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Untie the winds: Exploring the Witches' Control Over Nature in Macbeth

From Elizabethan Demonology by Thomas Alfred Spalding. London: Chatto and Windus.

It is impossible to read "Macbeth" without noticing the prominence given to the belief that witches had the power of creating storms and other atmospheric disturbances, and that they delighted in so doing. The sisters elect to meet in thunder, lightning, or rain. To them "fair is foul, and foul is fair," as they "hover through the fog and filthy air." The whole of the earlier part of the third scene of the first act is one blast of tempest with its attendant devastation. They can loose and bind the winds,1 cause vessels to be tempest-tossed at sea, and mutilate wrecked bodies.2 They describe themselves as "posters of the sea and land;"3 the heath they meet upon is blasted;4 and they vanish "as breath into the wind."5 Macbeth conjures them to answer his questions thus:--

"Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged, and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken."6

Now, this command over the elements does not form at all a prominent feature in the English records of witchcraft. A few isolated charges of the kind may be found. In 1565, for instance, a witch was burnt who confessed that she had caused all the tempests that had taken place in that year. Scot, too, has a few short sentences upon this subject, but does not give it the slightest prominence.7 Nor in the earlier Scotch trials recorded by Pitcairn does this charge appear amongst the accusations against the witches. It is exceedingly curious to notice the utter harmless nature of the charges brought against the earlier culprits; and how, as time went on and the panic increased, they gradually deepened in colour, until no act was too gross, too repulsive, or too ridiculously impossible to be excluded from the indictment. The following quotations from one of the earliest reported trials are given because they illustrate most forcibly the condition of the poor women who were supposed to be witches, and the real basis of fact upon which the belief in the crime subsequently built itself.

Bessie Dunlop was tried for witchcraft in 1576. One of the principal accusations against her was that she held intercourse with a devil who appeared to her in the shape of a neighbour of hers, one Thom Reed, who had recently died. Being asked how and where she met Thom Reed, she said,

"As she was gangand betwixt her own house and the yard of Monkcastell, dryvand her ky to the pasture, and makand heavy sair dule with herself, gretand8 very fast for her cow that was dead, her husband and child that wer lyand sick in the land ill, and she new risen out of gissane,9 the aforesaid Thom met her by the way, healsit10 her, and said, 'Gude day, Bessie,' and she said, 'God speed you, guidman.' 'Sancta Marie,' said he, 'Bessie, why makes thow sa great dule and sair greting for ony wardlie thing?' She answered 'Alas! have I not great cause to make great dule, for our gear is trakit,11 and my husband is on the point of deid, and one babie of my own will not live, and myself at ane weak point; have I not gude cause then to have ane sair hart?' But Thom said, 'Bessie, thou hast crabit12 God, and askit some thing you suld not have done; and tharefore I counsell thee to mend to Him, for I tell thee thy barne sall die and the seik cow, or you come hame; and thy twa sheep shall die too; but thy husband shall mend, and shall be as hale and fair as ever he was.' And then I was something blyther, for he tauld me that my guidman would mend. Then Thom Reed went away fra me in through the yard of Monkcastell, and I thought that he gait in at ane narrower hole of the dyke nor anie erdlie man culd have gone throw, and swa I was something fleit."13

This was the first time that Thom appeared to her. On the third occasion he asked her "if she would not trow14 in him." She said "she would trow in ony bodye did her gude." Then Thom promised her much wealth if she would deny her christendom. She answered that "if she should be riven at horsis taillis, she suld never do that, but promised to be leal and trew to him in ony thing she could do," whereat he was angry.

On the fourth occasion, the poor woman fell further into sin, and accompanied Thom to a fairy meeting. Thom asked her to join the party; but she said "she saw na proffeit to gang thai kind of gaittis, unless she kend wherefor." Thom offered the old inducement, wealth; but she replied that "she dwelt with her awin husband and bairnis," and could not leave them. And so Thom began to be very crabit with her, and said, "if so she thought, she would get lytill gude of him."

She was then demanded if she had ever asked any favour of Thom for herself or any other person. She answered that "when sundrie persons came to her to seek help for their beast, their cow, or ewe, or for any barne that was tane away with ane evill blast of wind, or elf grippit, she gait and speirit15 at Thom what myght help them; and Thom would pull ane herb and gif her out of his awin hand, and bade her scheir16 the same with ony other kind of herbis, and oppin the beistes mouth, and put thame in, and the beist wald mend."17

It seems hardly possible to believe that a story like this, which is half marred by the attempt to partially modernize its simple pathetic language, and which would probably bring a tear to the eye, if not a shilling from the pocket, of the most unsympathetic being of the present day, should be considered sufficient three hundred years ago, to convict the narrator of a crime worthy of death; yet so it was. This sad picture of the breakdown of a poor woman's intellect in the unequal struggle against poverty and sickness is only made visible to us by the light of the flames that, mercifully to her perhaps, took poor Bessie Dunlop away for ever from the sick husband, and weakly children, and the "ky," and the humble hovel where they all dwelt together, and from the daily, heart-rending, almost hopeless struggle to obtain enough food to keep life in the bodies of this miserable family. The historian -- who makes it his chief anxiety to record, to the minutest and most irrelevant details, the deeds, noble or ignoble, of those who have managed to stamp their names upon the muster-roll of Fame -- turns carelessly or scornfully the page which contains such insignificant matter as this; but those who believe
"That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivel'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain,"
will hardly feel that poor Bessie's life and death were entirely without their meaning.

As the trials for witchcraft increase, however, the details grow more and more revolting; and in the year 1590 we find a most extraordinary batch of cases -- extraordinary for the monstrosity of the charges contained in them, and also for the fact that this feature, so insisted upon in "Macbeth", the raising of winds and storms, stands out in extremely bold relief. The explanation of this is as follows. In the year 1589, King James VI brought his bride, Anne of Denmark, home to Scotland. During the voyage an unusually violent storm raged, which scattered the vessels composing the royal escort, and, it would appear, caused the destruction of one of them. By a marvellous chance, the king's ship was driven by a wind which blew directly contrary to that which filled the sails of the other vessels;18 and the king and queen were both placed in extreme jeopardy. James, who seems to have been as perfectly convinced of the reality of witchcraft as he was of his own infallibility, at once came to the conclusion that the storm had been raised by the aid of evil spirits, for the express purpose of getting rid of so powerful an enemy of the Prince of Darkness as the righteous king. The result was that a rigorous investigation was made into the whole affair; a great number of persons were tried for attempting the king's life by witchcraft; and that prince, undeterred by the apparent impropriety of being judge in what was, in reality, his own cause, presided at many of the trials, condescended to superintend the tortures applied to the accused in order to extort a confession, and even went so far in one case as to write a letter to the judges commanding a condemnation.

Under these circumstances, considering who the prosecutor was, and who the judge, and the effectual methods at the service of the court for extorting confessions,19 it is not surprising that the king's surmises were fully justified by the statements of the accused. It is impossible to read these without having parts of the witch-scenes in "Macbeth" ringing in the ears like an echo. John Fian, a young schoolmaster, and leader of the gang, or "coven" as it was called, was charged with having caused the leak in the king's ship, and with having raised the wind and created a mist for the purpose of hindering his voyage.20 On another occasion he and several other witches entered into a ship, and caused it to perish.21 He was also able by witchcraft to open locks.22 He visited churchyards at night, and dismembered bodies for his charms; the bodies of unbaptized infants being preferred.23

Agnes Sampsoune confessed to the king that to compass his death she took a black toad and hung it by the hind legs for three days, and collected the venom that fell from it. She said that if she could have obtained a piece of linen that the king had worn, she could have destroyed his life with this venom; "causing him such extraordinarie paines as if he had beene lying upon sharpe thornes or endis of needles."24 She went out to sea to a vessel called The Grace of God, and when she came away the devil raised a wind, and the vessel was wrecked.25 She delivered a letter from Fian to another witch, which was to this effect: "Ye sall warne the rest of the sisters to raise the winde this day at ellewin hours to stay the queenis coming in Scotland."26

This is her confession as to the methods adopted for raising the storm. "At the time when his Majestie was in Denmarke, she being accompanied by the parties before speciallie named, took a cat and christened it, and afterwards bounde to each part of that cat the cheefest parts of a dead man, and the severall joyntes of his bodie; and that in the night following the said cat was conveyed into the middest of the sea by all these witches, sayling in their riddles or cives,27 as is afore said, and so left the said cat right before the town of Leith in Scotland. This done, there did arise such a tempest in the sea as a greater hath not been seene, which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a vessell coming over from the town of Brunt Ilande to the town of Leith.... Againe, it is confessed that the said christened cat was the cause that the kinges Majesties shippe at his coming forth of Denmarke had a contrarie wind to the rest of his shippes...."28

It is worth a note that this art of going to sea in sieves, which Shakespeare has referred to in his drama, seems to have been peculiar to this set of witches. English witches had the reputation of being able to go upon the water in egg-shells and cockle-shells, but seem never to have detected any peculiar advantages in the sieve. Not so these Scotch witches. Agnes told the king that she, "with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundreth, all together went to sea, each one in a riddle or cive, and went into the same very substantially, with flaggons of wine, making merrie, and drinking by the way in the same riddles or cives, to the kirke of North Barrick in Lowthian, and that after they landed they tooke hands on the lande and daunced a reill or short daunce." They then opened the graves and took the fingers, toes, and knees of the bodies to make charms.29

It can be easily understood that these trials created an intense excitement in Scotland. The result was that a tract was printed, containing a full account of all the principal incidents; and the fact that this pamphlet was reprinted once, if not twice,30 in London, shows that interest in the affair spread south of the Border; and this is confirmed by the publisher's prefatorial apology, in which he states that the pamphlet was printed to prevent the public from being imposed upon by unauthorized and extravagant statements of what had taken place.31 Under ordinary circumstances, events of this nature would form a nine days' wonder, and then die a natural death; but in this particular case the public interest continued for an abnormal time; for eight years subsequent to the date of the trials, James published his "Daemonologie" -- a work founded to a great extent upon his experiences at the trials of 1590. This was a sign to both England and Scotland that the subject of witchcraft was still of engrossing interest to him; and as he was then the fully recognized heir-apparent to the English crown, the publication of such a work would not fail to induce a great amount of attention to the subject dealt with. In 1603 he ascended the English throne. His first parliament met on the 19th of March, 1604, and on the 27th of the same month a bill was brought into the House of Lords dealing with the question of witchcraft. It was referred to a committee of which twelve bishops were members; and this committee, after much debating, came to the conclusion that the bill was imperfect.

In consequence of this a fresh one was drawn, and by the 9th of June a statute had passed both Houses of Parliament, which enacted, among other things, that "if any person shall practise or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit, or shall consult with, entertain, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit,32 or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave ... or the skin, bone, or any other part of any dead person to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft,33 ... or shall ... practise ... any witchcraft ... whereby any person shall be killed, wasted, pined, or lamed in his or her body or any part thereof,34 such offender shall suffer the pains of death as felons, without benefit of clergy or sanctuary." Hutchinson, in his "Essay on Witchcraft," published in 1720, declares that this statute was framed expressly to meet the offences exposed by the trials of 1590-1; but, although this cannot be conclusively proved, yet it is not at all improbable that the hurry with which the statute was passed into law immediately upon the accession of James, would recall to the public mind the interest he had taken in those trials in particular and the subject in general, and that Shakespeare producing, as nearly all the critics agree, his tragedy at about this date, should draw upon his memory for the half-forgotten details of those trials, and thus embody in "Macbeth" the allusions to them that have been pointed out -- much less accurately than he did in the case of the Babington affair, because the facts had been far less carefully recorded, and the time at which his attention had been called to them far more remote.35

_____ Footnotes _____

[Footnote 1: I. iii. 11, 12.]

[Footnote 2: Act I. sc. iii. l. 28.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid. l. 32.]

[Footnote 4: Ibid. l. 77.]

[Footnote 5: Ibid. ll. 81, 82.]

[Footnote 6: Act IV. sc. i. ll. 52-60.]

[Footnote 7: Book iii. ch. 13, p. 60.]

[Footnote 8: Weeping. I have only half translated this passage, for I feared to spoil the sad simplicity of it.]

[Footnote 9: Child-bed.]

[Footnote 10: Saluted.]

[Footnote 11: Dwindled away.]

[Footnote 12: Displeased.]

[Footnote 13: Frightened.]

[Footnote 14: Trust.]

[Footnote 15: Inquired.]

[Footnote 16: Chop.]

[Footnote 17: Pitcairn, I. ii. 51, et seq.]

[Footnote 18: Pitcairn, I. ii. 218.]

[Footnote 19: The account of the tortures inflicted upon Fian are too horrible for quotation.]

[Footnote 20: Pitcairn, I. ii. 211.]

[Footnote 21: Ibid. 212. He confessed that Satan commanded him to chase cats "purposlie to be cassin into the sea to raise windis for destructioune of schippis." Macbeth, I. iii. 15-25.]

[Footnote 22: "Fylit for opening of ane loke be his sorcerie in David Seytounis moderis, be blawing in ane woman's hand, himself sittand att the fyresyde."--See also the case of Bessie Roy, I. ii. 208. The English method of opening locks was more complicated than the Scotch, as will appear from the following quotation from Scot, book xii. ch. xiv. p. 246:--

"A charme to open locks. Take a peece of wax crossed in baptisme, and doo but print certeine floures therein, and tie them in the hinder skirt of your shirt; and when you would undoo the locke, blow thrice therein, saieing, 'Arato hoc partico hoc maratarykin; I open this doore in thy name that I am forced to breake, as thou brakest hell gates. In nomine patris etc. Amen.'" "Macbeth", IV. i. 46.]

[Footnote 23:
"Finger of birth-strangled babe,
Ditch-delivered by a drab."
Macbeth, IV. i. 30.]

[Footnote 24: Pitcairn, I. ii. 218.
"Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got."
"Macbeth", IV. i. 6.]

[Footnote 25: Ibid. 235.]

[Footnote 26: Ibid. 236.]

[Footnote 27: "Macbeth", I. iii. 8.]

[Footnote 28: Pitcairn, Reprint of Newes from Scotland, I. ii. 218. See also Trial of Ewsame McCalgane, I. ii. 254.]

[Footnote 29: Pitcairn, I. ii. 217.]

[Footnote 30: One copy of this reprint bears the name of W. Wright, another that of Thomas Nelson. The full title is--
"Newes from Scotland,

"Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer, who was burned at Edenborough in Januarie last, 1591; which Doctor was Register to the Deuill, that sundrie times preached at North Barricke kirke to a number of notorious witches; with the true examinations of the said Doctor and witches as they uttered them in the presence of the Scottish king: Discouering how they pretended to bewitch and drowne his Majestie in the sea, comming from Denmarke, with such other wonderfull matters, as the like hath not bin heard at anie time.

"Published according to the Scottish copie.

"Printed for William Wright."]

[Footnote 31: These events are referred to in an existing letter by the notorious Thos. Phelippes to Thos. Barnes, Cal. State Papers (May 21, 1591), 1591-4, p. 38.]

[Footnote 32: Such as Paddock, Graymalkin, and Harpier.]

[Footnote 33: "Liver of blaspheming Jew," etc.-- "Macbeth", IV. i. 26.]

[Footnote 34:

"I will drain him dry as hay;
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se'nnights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine."
"Macbeth", I. iii. 18-23.]

[Footnote 35: The excitement about the details of the witch trials would culminate in 1592. Harsnet's book would be read by Shakespeare in 1603.]

How to cite this article:
Spalding, Thomas Alfred. Elizabethan Demonology. London: Chatto and Windus, 1880. Shakespeare Online. 15 Aug. 2011. < >.


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