Magical ‘theory’ may be dismissed by scholars as too nebulous. A theory in the proper sense of the word, after all, explains facts, events, or observable phenomena. Yet magic is not a fact. The existence of magic cannot be verified, neither do its purported effects seem to be observable or reproducible. After all, human history is replete with legends, myths, stories, and ideas which aren’t based on scientific observation. The volumes written on magic may easily be relegated to mere superstition. There’s no proof to it. The worlds of Harry Potter, Merlin, Gandalf, and their kind are merely fiction. It’s not real. (Is it?)
Yet, volumes written on magic do contain elements derived from the observable world. Of course, the inclusion of ideas and figures derived from branches of learning like mathematics hardly makes magic itself ‘scientific’. Rather, magic tends to be swept into the bin with other pseudo scientific topics like the Loch Ness monster or bigfoot, or put on the shelf of topics like the crash of an alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, or the controlling influences which shadowy groups like the Illuminati may have over our world.
Whether magic as we might think of it is ‘real’ or not, it remains real in a social sense. Although we may be unaware of it much of the time, magic has become such a part of our social fabric that we constantly inhabit a complicated rubric of custom and behavior which has often been predicated on magical assumptions. Those who believe in higher powers may also commune in prayer with unseen but all knowing or potent angels or deities. And our innate sense of balance calls for balance in faith based matters too, giving us both angels and devils, bodhisattvas and the demons of samsara. Yet, it is perhaps in the mundane sense that magical practices have been most obviously woven into our social fabric and remain deeply embedded within it. This goes beyond black cats and ladders.
“Did you hurt yourself? Let me kiss it and make it better.”
In the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, many doors are still painted blue or green. It looks nice against the adobe walls, yes, but it is also thought to bring good luck to those who dwell within, whereas red doors have similar fortunate associations in Asia.
Also, many people still hang horseshoes by or above their doors (a practice which may relate to the legend of St. Dunstan nailing a horseshoe to the devil’s foot and only removing it after the devil promised never to enter a place with a horseshoe by the door).** The horseshoe not only attracts good luck, but the iron, in addition to repelling the devil, also repels fairies, witches, and all manner of evil spirits. A horseshoe with the points up will cup the luck and hold it, whereas a horseshoe with the points facing down supposedly provides a more specific “ward”, and protects one not only from roaming evils, but may also help defend against particular entities be they human or not.
Still, iron seems to be a somewhat inconsistent ward, at least if one judges its effectiveness by Macbeth. For although Macbeth himself is almost certainly armed as he crosses the heath with Banquo at the beginning of the play, and although he may also be wearing some kind of armor, depending on the production, any iron he has fails in terms of apotropaic effect.
No matter how many times one has read or seen the play, the witches still appear, usually (but not always) three of them, and if we know the play at all, we know that Macbeth himself–the heroic, up and coming soldier– will eventually transmogrify into someone who resembles Emperor Palpatine much more than he does his previous self. Do we chalk this up to the ‘evil’ of the witches themselves, or can we assign some equal responsibility to Macbeth himself owing to his participation (be it more or less willing, more or less coerced), and his choice of methods?
The Macbeth witches are slippery, as nebulous as the forces of magic which they represent but they do not necessarily hogtie Macbeth. They merely tell him things, alluring things about his rank and stature, which is clearly enough to get the ball of fate string rolling.
As for the witches themselves, their nature seems like magic. In some ways, they might be anything. Described as being bearded and loathsome, their lines and actions are often mysterious, and sometimes incomprehensible. In a sense, they are much like the very magic they represent, and their characters have appeared in many guises on many stages and in many films. They may look like almost anything.
They may embody the triple faced Hecate (a Greek goddess of sorcery, who also appears in Macbeth as a kind of queen of the witches). In classical mythology, Hecate has three bodies, and she looks forward, inward, and backward. In the 2015 Studio Canal film of Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel the witches suggest temporal variants of similar beings:
There is also the singular spirit sorcerer of Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood.
Note that even in this film, however, the singular ‘witch’ figure is still comprised of three visual elements–the central figure itself with a spinning wheel on one side and the trailing thread of fate on the other.
Something of the relationship between Shakespeare’s witches and the Wyrd Sisters, or fates, has been said elsewhere in this blog. In terms of production, each different version supplies its own texture to the story, emphasizing the director’s concept in each case. But aside from the relation to the original fate figures–the spinning maiden, the weaving matron, and the cutting crone, is there any additional significance to the number three?
Perhaps. There is more than one answer to the question, of course, and the answers are not simple.
The most obvious answer may come from looking at the fates again, or at the three bodied, three faced Hecate. In some cases, we see there the child, adult, and elder embodying the stages of life, and the passage of human time. But the trifold nature of this being also implies or suggests a center point–a place where the three intersect. This point may be in the incarnation of Hecate herself, or in the three stages/three ages of womanhood/personhood/human being. In the case of Macbeth, the intersection may be at the point of ‘witchyness’, some hypothetical place where seeing and manifesting become intimate.
This also suggests a kind of intersection in our understanding of witches (or the social phenomenon known as witches). Carr-Gomm and Heygate say that:
To understand the story of witchcraft in England we need to look at three different groups of people: those who practised folk magic up until the early part of the twentieth century; those who were accused of being witches during the centuries of persecution; and those who began practising a magic that they termed ‘witchcraft’ from the middle of the twentieth century.***
While this may be a good place from which to begin a social study, it meanders from the ghost’s point, which relates to a magical understanding of the witches’ function–to understand the idea of witches in the sense of the magic they do. For as sorcerers who do ‘actual magic’, they remain distinct from performers, from stage magicians who use illusions and tricks to entertain an audience.
In order to understand those who ‘use magic in real life’ (if we can accept that there may be such beings), we must try to get some idea of what magic, real magic, might be. Google summons any number of definitions for magic, but these too often seem somehow inadequate or incomplete.
The online free dictionary, for example, defines magic (when the word is used as a noun) as:
1. a. The art or practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature. b. The charms, spells, and rituals so used.
2. The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring, as in making something seem to disappear, for entertainment.
3. A mysterious quality of enchantment
Setting number two aside, and three aside, we find number one to be a little indistinct as well. Yet, if we think about producing “supernatural effects” or controlling “events in nature”, it seems like we are talking about changing the way things are at a given point in time.
This isn’t merely transformation or transmutation:
If we accept that magic, in its usual sense, might be understood as the use of obscure forces (which may or may not be supernatural, but seem to entail more than the simple use of heat to boil water) to alter states of being or events, then we might be able to see magic in the sense of a contract that a magical practitioner makes with nature–a way in which the magician, and the world or universe, reach some kind of mutual agreement between them. Perhaps the magician somehow urges the world to change, and perhaps the world the somehow coaxes a kind of energy from the magician. Perhaps this is mutual, an understanding of sorts where the world and the magician each go half way, or part way. Somewhere, a common ground is agreed upon and reached. The sorcerer dances or dreams or walks or sees, and the flower blooms, the rain falls, or the young people fall in love. Sorcerer and manifestation meet somewhere somehow. The world and the magician, after some brief interlude, mutually participate in drawing happenstance, circumstance, or manifestation into being.
In this common ground of participation, there is a central point. It is a point defined by the first step of the sorcerer’s dance and the last falling petal of the blooming flower. The contract between the sorcerer and the world serves to facilitate the reaching and realization of this point. The sorcerer may stand at this point or move around it, and nature or the universe may remain stationary around the sorcerer or may be perceived as moving around the sorcerer.
If we consider the three sister arts (often thought of as martial arts, albeit saying so might be misconceiving) of Hsing-I, Bagua, and Taichi, then we may understand those as arts of expression, reception, and mutual participation respectively. Hsing I practitioners express their art into a receptive universe around them. In the circle walking art of Bagua, while the bagua practitioner moves around the circle, the circle may also be said to be moving around the practitioner–the practitioner receives from the universe around them and responds to whatever they receive. The Taichi artist and the universe mutually participate, simultaneously expressing into and receiving from each other.
“I don’t know, Ghost,” I hear some of you muttering. “Sounds awfully hokey to me. Awfully ‘new age’. Thinking, if you can call it that, made up of smoke and mirrors. Nothing to do with Shakespeare really. Just murky projection and equivocation, filled with fog and indistinction.”
Exactly. A bit like Macbeth’s moor. Like the haunted heath. Magic is the practice of hovering through the fog and filthy air–of moving into the indistinct to draw it into distinction.
“But it sounds like that old ‘wishcraft’ line, where someone has an ‘intention’ and the universe mysteriously conspires to meet that intention…”
Perhaps there is a bit of that at play. Some, especially those given to psychological interpretations of the plays, may argue that the prophecy given to Macbeth is self fulfilling–that once he hears it, it establishes a kind of underlying trajectory from which it is difficult, if not impossible, for him to escape. Still, let’s return to the play’s opening scene:
Scene 1 Thunder and Lightning. Enter three Witches.
FIRST WITCH:Macbeth 1.1.1-13.
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
FIRST WITCH: I come, Graymalkin.
SECOND WITCH: Paddock calls.
THIRD WITCH: Anon.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
When we break this down, the first word suggests something at once both definite and indefinite. “When shall…?” suggests that there will be a time for the next meeting, but that the speaker isn’t yet certain exactly what that time will be will be. The next part of the line, however, moves us from the temporal to the atmospheric while conflating the two. Thunder, lightning, or rain are not times, per se, but the first witch speaks as though they might be. They suggest the elements of fire and water, and they also suggest the dimensions of sight and sound (as Rod Serling might have said), but none of them seem to specify a “when”.
So here again is that “in between” quality with which magical ritual seems so preoccupied. In certain rituals, a magician may draw a magic circle and stand in the center of it. This could be a protective device–constructing a circle of safety, a barrier, around the magician to safeguard them from potentially harmful forces with which they may interact during the ritual process.
The direction in which the circle was drawn may have made a profound difference, however. Lewis Spence notes that “From time immemorial the Celtic peoples have retained the custom at religious and other ceremonies of walking in procession right-handwise, that is ‘with the sun’, or keeping to the right in a circular motion” and “this motion is known as deiseal (pron. dyāsh-al), that is ‘right-handwise’, and is regarded as propitious because in harmony with the movement of the sun.” However, the opposite, “circling to the left is considered ominous and is known in England and Lowland Scotland as ‘widdershins’, or ‘withershins’, derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wither’ meaning ‘against and ‘sith’ or ‘sins’, ‘to walk'”.*****
There are many perspectives on magic circles, and on the magic of geometric shapes in general. Sometimes, moving with the sun is regarded as a motion which “invokes”–draws forces into the center of the ritual circle, while the widdershins movement “banishes”–repels or drives forces, energy, or entities away from the circle altogether. The choice would presumably depend upon what kind of force was being invoked or banished, with the ritual ‘force’ either seeking to draw towards the center point of the ritual circle or push away from it.
The circle also defines a center in which the magician stands–a place of power from which change or manifestation may be effected. The magician may become their own pole, their own world tree at the center of the universe they are in the process of crafting. The center suggested by Macbeth coalesces through the process of the play, even while the ultimate outcome may seem preordained. The initial question of the center point between “when” and “thunder, lightning, and rain” may only be the motion of a passing storm. It may be the mere hurly-burly of battle (both lost and won).
At the end of their first brief meeting, the witches have reached some kind of resolution, even if their conclusion still seems obscure. Together, they say “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. States of being have shifted and become their own opposites, and the newly established central point has perverted the natural order. Inversion and subversion have been newly established as the order of the day.
A scene later, when Macbeth finally enters, crossing the heath with his friend Banquo, the first line he speaks is, “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.”
Although he is clearly a participant who is bound up in the events of the play, Macbeth is not a magical negotiator. He is less certain. The fact that he has “not seen” so fair and foul a day does not preclude the possibility that there may be one. While for the witches fair is foul, Macbeth simply hasn’t ever seen the like.
Of course, this may be seen as yet another moment “in between”, a moment seeking a center point between the witches’ certainty and Macbeth’s less certain perspective, and it takes place just as the two groups are about to meet. This is an expectation–an anticipatory echo–looking both backwards to the witches’ words, and forwards to an actual seeing, an actual finding or definition of a middle ground. Yet, like the classical martial art form of Taichi mentioned above, there appears to be a mutual participation here, where the witches’ reality merges with Macbeth’s. The two realities begin a mutual participation at the very outset of the play.
In one sense, as soon as the witches invoke his name, Macbeth has already walked into the center of the witches’ triangle. Simply by being there, he has already occupied the center point of the play’s ritual and become it. While Banquo is also there at the initial meeting, the witches hail Macbeth first, and in that exchange the common ground of their communication becomes established. The witches’ invocation, like the title of the play, draws Macbeth into the center of the play’s ritual circle.
Perhaps seeking a common center is the basis of the “deed without a name”. Perhaps, just as Puck’s final lines at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream merge the voices of character Puck, actor playing Puck, and the play itself into a single voice, so does the witches’ ritualistic opening constrain the events of play, actors, and characters in Macbeth. As for other aspects of ritual practice which may be alluded to in Shakespeare’s work, those references must be left to another time.
What of the appearance of the multi faceted Hecate later in the play? Well, we have touched on her briefly, and we must beg her indulgence until we can spend more time with her again, perhaps in a future post.
For the moment, we have broached the possibility that there may be more to the witches in Macbeth than simple character texture or drama. The cultural texture may run even deeper than the historical context of a Scottish king who was relatively new on his English throne, and was fascinated by witchcraft, perhaps having been nursemaided on tales of Habondia or her flock.
Even as we move on into November, it’s good to remember that the witches always remain with us, even after the jack o lanterns have melted into earth. Sometimes, however, like Oberon, the witches are invisible.
Something to consider at this time of year–not to allow witches into one’s home, no matter how small and cute they might seem to be.
Belated wishes for a happy Halloween, Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, All Saints and beyond. The ghost invites everyone to honor the dead and treasure the living, for one follows the other all too soon.
* The film versions in the compilation are (respectively): Polanski, Roman, Macbeth. United States: Columbia Pictures presents, 1971. Wright, Geoffrey, Macbeth. Australia, Palace Films and Cinemas, 2006., and Gould, Rupert, Macbeth. United Kingdom, BBC 4, 2010.
**More about horseshoes may be found in The Magic of the Horseshoe by Robert Lawrence. First printed in 1899, it has been reprinted frequently since, and modern paperback versions are ubiquitous.
***Carr – Gomm, Philip, and Richard Heygate. The Book of English Magic. John Murray: London England, 2010, 170.
****In spite of Carter’s ability to cheat death on stage, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 61, and his son Larry took over the act as Carter the Great.
*****Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Rider: London & New York, 1945. Dover rep., 1999, 35.