The Rede of the Wiccae and Lore-Text in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’
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Article ID: 11948
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: October 14th. 2007
Times Viewed: 3,624
In their book The Rede of the Wiccae (Olympian Press, 2005), Robert Mathiesen and Theitic examine the twenty-six rhyming couplets (presented collectively as The Rede of the Wiccae) published in the mid-1970s by Lady Gwen Thompson as inherited from her grandmother Adriana Porter.
The analysis of these two learned scholars is that The Rede is the product of two authors.
One appears to have composed seven of the twenty-six couplets, at a time after the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today, which seems to have influenced them.
The other nineteen reflect (as the writers say on Page 77) “traditional lore and lore-texts that were once the common property of the folk.”
“Lore-text” is identified on Page 58 as an outcome of oral culture- some traditional folk-knowledge or lore transmitted through memorization and repetition in a (relatively) fixed form. Lore-texts may include proverbs, weather-sayings (“Red at night! Sailors’ delight! Red in the morning- sailors take warning!”) and such like.
The fifth couplet of the Rede, for instance (“Soft of eye an light of touch- speak little, listen much”), serves as a good piece of folk-advice in general, and has not really so much to do with Wicca, except for the fact that we can all think of coven-mates and such like that we wish would “speak little- listen much” a bit better than they do.
On Page 63, Mathiesen and Theitic cite other traditional lore-texts, including Isobel Gowdie’s famous “Horse and hattock” charm (which is found elsewhere in folklore).
Part of the undeniable un-canniness of the rhyming couplets of the Rede (and of traditional lore-texts in general) is their metrical form- Mathiesen and Theitic note that the majority of the lines exist in what they identify as regular meter and what fans of Mr. Shakespeare understand as iambic meter. An “iamb” is a sequence of two beats, the first punctuated: Boom boom.
Sentences are constructed by stringing iambs together; Shakespeare’s most formal speech comes to us in iambic pentameter, meaning each sentence is built of five iambs, producing ten beats that alternate between punctuated, unpunctuated, punctuated, unpunctuated.
Mathiesen and Theitic observe that the preferred form for magical lore-texts is the seven syllable-line. (They point out that each line of the First Verse of the Cauldron Speech “beats out” to seven syllables: “Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog- Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”)
It should be remembered that Shakespeare is writing the Scottish Play (that must not be Named, like the V-guy in Harry Potter ) at a time quite soon after the ascension of the anti-witch King James; therefore he kind of doesn’t have any choice in his depiction of Witches- hence the indulgence in stereotypical anti-Witch propaganda. (“Toil and trouble!”)
If we eliminate from the Speech the disagreeable words, we are left with three Witches essentially chanting in what soon becomes a hypnotic, tranced-out state- punctuated at the end of every verse by a pleasing rhyming couplet.
(The “toil and trouble” is the only part that makes the couplet difficult for us. “Double, double” is actually a pretty common witch-refrain, presumably meant to stir up mystical or esoteric energies.
Observation of the burning fire should be familiar to anyone who has ever attended a fire circle and a bubbling cauldron serves as a symbolic instrument for excited energies.
Ben Jonson, in his play The Masque of Queens, has his Witches chant, “Rubble, rubble” at one point- possibly in imitation of thunder. If one replaced “toil and trouble” with “rubble, rubble, ” one could utilize the most famous witch-couplet in the world as a circle-charm: “Double, double, rubble, rubble- fire burn and cauldron bubble.”)
In the Cauldron Speech and at the top of Act I (scene iii), Shakespeare clearly satisfies the currently fashionable anti-witch social stance. Various things suggest that he wants his audience to think of the Three in a different manner, however.
The story of the Scottish King is very ancient- so ancient that it pre-dates the Jacobean malignant hag-stereotype, as Shakespeare’s audience would have been aware. The story, being Scots in origin, must count as Celtic- the Witches perform a Witches’ Magickal Rite by chanting in rhyming iambic verse while they circle the exceptionally Celtic pagan symbol of a cauldron.
Early versions of the story describe the Three much in the manner of Rhiannon or Morrighan- as Celtic magic-women, three-formed. Shakespeare (for some reason) makes a point to describe them in his text as the Weird Sisters- that is, as the Anglo-Saxon Goddesses of Destiny otherwise known as the Norns. (The Folio spells their name as both “Weyward” and “Weyard.”) All of this suggests a conception of Pagan Divinity.
Another indication that Shakespeare does not mean us to take too seriously the sick comedy of Jacobean hags that opens the Third Scene of Act I is that he essentially starts the scene over again, at the Scottish Guy’s approach.
The Weyard Sisters, who have been amusing themselves plotting revenge upon a “rump-fed ronyon, ” focus themselves for the witchy matter at hand of Uttering Sibylline Prophecies, that the Scottish Guy might know his future.
Accordingly, they chant out a seven-beat-line lore-text that I call the Wyrrd Sisters’ Charm.
The Wyrrd Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about! About!
Thrice to thine and thrice to mine
And thrice again to make up nine!
Peace! The charm’s wound up.
Each line consists of seven beats- except for the second-to-last, which stretches out to eight- before the charm is interrupted with “Peace!” Four lines of seven beats yields twenty-eight beats. If you add the eight beats of the next line, you will have thirty-six: 3+6=9.
Someone very carefully composed this charm, which is of a nature with other examples of lore-text charms. Mathiesen and Theitic in fact reference it on Page 75, although they do so as an example of the use of a triple circle as magic-working technique. Far more intriguing to my mind is that the fact that the Charm is an example of lore-text- lore-text that is artfully constructed and lore-text that seems to describe energy-raising.
This is a matter that I discuss much more fully in my book A Briefe Historie of Wytches, alongside other period dramatic examples of witches raising energy in the course of Elizabethan/Jacobean theater.
However- what does the Wyrrd Sisters Charm do, we ask. It describes a scenario- it imagines the Wyrrd Sisters dancing hand-in-hand and about, about- dancing out one series of triple circles, then reversing direction and dancing out another series, then one more series back the first way. Then they stop with the observation that the charm’s wound up.
The fascinating thing is that the Charm describes so well what is a very familiar situation to every Neo-Pagan who has ever participated in a fire circle or a drum circle- that of becoming deliberately excited, so excited that the energies start to rise up. Our only text for the Scottish Play being the Folio (the collection published by Shakespeare’s fellow actors after the Great Bard’s death), we may affix the Folio’s publication date of 1623 to the Charm.
Like Mathiesen and Theitic examining Lady Gwen’s couplets, we must ask- who wrote the Charm? My guess is Shakespeare himself, who seems to have found witchcraft in general to be a very interesting thing, as he refers to it a great deal.
I don’t think the Bard of Avon counts as a Closet Witch or as a secret Practitioner of the Ancient Arts for this- he simply lived in an age that was very interested in witchcraft and magic. Elizabeth openly employed the wizard Dr. Dee; many other playwrights produced “Witch Plays, ” implying box-office interest.
Reginald Scot published his book urging tolerance for supposed witches in the 1580s and (Burning Times notwithstanding) England clearly enjoyed thriving communities of cunning-folk.
I think, wishing some sort of magickal rite with which to initiate things with the Scottish Guy- Shakespeare counted out and composed a little Charm for the Weyard Sisters to chant. Of course he cannot help but reflect the folklore of his time- and so his Charm becomes a lore-text that speaks to us from across the ages and that implicitly describes to us what Shakespeare’s time understood as “witchcraft.”
William Shakespeare wrote a lore-text charm sometime prior to 1623. This charm describes witches performing magickal witchcraft by dancing in circles- until the moment when their charm is wound up.
This seems to me to describe nothing so well as raising energy. But that would imply that in 1623 they understood “witchcraft” as involving raising energy.
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