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Da Vinci Code for Witches (Part Two)

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: May 24th. 2009
Times Viewed: 2,555

“I shall go round and giddy with the toy of the good turn”- the Witch Maudlin in Ben Jonson’s c. 1637 play The Sad Shepherd. (

1576 is notable in the History of the Elizabethan Age as the year that the director of a London-based acting troupe named James Burbage got the unprecedented idea for building a specific “house” for no other purpose than the presentation of his company’s plays. This unique building Burbage called a “theater, ” adapted from the Latin theatrum. Therefore at its inception, “theater” in Elizabethan England conjured the exotic, opulent, and at times decadent atmosphere of pagan Rome, helping to explain the animosity and alarm that the growing Puritan movement expressed towards play-acting.

Burbage’s theatrical rivals quickly appreciated the advantage his “theater” gave him and similar houses generically called “theaters” speedily sprang up along the outskirts of London. Thus (actor’s pun) the stage is set for the Eruption of Glories that is Elizabethan/Jacobean Theater. History Plays, Pastoral Comedies, and Revenge Tragedies will come to define those swash-buckling eras, as English theater catches on so that it becomes apparent that one does not “do” London without taking in a show.

The significance to Wiccan/Neo-Pagan audiences of today is that Magic-Working Plays (whether of the Ceremonial/Ritualistic School associated with learned wizards or of the Folk-Magic variety identified as “witchcraft”) were apparently popular enough to constitute a Theatrical Genre all their own: in addition to the super-stars of the era- Shakespeare, Jonson, and Marlowe- any number of the “second tier” level of “B+” writers for their stage- Greene, Lyly, Middleton, Marston, Beaumont and Fletcher, Heywood, Barnes, the anonymous authors of The Birth of Merlin and Peter Fabell: The Merry Devil (meaning “wizard”) of Edmonton - contribute a Magic-Worker Play, whether of the “Witch” or “Wizard” variety. (The only notable writer that I can think of who does not seem to produce a “Magic Play” is Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, the first Revenge Tragedy.)

A note: it was apparently possible for magically inclined individuals in the Elizabethan Age to become famous as magic-workers; the anonymous Wise-Woman of Hogsdon, Elizabeth Sawyer (“the Witch of Edmonton”) , Peter Fabell (“the Merry Devil, ” meaning “Wizard, ” of Edmonton) , and Mother Bombi are all so famous as local witches and wizards that they have plays written about them.

English theater audiences clearly found thrilling the performance of the Arts Magical; every Magic-Worker Play features a de rigueur scene (or two or three) of Magic-Use. This provides (one notes) an avenue of transmission for understanding of the Ancient Ways: in addition to the number of grimoire-pamphlets circulating in the culture (commented upon by British folklorist Katharine Briggs) , theater-going is another way for the Sorcerer’s Skills to be communicated. Thus it is that we can look at the Wizard Plays of the English Renaissance and see that their conception of Ritual Ceremonial magic was very much in keeping with our own (derived in fact from the same learned medieval tomes, as for instance the various versions of Solomon’s Key) . Equally we can look at the Witch Plays and observe what the Folk-Magic Art of witchcraft was like to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans.

What follows is an extremely sketchy summation of material presented in A Briefe Historie of Wytches, where it received more the attention it deserves, at length if not in acuity.

When Thomas Middleton sets in motion the climatic events of his play The Witch (c. 1610) , he initiates the happenstances through an act of witchcraft (a format also found in Macbeth, The Devil’s Charter, and The Tempest) . The Witch Queen Heccat leads her witch-band in a witches’ round-dance about their cauldron (“vessel”) whilst they sing the “charm-song” of “Black Spirits.” (V.ii.60-8) From this, one might infer that “witchcraft” (to the Jacobeans of Middleton’s audience) involved (1) dancing in a circle, whilst (2) singing (or chanting) a charm.

Witches were in fact proverbially associated with ring-dancing (dancing in a circle or a ring) . Katharine Briggs (in England) and Jacob Grimm (in Germany) establish the European witch’s proclivity towards circle-dancing; Doreen Valiente records English folklore describing irregular patches in fields as “hag-tracks, ” meaning places where witches were said to dance in the dark night.

That European witches from England to Germany should transport themselves through a ring-dance is not surprising, considering that everyone else in Europe dances in rounds or circles. The circle-dance was a popular sport and entertainment for people otherwise pressed for activities of celebration; it was undoubtedly for this reason that faeries were said to dance in merry rings on moonlit nights. As the ring-dance was familiar with both European revelers and the Wee Ones- what might have been different about the round-dance of witches that separated it from the round-dances of both regular folk and the fees?

Perhaps it was the intention- the witch’s will- put into the Round Dance of witches.

In The Sad Shepherd ( - his last play, sadly unfinished by the time of his death in 1637- Ben Jonson has the Witch Maudlin “go round and giddy with the toy of the good turn, ” in a display of witchcraft. She thus proceeds to “spin the ring she is in, ” turning about in a circle until (as a stage-direction tells us) she is so dizzy that she falls over- guaranteeing a laugh from the audience. As she does so, she chants a charm of some specificity to the circumstances of the plot.

In The Sad Shepherd, Maudlin the Witch “creates” or “generates” a magical charm by spinning “round and giddy, ” executing what she calls “the toy of the good turn.” Like Middleton’s witches, Maudlin “makes magic” by fashioning a circular space invested through movement, chanting, and intention.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth (performed before King James I in 1605) , the Three Witches empower a circular space with a spell-chanting charm just before they meet the Murderer-Thane. (I.iii.30) “The Weird 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.”

As with Jonson’s witch, Shakespeare’s “Weyard Sisters” (as they tend to be called in the text) execute a round-dance that has the same purpose as the “good turn-toy”: it “winds up a charm.”

In Jonson’s phantasmagorical 1609 Masque of Queens, his (kind of demented) witches are led by their Dame in a witchcraft-rite that strikes us as the same sort of shamanic drum-fire ritual very familiar to any modern Neo-Pagan (Wiccan or otherwise) who has ever attended a Pagan Gathering. As they begin to focus their efforts in earnest, the Dame vocalizes their intention with the Fourth Charm:

“Deep, oh deep, we lay thee to sleep; [they are burying magical stuff in the ground] we leave thee drink by, if thou chance to be dry, both milk and blood, the dew and the flood. We breathe in thy bed at the foot and the head, we cover thee warm that thou take no harm; and when thou dost wake, Dame Earth shall quake, and the houses shake, and her belly shall ache, as her back were brake, such a birth to make as is the blue drake whose form thou shalt take.”

An exceptionally arresting piece of witch-writing, gripping in its “Doom of the Gods, tearing all asunder” quality, the Fourth Charm of Jonson’s crones is notable for its (1) identification of the Earth as a Great Lady (“Dame Earth”) (2) its association of the effects of witchcraft with the woman-pangs of child-birth (3) its identification of the spell’s success as the creation of a “blue drake.”

A Blue Drake is a specific kind of elemental to them, presumably related to the Firedrake invoked by Middleton’s witches during the Black Spirits charm: “Firedrake and Pucky, make it lucky!” (“Pucky” would be a diminutive, familiar form of a “Puck.”) Katharine Briggs collects an old bit of English folklore:

“When candles burn both blue and dim, folks will say, Here’s faerey Grimm!” (“Grimm” being one of the many nicknames for Teutonic Odinn.)

According to this intelligence, the small, blue light of a candle reveals the presence of faerey Grimm, presumably in the form of a tiny blue-drake or elemental flame. “Drake” deriving from the Latin for “dragon, ” a “blue drake” was also acceptable to the Jacobeans as a term for a comet or meteor.

It has been variously suggested that the witches’ intention in Masque of Queens is apparently akin to generating a comet or a shooting star (or something like) and causing it to fire from the earth into the heavens. Katharine Briggs imagines them as unleashing a metaphysical volcanic explosion. At any rate- it sounds to me very much like a seventeenth century metaphor for what we would call “raising the cone of power, ” otherwise known as “energy-raising.”

In A Briefe Historie of Wytches, I pose the “Da Vinci Code” question: what are Wiccans (versed in the theory, conception, and practice of “energy-raising”) to make of these instances in four undeniable plays of the English Renaissance stage- are these witches “raising energy” in the “toy of the good turn, ” “winding up their charm, ” and birthing a blue drake (in order apparently to cause it to shoot skyward) ?

If so- what are we to make of the fact that “energy-raising” (a kind of odd and obscure phenomenon otherwise) is found on the Jacobean stage some 350 years before Gerald Gardner writes Witchcraft Today, otherwise the first time that energy-raising is conceptualized and articulated, and attributed to witches as their “craft.”

Let us pause to recall the conditions that Gardner describes as those surrounding his initiation into the New Forest coven in 1939 (a story affirmed by Philip Heselton in his books Wiccan Roots and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration) . Gardner meets a group of people who practice “witchcraft” together, in the manner and after the traditions of witches of old. He is fascinated and in time enthralled by the experiences that he comes to share with his new friends.

In time he develops the idea that he wishes to write a book explaining the yet-surviving “witchcraft” that he has discovered. At a period when England is still a fiercely conservative place, this completely novel and unprecedented impulse of Gardner’s takes his coven-mates aback; eventually they decide that they have no objections, as long as Gardner keeps their identities secret. This he does faithfully, to the extent that investigators such as Heselton must devote thankless hours to digging in archives and records in order to determine who these other “First Wiccans” were.

Gardner however describes the rituals performed by his initiating coven as “fragmentary, ” and explains that he must append material from other sources (at first Aleister Crowley and then from medieval grimoires such as The Key of Solomon) in order to “flesh them out, ” that he might communicate them to others.

This makes sense when one considers that the charms of the four “Energy-Raising Plays” of the early seventeenth century are idiosyncratic. They all have the same perception- yet they are described by various terms, in various ways. There is no “fixed” element to them; one must understand the state of mind in which one wishes to be- and have an understanding as to why such a state of mind is desirable- and have some previous experience or knowledge in order to best effect the metaphysical change attempted by one- in order to “work” the witchcrafts performed by Jonson, Shakespeare, and Middleton’s witches.

Had one an instructor or tutor willing to explain and answer questions- had one an initiating High Priestess, in other words- one might learn to conceptualize and then to articulate this intangible process for oneself- as apparently did Gardner.

However- like Gardner- one might find this all too airy and abstract to communicate well in a book. In which case (like Gardner) one might well decide that establishing a magical ritual framework around the improvisational witches’ ceremony is both desirable and helpful. Enter here Solomon’s Key.

One final thought. After the stern propriety of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, such English of the 1920s who might have been drawn to the “old ways” of the witches’ craft may well have wished to keep their activities “on the down-low, ” speaking little about their habits. Certainly it seems that the members of Gardner’s initiating coven were concerned with secrecy and communicated to him a sense of an English past in which witchcraft was a closely guarded subject. (At least a few of these people appear to have read Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, which is also very preoccupied with medieval witches as an underground, hidden, persecuted minority.)

This appears in actuality far from the case in England during the latter 1500s and early 1600s, when “witchcraft” is so well-known, it is presented publicly onstage. If witchcraft is so well known to play-writers such as Jonson or Shakespeare that they craft plays depicting it- we might (I think) be confident that it is well known to the rest of English culture as well.

At any rate, anyone unenlightened as to the performance of witchcraft will exit a production of Masque of Queens or The Witch with an improved appreciation for how witches might work their craft.

Being (apparently) widely known during the early 1600s, it is reasonable to assume that “energy-raising” (called “witchcraft”) might continue to be known enough in the early 1920s that any English folk who might wish to “recreate” or “revive” the “witchcraft” of old might discover it in the history of their folklore- assuming that their families had not in fact passed down knowledge of the peculiar power of the “wound up” charm or the “good turn” over the generations.

[Here ends Part Two.]


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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