In Defense of Witches: Why are We so Afraid of Them?

In one of their earlier incarnations, we remember the figures of the three witches,  or Wayward Sisters, as characters in the Macbeth of William Shakespeare (c. 1603–1607) who prophesied the death of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s witches are prophets who hail Macbeth, the general, early in the play, and predict his ascent to kingship. Upon killing the king and gaining the throne of Scotland, Macbeth hears them ambiguously predict his eventual downfall. The witches, and their “filthy” trappings and supernatural activities, set an ominous tone for the play. Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a history of England, Scotland and Ireland, describes them as “creatures of the elderwood … nymphs or fairies”. Nymphs and fairies are normally seen as beautiful and glamorous, but perhapsto heighten the tension and darkness of the play, Shakespeare’s three witches are grotesque, sinister and bizarre.

File:Füssli - 'Macbeth', Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters, c.1783.jpg
Henry Fussli, ‘Macbeth’, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters (c. 1783); Royal Shakespeare Company Collection

For Shakespeare, although their role doesn’t go beyond that of agents and witnesses, the Three Witches represent evil, darkness, chaos, and conflict. Their mere presence (a group of women who are “different”) communicates treason and impending doom. In Shakespeare’s day, witches were seen as worse than rebels as they were not only political traitors, but spiritual traitors as well as they were not governed by husbands or politicians. In the case of his three witches, much of the confusion that springs from them comes from their ability to straddle the play’s borders between reality and the supernatural. They are so deeply entrenched in both worlds that it is unclear whether they control fate, or whether they are merely its agents. Unlike what women were “supposed” to be a the time, the three women are not being subject to the rules of the real world.

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The Sorceress (Le Maléfice) by Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña, 1851

Our natural discomfort with states of ambiguity are also played with from the witches’ lines in the first act: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air” as they set the tone for the remainder of the play by establishing a sense of moral confusion. Indeed, the play is filled with situations in which evil is depicted as good, while good is rendered evil.

So now we know that, at least in Macbeth, the witches are scary women. Great. The three scary women feature everywhere in history. Witches appears on treatises on witchcraft such as Daemonologie which was written and published in 1599 by King James VI of Scotland as a philosophical dissertation on contemporary necromancy and the historical relationships between the various methods of divination used from ancient black magic. In writing the book, King James was heavily influenced by his personal involvement in the North Berwick witch trials from 1590. The book endorses the practice of witch hunting in a Christian society. James begins the book by saying,

“The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine (…) to resolve the doubting (…) both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.”

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“The Sorceress”, by Georges Merle, 1883

Some hope of more interesting interpretation of the witches can be found in the name “Weird Sisters”. The name is found in most modern editions of Macbeth. However, the First Folio of the text reads, “The weyward Sisters, hand in hand, Posters of the Sea and Land…” In later scenes in the First Folio the witches are called “weyward”, never “weird”. The modern appellation of “weird sisters” derives from Holinshed’s Chronicles. By Shakespeare’s time, the modern English spelling was only starting to become fixed. This influenced the word “weird”, from Old English wyrd, which means fate.

This is helpful as the three mysterious ladies with their hands in human fate also appears everywhere in the ancient world as the Norns of Norse mythology, and ancient classical myths of the Greek Moirai and the Roman Parcae. But this doesn’t help their image either – they’re still being described as scary women. The Moirai were usually described as cold and unfeeling, and depicted as old hags. The mere fact that they are not ruled by males inspired fear rather than matrimony. In modern literature, the poet Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) described them as “the three old shrews of fate”.

“the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom.”

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“A Golden Thread” by John Melhuish Strudwick, 1885

Human beings are strange. We like rules but we don’t like being bound by them. We want adventure and different experiences, but we look down upon people who are actually living differently. We like the idea that our lives are predestined, but we keep struggling to fight our destinies and become something “better”. Perhaps it is not the witches who are ambiguous and confusing.

In fact, the figure of the three women are one of the most constant sights we are presented with in history. In ancient Greek religion, the Moirai were the incarnations of destiny. They are three women: Clotho (“spinner”), Lachesis (“allotter”) and Atropos (“the unturnable”, a metaphor for death). They controlled the thread of life of every mortal from birth to death. They were independent. They directed fate and made sure that the fate assigned to every being by eternal laws might take its course without obstruction. Both gods and men had to submit to them.

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“The Three Fates” by Paul Thumann, 19th century

In Plato’s Republic, the three Moirai sing in unison with the music of the Sirens. Lachesis sings the things that were, Clotho the things that are, and Atropos the things that will be.

In his Hymn to the Fates, Pindar holds them in high honour. He says:

Listen Fates, who sit nearest of gods to the throne of Zeus,
and weave with shuttles of adamant,
inescapable devices for councels of every kind beyond counting,
Aisa, Clotho and Lachesis,
fair-armed daughters of Night,
hearken to our prayers, all-terrible goddesses,
of sky and earth.
Send us rose-bosomed Lawfulness,
and her sisters on glittering thrones,
Right and crowned Peace, and make this city forget the misfortunes which lie heavily on her heart.

What likely makes them such terrifying figures for those of us who are a bit of a control-freak is that they answers to no one. Some ancient writers tried to modify this by making them answer to Zeus, but according to Herodotus even the gods feared the Moirai. The Pythian priestess at Delphi once admitted that Zeus was also subject to their power, though no recorded classical writing clarifies to what exact extent the lives of immortals were affected by the whims of the Fates. So we can see a feeling towards a notion of an order to which even the gods have to conform. Simonides names this power Ananke (necessity) and says that even the gods don’t fight against it. Aeschylus combines Fate and necessity in a scheme, and claims that even Zeus cannot alter which is ordained.

Another, perhaps more urgent reason is that the Moirai represents limit and the end and we don’t like to be told “no”. But, in fact, this is what they do. They seem to set a limit on the most vigorous heroes’ actions. In a passage in Iliad, for example, Apollo tries three times to stop Patroclus in front of the walls of Troy, warning him that it is “over his allotment” to sack the city. In the Iliad, Zeus knows that his dearest Sarpedon will be killed by Patroclus, but he cannot save him because the Fates have predestined his death and there is nothing even the supreme god can do to stop this. Some rather clever men takes advantage of this, though. Agamemnon claims that he is not responsible for his arrogance because his arrogance is predetermined by the Fates. He also took the prize of Achilleus because Zeus and Moira predetermined his decision. 

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“Destiny” by Beatrice Offor, 1894

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