Weirder and weirder


“The weirds of words are strange indeed.” Chris Robinson, Scots Language Centre

I just read Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide by Paddy Slade from cover to cover and was curious about the author’s use of the word “weird” to mean fate. It transpires that the word is derived from the Old English word wyrd, meaning fate, which students of Germanic mythology will be familiar with. In Germanic mythology the three Norns named Urd, Verdandi and Skuld are the goddesses of fate, representing one’s past, present and future fate respectively. The Norns maintain the Yggdrasil tree representing the universe and together weave the tapestry of human lives, known as the web of wyrd. They bear resemblance to the three goddesses of human fate known as the Moirai in Greek mythology and the Parcae in Roman mythology.

The word still has meanings of and related to fate in the Scottish dialect, where “weird” also means a prediction, a “weird wife” is a fortune teller, and “dree yer ain weird”, also expressed as “suffer your own fate”, means to endure one’s own particular fate or to suffer the consequences of something (Source: Concise Scots Dictionary, Edinburgh University Press). Paddy Slade is of Scottish descent, which probably explains her use of the word to mean fate.

The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, referred to as “the weird sisters” in the text of the play, appear to be at least partly based on the mythological goddesses of fate. When Macbeth and Banquo, generals in the army of King Duncan of Scotland, first encounter the witches on a heath they address Macbeth thus when he commands them to speak and identify themselves:

All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!

All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!”

The witches address the ambitious Macbeth with the different titles bestowed on him in his past, imminent future and distant future. It is interesting to note that Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth “suffer their own fate” in the story, descending into guilt, madness and ultimately death as a result of their deceit and betrayal of others in order to gain power.

It is not too difficult to understand how the word later came to mean strange. The various prophecies of the witches in Macbeth are uncanny, and when Macbeth and Banquo first encounter them Banquo says of their appearance:

“… What are these
So wither’d, and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth,”

Incidentally, Paddy Slade also mentions Macbeth explicitly with reference to the bizarre ingredients used by the fictional witches in the famous sensational scene around a cauldron in a cavern:

Round about the caldron 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, caldron, bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron 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 howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and, caldron, 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 th’ ingredients of our caldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and, caldron, bubble.”
Macbeth, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

“One of the most famous spells in literature was cast by the Three Witches in Macbeth … But few people realize that the gruesome ingredients were mainly old country names for herbs. Both hairy mullein and woolly faverel were known as wool of bat; the grease from the murderer’s gibbet is felonwort or bittersweet; Jew’s liver is Jew’s ear or cuckoo-pint; gall of goat is goat’s rue; eye of newt is rocket; while tongue of dog is obviously hound’s tongue. The passage also mentions hemlock and yew. But even when the ingredients are translated, they would still make you pretty sick – even though they are not as horrific as they first seem.” Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade

The Tragedy of Macbeth was written circa 1605, in a time and place when people were superstitious, witches were feared, and witchcraft was a capital offence. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 replaced penalties for witchcraft with penalties for the “pretence of witchcraft”, reflecting the later view that belief in witchcraft was superstition and that any claim to knowledge of witchcraft is fraudulent.

Shakespeare incorporated many outrageous stereotypes of witches and witchcraft into the story, including some very far-fetched superstitions of the day. The witches were old, ugly and female. They predicted the future, cast spells, cursed people and claimed to control the weather and sail in a sieve. I don’t believe that Shakespeare was a stupid man. Some people say that he wrote the play to please his patron King James I, who had a great interest in the subject of witchcraft and approved of witch hunts. I can’t help thinking that most people have, even to this day, missed the satire in the play. At the end of the first short scene in the play the three witches say together:

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

This is said to refer to the general chaos and confusion in the story. It also means don’t judge a book by its cover.



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