The language of witches

Macbeth and the Witches by Thomas Barker of Bath

I love the origins of words and sayings and have many books on my shelves at home dedicated to this topic but I must admit the focus for this particular blog was an area I’d never really considered.  I’ve lived my life in and around the Essex / Suffolk border and for many years I lived in the smallest town in England – Manningtree.  For most it’s a place they’ve never heard of, for others it’s a stop on the train line from Norwich to London Liverpool Street, but for those in the know it is a beautiful place that was once the base for Matthew Hopkins.  Still none the wiser? Matthew Hopkins was the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General back in first half of the 17th Century.  I don’t wish to get into my views on what he did or indeed spark debate around the existence of “witches” but there’s no getting away from the fact he was personally responsible for the capture, torture and deaths of over 100 women in the space of just 3 years – and got paid to do it too.

Matthew Hopkins Pamphlet
The frontispiece shows Matthew Hopkins interrogating several witches, with their familiars. These were animal guides that were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist witches in their practice of magic. This pamphlet would have been printed and sold amongst people interested in such sensationalist literature about witches. Published for R. Royston: London, 1647

If you read my last blog on the arapuca trap you’ve probably gathered I like connections and links between things. So with that little bit of background about the area and history I’ve grown up with it’s no surprise Halloween, as we now call it, has always been an interesting time of year for me.  The trigger this time was that I happened to see an extract of the classic witches spell from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Now I’ve never read or studied Shakespeare in my life but it’s the kind of thing that is just there in your head and everyone knows the first line, or a close likeness, but what interested me was the ingredients, here’s one of the verses.

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.

Macbeth and the Witches by Thomas Barker of Bath
Macbeth and the Witches by Thomas Barker of Bath

This is where my foraging hat came in and my love of all the regional common names that there are for plants.  Things like ‘Lords and Ladies’, ‘Milk Maid’, ‘Ale Hoof’, ‘Colts Foot’, Wet-the-bed’ and so on.  All these names tell a story from the past and researching them and finding out their roots (no pun intended, honest) is great fun.  It does also highlight the importance of scientific Latin names which is something we stress on our foraging courses – 100% identification and clarity over the name is paramount.  This then got me thinking… did ‘witches’ have their own language?

I stress again, I am not looking to cause any offence in the use of the word ‘witch’; it is merely a name we are familiar with and could just as easily be changed for ‘herbalist’, ‘wise woman’,’ village elder’ etc.  So with this question in my head I went digging, and the answers were fascinating.

There was indeed a language for ingredients to concoctions.  Now you could argue these are spells or you could just as easily call them herbal remedies, or dare I say it, medicine.  The reasons around this will perhaps never be known for sure but theories sit around words simply being descriptive, for example the look or texture of a plant, to the thought they had to be secretive to be able to stay in business.  Let’s face it we still do it today – the IT industry is full of acronyms and gobbledegook that the layperson hasn’t a clue about but those in the know can charge a fortune for their skills and knowledge.  Just to be clear I’m not condoning the persecution of IT people. The food industry is just as cryptic, when was the last time you looked at the ingredient list on food and actually understood what it all was? But you’ll pay handsomely for the key component Bifidus Digestivum. And the beauty industry, does anyone know what Hydra Energetic Quenching Gel is? What’s the link? Skill, marketing and mystery – it drives prices up every time and keeps customers coming back for more. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Bifidus Digestivum doesn’t work but it is a totally made up name and does it matter that Hydra Energetic Quenching Gel is a more masculine sounding moisturiser if it does the job? But 400 years ago that was an issue and could literally get you into ‘hot water’.

Before I get into some ‘spell’ ingredients let’s just take an example that many of you will know – the Dandelion. Deriving from the French dent de lion which translates to lion tooth which in itself describes the shape of the leaves. You could just as easily know this plant as wet-the-bed (I went for the clean version to be family friendly) to describe its diuretic properties. Or you could call it by its scientific name Taraxacum officinale. Four different names for the same plant so it really isn’t that hard to believe ‘witches’ did the same – lion’s tooth tincture anyone? This is what I uncovered…

Body parts as they relate to plants

  • Eye – Blossom or Seed
  • Heart – Bud or Seed
  • Beak, Bill or Nose – Seed, Bud or Bloom
  • Tongue or Teeth – Petal or Leaf
  • Head – Blossom
  • Tail – Stem
  • Hair – Dried Herbs or Stringy Parts Of Herbs
  • Genitals Or Semen – Seeds Or Sap
  • Blood – Sap
  • Guts – Roots or Stalk
  • Paw, Foot, Leg, Wing or Toe – Leaves

So that leads on us to the idea of what the different animals may have represented.

  • Toad – Sage or maybe Toadflax
  • Cat – Catmint
  • Dog – Grasses, specifically Couchgrass
  • Frog – Cinquefoil
  • Hawk – Hawkweed
  • Lamb – Wild Lettuce
  • Nightingale – Hops
  • Rat – Valerian
  • Weasel – Rue
  • Woodpecker – Peony

The list goes on and on but I have to admit my favourite has to be ‘Wool of Bat’ which sounds far more mysterious and witchy than moss or the leaf from holly for the wing.  But again we also know that species of moss have been used for water treatment and wound dressings and, I’m guessing, work a lot better than bat. However, and this is where the marketing angle comes in, if I want my customers to buy from me rather than just go and collect moss I’m going with bat every time.

So there you have it a link between Shakespeare, Macbeth, Witches, modern marketing/skills and foraging and just another little insight into the connections we all make but sometimes don’t take the time to stop and think about.  Should you wish to read further I recommend visiting Hektoen International – A journal of medical humanities – for a well-researched and referenced article that breaks down the famous spell from Macbeth in detail .  For a more in depth read about plants in general, including common names from various regions, I’d also recommend the book Flora Brittanica by Richard Mabey.

I’m signing off now for a nice cup of “Devil’s play thing” with some “Dog’s bum” on toast (again the family friendly version) otherwise known as Stinging Nettle tea and Medlar jelly.

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