disguise. Through an analysis of imagery, historical context, and the evolution of mythology, we can begin to uncover the source materials that Shakespeare may have drawn from when writing his famous play.
…plays on magic suddenly became of vital concern in the 1580s and continued to be such a compelling subject on the stage until 1620s…the interest in plays about magic also correlates directly with a resurgence of pamphlet literature on alchemy and other Hermetic subjects, as well as with an increase in the number of works published on mathematics, applied science, and Paracelsian medicine…
(J.S. Mebane – Renaissance Magic & the Return of the Golden Age, page 6, lines 12-20).
Macbeth was written in 1606, during a time of great innovation. The previous Tudor reign had left England in a state of flux with a lot of churning religious politics, and many free-thinkers were beginning to emerge. Similar to the Victorian era which also boasted a rapid progression in industry, both periods saw a rekindled interest in mythology and magic, which is reflected in their literature.
Previous to Macbeth, between 1590 and 1594, Edmund Spencer published a poem called The Faerie Queen. The poem earned him high favour in the court, due to it being in part an appraisal of Queen Elizabeth I, whom the poem alluded to being a descendent of King Arthur. The appropriation of the Arthurian mythos into the Tudor family was not only designed to flatter, but also emphasised the ideal of the Tudors’ divine ruling right. King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I’s father, made a claim on King Arthur himself by commissioning the painting of the Winchester Round Table. The table, believed at the time to be the original of legend, was painted with an effigy of King Arthur based on King Henry VIII.
The Faerie Queen also featured Elizabeth I as a parallel of Gloriana, the Faerie Queen herself. Previous to this, the word ‘faerie’ was actually used to describe the place in Celtic mythology where supernatural beings resided, rather than the beings themselves. The term faerie then, as it was used by Spencer, was a modern appropriation that allowed him to reshape the image of legendary figures such as the sidhe into more appropriate, Christianised figures. Just as with Henry VIII’s claim on King Arthur, faeries and folk-lore were being evolved and shaped into a literary tool in which to spread the ‘right’ ideals to the English public. For example; in Act 1, scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s passing speech about ‘Queen Mab’ states:
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
(W. Shakespeare – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Rome & Juliet 1.4, page 251, lines 76-81)
Mab, who brings young lovers pleasant dreams of kissing, will then punish women for these unchaste desires. She will help women, however, in doing their wifely duty and ‘bearing the load’ of their husbands. This is more a reflection of a Christian male agenda, than one of original faerie disposition. Faeries in mythology were usually more likely to punish lechery in men, than in women.
Data recorded by Alan Macfarlane for his book Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, revealed that in correlation with the public’s renewed interest in magic, 1560 to 1650 also saw a rapid rise in the number of witch trials in Britain. Witches, who were believed to be in commune with the Devil, could be blamed for any number of things, including storms, illness and death in the family.
The number of Witch Trials peaked under James I, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. James, who instigated the North Berwick Witch Trials, where several ‘witches’ confessed under extreme duress, considered himself to be an expert in the subject. His book, Demonology, contains precise instructions on the hunting, and appropriate tortures for witches. James’s paranoia about witches led him to pass a new Witchcraft Act in 1604 which made the summoning of spirits punishable by death. His obsession, according to James Sharpe in his work Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1559-1759, may have also prompted the trial of the Lancashire Witches, orchestrated by local magistrates keen to earn the King’s favour.
The fear of conspiracy, renewed by the infamous Catholic gun-powder plot, and the public’s obsession with witches, gave Shakespeare the perfect setting for Macbeth. In it, he combined these two elements to create the ultimate drama for his audience. The Witches’ characters however were defined by another characteristic which made them pariahs in the eyes of the Shakespearian audience. It is this aspect which encourages the school of thought that the Witches may be faeries in disguise.
At this time, there were two popular images of the faerie, both of which feature in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. One was of a small, mischievous creature, like Puck who was almost always androgynous or male, and the other was the elegant, courtly faeries like Oberon and Titania. Rather than be based in mythology, the Courtly Faeries were a reflection of the Tudor and Stuart Courts, and therefore they reflected the suppression of women during this era. Women, both faerie and real alike, were summarised by their beauty and their virtue. Those found lacking in these qualities would often be condemned, regardless of status.
The Witches of Macbeth were different. They were not beautiful, they were not virtuous, and they possessed great power onto themselves which they used as they wished. On the one occasion they bow to a higher power, it is not to the masculine figure of the Devil, but instead to the goddess Hecate. This female empowerment would have been all the more baffling in the male-centric Stuart Court. Indeed, Sir Anthony Weldon, in his The Court and Character of King James, remarked of James I that he actually ‘hated women’. The strength of this statement, though made in regards to James’s sexuality, does seem to imply that his disregard went beyond preference. He, and his court, would have no doubt felt intimidated and undermined by this ‘unnatural’ reversal of power in a patriarchal society.
This empowerment is not the only aspect of the Witches which echoes the original faeries of mythology. The Witches’ behaviour can be closely compared with a Breton faerie known as a ‘Korrigan’. The Korrigans, in Breton Folk-lore were water spirits often attributed with the power of fore-sight. They enjoyed kidnapping children, had an immoral disposition, and like many faeries possessed a predilection for meddling. Described to be ugly, red-eyed and wrinkly when seen in daylight, they also had a connection with the ancient Celtic religion.
What distinguishes the Breton version is their association, in oral folk-lore, with ancient worshipers of earth goddess or with women druids, from whom the korrigans are said to be descended.
(P. Monaghan – The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, p. 275, lines 25-29)
It can be logically proposed then that the Witches could be korrigans themselves, the priestesses of an ancient religion that predated Christianity. The setting choice to include Hecate rather than use the Devil favours this idea. This distinction separates the Witches from Christianity not by aligning them with the Devil, but by connecting them to a much older religion.
Historically, the repression of the Celtic tradition in the British Isles was done through the demonization of beliefs. Druids, who were the academics and spiritual teachers of Celtic society, were diminished to the role of conjurer or mage. The old Celtic Gods became the faeries of mythology, and some traditions even merged the religions by stating that faeries themselves were fallen angels. As the Celtic people faded into history, their gods and beliefs, which Christianity demonised, were appropriated. But the domestication of these old gods, retitled by Spencer as faeries, left a power vacuum, which witches subsequently occupied. This may be why Shakespeare chose, knowingly or not, to refer to his characters as ‘witches’ rather than ‘faeries’, even though they demonstrate typical faerie behaviour.
The inclusion of Hecate gives another strong connection between the Witches and faeries. Hecate, who originated from Greek mythology, holds no place in the Celtic Tradition. However, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, he created a link between faeries and the Greek gods by setting his play in Athens, and including mentions of the goddess Diana. Macbeth, in contrast, is obviously set in Scotland, but the renaming of Celtic Gods with Roman or Greek equivalents was a regular practise in writing. Julius Caesar himself, in describing the Celts during his invasion of Gaul, used the names of his own gods when referring to their beliefs.
The avid suppression of the Celtic lifestyle, meant that Shakespeare’s English audience were likely to be far more acquainted with the Roman and Greek gods, than the Celtic ones. Hecate would be better known to the English public, than Morrigan, who is likely to be Hecate’s equivalent in the play.
Morrigan, who is a prominent figure in both the Mythological and Ulster Cycles of Irish Mythology, is a complex character. In some versions of the mythology, she is one of three sisters who together make up aspects of a war goddess, whilst in others the Morrigan is onto itself a trio of the three sisters called Badh, Macha and Nemain. Interestingly, and straight away, we are given this theme of ‘three’ which reoccurs in Macbeth. Now, some arguments claim that Hecate was a late edition to the play that Shakespeare did not include. Even if this is so, the Witches could, in their set of three, still represent the Morrigan themselves.
In Irish Lore, the Morrigan was often considered as the goddess of war. She could foretell deaths, transform into various shapes, and could influence the direction of a battle by giving courage, or striking fear into the hearts of her enemies. She also had a strong connection with the earth and the underworld. If we disregard the Witches’ ability to conjure storms, which was a reference to the aforementioned North Berwick Witch Trials conducted by James I in the belief that witches sent storms to sink his boat, the rest of their abilities are highly in-keeping with Morrigan.
All of the Witches predictions to Macbeth are predictions of death. Their prophecy that he will be Thane of Cawdor, and then King is based on the capture and impending death of the previous Thane, and the future death of Duncun. The Witches also, through their influencing of Macbeth, would withhold and twist information, but always told the truth. This is not in keeping with the perception of witches in Shakespearian society, who were regarded as notorious liars. It does, however, ring similar with the Morrigan who, as one of the Tuatha de Danaan, could not lie. The inability to lie is a common theme in mythology with the sidhe and other faeries too.
There remains one final key factor to the theory that the Witches of Macbeth may be faeries or Celtic Priestesses in disguise, and that is that at only one point in the play, outside of the stage-directions, are they ever referred to as witches at all. This happens early in the play, when the First Witch recounts a conversation she had with a woman, who refused her chestnuts and called her a ‘Witch’.
‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries
(W.Shakespeare – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Macbeth 1.3, page 869, line 6)
Considering the associated risk and repercussions, it is unlikely that a woman would knowingly deny and anger a witch. As such, her usage of the word ‘witch’ may have only been intended as an insult, rather than a direct label. If this is the case, than she could not have called her a ‘faerie’, simply because the audiences would associate that with beauty and virtue. Beyond this singular usage of the word, there are few indications in the dialogue that the ‘weird sisters’ as they are more commonly called, are witches at all.
Whether Shakespeare wrote the Witches as faeries and then substituted the names to pander to the King, or whether he too was a victim of the amalgamation of mythologies and superstitions around him, we can never know. Of one thing however we can be certain: the Witches of Macbeth are timeless figures who have existed in one form or another for thousands of years. And as long as they resonate with our fear of the unknown and the unnatural, they will continue to exist among us in the darkest hollows of our literature and our myths.
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Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. (2004) directed by lfonso Cuarón [Film] USA: Warner Bros
This article was originally published in the 2016 British Fantasy Society Journal, Issue 15 edited by Allen Stroud.
Find out more about the BFS at http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk