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Macbeth's Double Trouble Weird Sister Witches

Double Double Toil & Trouble

If there’s one Halloween chant most everyone knows its “Double, double, toil and trouble…” But do you know its origins? We are guessing that many of you recognize the name of the band “The Weird Sisters” from the movie “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” (We are linking to the Toil & Trouble video there, not the Weird Sisters, btw.) And some of you may recognize that J. K. Rowling was making a reference to the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s  “Macbeth.”

The word “weird” once had a much more supernatural connotation than it has these days. It meant not of this world or possessing supernatural powers. In Norse mythology the Weird Sisters are the Three Fates who were not to be meddled with or trusted. Shakespeare used this to symbolize what witches and their potions were like in his times and has captured everyone’s imagination ever since. He wrote the play “Macbeth” with it’s spooky old witches to flatter and entertain King James I because Shakespeare hoped to win the king’s sponsorship. The king hated and persecuted those accused of witchcraft. Witches were not able to lose the warty old hooked nose image until programs like “Bewitched” and “Charmed” came along.

The witches’ potion (tossed in the correct sized cauldron, of course) was made up of some of the foulest ingredients that Shakespeare could think of. There is more than one explanation for what each item represented and more than one layer of symbolism. Many of the ingredients sound like animal parts but could also be common herbs that were being called by their folk names. The folk names were based on what the plant looked like or what it was used for. Many of the potion ingredients are based on Christian symbolism and the beliefs of the people of Shakespeare’s day. The audience would have understood both the symbolism and the folk names of the plants.

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d
and once the hedge-pig whined.
Harpier cries ‘Tis time, ’tis time.
Round about the cauldron go
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad that under cold stone
Days and nights has 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 owlet’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
brinded means branded, burnt looking, a black cat
the hedgehog, a nocturnal animal that shrieks when frightened
a harpy calling the “witching hour” or midnight
they dance around the cauldron
many of these ingredients are poisonous.
toads were associated with witchcraft
kept under a stone for 31 days and nights
the Common Brown Toad of Britain secretes poison which it carries on it’s skin.
boil in the sacred pot
chanting the ingredients helps the person making the potion remember them.
bubbling over the fire
symbol of the fall of man from Eden
thrown into the pot to cook
eye of newt is a daisy or mustard seed, toe of frog is Bulbous Buttercup leaves.
Spanish Moss and the herb, Hound’s Tongue
Dogtooth Violet and the tail of a limbless lizard that can shed it’s tail.
lizards crawl on their bellies like snakes, owls are nocturnal symbols of death
a powerful charm
a full rolling boil for frightening effect
make the effect double
boiling away
the dragon-a symbol of pagan, pre-Christian Britain; tooth of wolf is Wolfbane
mummified body parts made for use in witchcraft
the mouth and gullet of a ravenous razor toothed sea creature
a root from the Hemlock, which is poisonous, dug up at night
based on the prejudice that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ
Honeysuckle or St. John’s Wort, and Yew, which is poisonous
the lunar eclipse is considered the best time to cut herbs for witchcraft.
Turks and Tatars were Muslim and were the subject of some very strong prejudices.
the finger of a baby, born to a prostitute, delivered in a ditch and strangled as a form of birth control; not Christened, the baby was doomed to hell.
make the mixture thick
tiger’s stomach or entrails
a gruesome mixture to be sure.
double the effect
boiling away
baboon: sub-human characteristics. Cooling with blood tells how hot the mixture is
the magic is finished!
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