Witches in Literature and Lore

By Jade Raine | February 4, 2000

Fair is foul, and foul is fair,/Hover through fog and filthy air” WITCHES, “MACBETH,” ACT I SCENE i. Macbeth’s witches are three strong, female characters, puppet-masters, weaving complex webs of deceit, and then pulling the strings swiftly, strongly and subtly. Many other characters throughout literature and life are shadowed by these 3 sisters, and are shadows of them. Many others, too are made of the same mold, and yet are the opposite of these “rump-fed ronyons.”

“All the world ‘s a stage, /And all the men and women merely players.” Jacques, AS YOU LIKE IT. The three witches really take this to heart, Shakespeare must have wanted them to follow his own philosophies. They, mind you, are no players, but more, the directors. Another three famous “directors” in mythology are the Fates.

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the spinner, measurer, and the cutter of life, these three sisters controlled both man and god, their word was indisputable. Men were subject to being cut down at the whim of Atropos, and the happiness in their lives was dished to them by Clotho. They too, manipulated men to fit into their schemes, and cut short any whisperings of good fortune.

The Hindu goddess Kali, the demon form of Parvati, is another likeness to the three witches of Shakespeare’s. She, however, is not a methodical, controlling force, she is pure and utter murder incarnate. Like the weird sisters, Kali obliterates anyone in her path, literally. But the sisters take their revenge in more sly ways, the most cruel way of all. Macbeth is used as the pawn to make the sisters’ plans come to life, whereas Kali’s plan comes from the tip of her sword. She is as fearsome to behold as the sisters are to interpret.

The quote “Foul is fair, and fair is foul,” spoken by the witches applies also to the Greek demi-goddess Eris, or Discord. Most famous for starting the biggest war in Greek history, by throwing the golden apple into the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, she takes another of Shakespeare philosophies deadly serious. To her, mischief is a serious business. Riding in Ares’ chariot, she incites riots, quarrels, and general pandemonium. Calculation is part of her craft. She used greed, just like the witches, to make those around her play into her plans. Carving the words “to the fairest,”into the skin of the apple was a parallel to “All hail Macbeth! That shall be king hereafter,” ACT I SCENE iii. By offering something desirable to those avaricious enough, it is easy for these women to bend the entire world to their plans and desires.

Sarasvati, Queen of the heavens, is the Hindu embodiment of wisdom. She sits on her lotus throne, is personifies spiritual knowledge and mastery of the arts. She is a foil to the sisters. She has the same level of intelligence as the sisters, the same wit and she sees the same depth past the surface as do the weird, but she uses her wisdom to help people, not to harm them. Sarasvati achieved a place in the sky as the Queen, where the sisters are left to crawl on the earth like the snake of Eden. Sarasvati commands the same kind of results as the sisters, only she instills peace, love, health and loyalty in those whom she touches, and everything the sisters manipulate withers away.

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Nyai Loro Kidul, a mermaid goddess in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, is like to another face of the Scottish sorceresses. She is a goddess of desire and temptation. She, much like the Greek sirens, lures men to her with the promise of unspeakable beauties, and when the are finally drawn close enough, drunk with their own desire, they are drowned by the illusions she has shown them, and sink to the bottom of the sea. The Wyrd obviously use the same tactics, only, as stunningly portrayed in the movie “Macbeth,” they proffer not personal physical attraction, but they lure prey into their intricate web using promises of greatness and power.

Each of the three sisters seems to have no personality their own, they are all the same, cruel, manipulative, sadistic bitches. This seeming oversight on “Big Bad Bill’s” part is part of what makes the witches so intriguing. To have these three connected so closely by being the acting, thinking the same, being the same, its adds more to the mystery surrounding them throughout the play. The reader knows nothing of the plans of these hags, their backgrounds, or their ulterior motives, and this makes them all the more interesting. We do know, nonetheless, that whatever it is they have in mind, it is unanimous between them what the fates around them shall be.

Very few characters in Shakespeare’s works are strong females, and the witches don’t really count as women, but as something more. Lady Macbeth, as heartless and driven as she was, was no match for the witches. A small foray into their world drove her insane and killed her, and look at how ambitious she was. The witches are by far stronger than her, even stronger than the male parts in Shakespeare’s plays. King Lear broke down, and railed against the rain, and even before the death of his daughter, he was gone. Macbeth himself was easily driven over the edge, all the while the sisters calm, collected and unwaveringly dedicated to their chosen path. It takes pure gall to sit back, and ruin an entire country without the least bit of remorse, or regret. Dedication of that lustre takes a spine, and theirs were unbreakable steel spines. The potion they make, without ever flinching at what’s inside of it is a salute to their hardness and fidelity to their mistress, and their mission, whatever it may be.

Fair is foul. What is good is evil. There are innumerable interpretations to this line, but the one most consistent with the persona of the witches is that playing the fair route, sticking to morals and principles instead of having a little initiative is rotten, weak and putrid to them, whereas “what is foul is fair,” creeps into believing that pushing others to get to the front of the line is perfectly justifiable. This glimpse into them is very small, and also very large. The faithful reader never learns much about the witches, but this reveals much of what is exposed to us. This line also identifies them to other personalities, gives them the flavor that is similar to other characters in history.

Calling Macbeth and Banquo like sirens, with the cunning of Eris offering them the riches of Nyai Loro Kidul, their Kali-esque drive and backbone urge them into caves within the earth, hiding from the sky, and those like Sarasvati, the witches are complex, unique characters. They share traits with many, but there are none that are their equal. Perhaps another “fair is foul and foul is fair,” is that their infamousness is greater than millions of people, goddesses, characters and demons will ever see. Their sadism won them higher notice than any of the people they shadow, and that, though foul, is fair. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but the real stench is in the bowels of Scotland.

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