Skip to main content
Health Sciences LibrariesNewsWangensteen Library

A Shakespearean recipe for Witch’s Brew

By October 26, 2017September 16th, 20234 Comments

by Harriet Matzdorf

Pharmacy boxes from the Wangensteen artifact collection.

Pharmacy boxes from the Wangensteen artifact collection.

As Halloween nears, staff at the Wangensteen Historical Library are finding inspiration from a Witch’s Brew recipe written in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

“Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Ingredients from Wangensteen

While gathering ingredients to fill our cauldron, we quickly found that the eye of newt was not to be taken literally but in fact a common name for mustard seed. This was true for some of the other ingredients as well:

  • Toe of frog = Buttercup (Ranunculus acris L.)
  • Wool of bat = Holly Leaves (Ilex aquifolium)
  • Tongue of dog = Gypsyflower from the Genus Hound’s Tounge (Cynoglossum officinale L.)
  • Adders fork = Least Adder’s-tongue (Ophioglossum lusitanicum L.)
  • Blind-worm = Slowworm (Anguis fragilis)

If you have any intentions of trying your luck at this brew, don’t be fooled, it’s much easier to gather holly leaves than the wool of a bat, as we have learned from experience. 

Erinn Aspinall

Author Erinn Aspinall

More posts by Erinn Aspinall

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Adrian Bott says:

    Can I please ask for some clarification on this? There appear to be no sources that provide ‘eye of newt’ as an alternative name for ‘mustard seed’ prior to the 21st Century. Indeed, the whole idea that the ingredients of the witches’ cauldron are merely herbs and plants (rather than the gruesome items they appear to be) originates with Wiccan author Scott Cunningham writing in 1985. At the time, many modern pagans were concerned to reinvent the negative images of witches found in folklore, and claiming ‘eye of newt’ was a harmless herb was part of that.

    The proposal that Shakespeare’s witches were really only using herbs doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. While it might be possible to argue that, for example, ‘tongue of dog’ was really the herb houndstongue, there is no way that ‘finger of birth-strangled babe / ditch-deliver’d by a drab’ refers to anything but what it says; and the less said about the human liver, the better. Shakespeare was writing to please James I, who was afraid of witches. His weird sisters were meant to be evil, ghoulishly and exaggeratedly so.

    Moreover, the use of animal parts in historical magic is, as I’m sure you’re already aware, well documented. Agrippa provides plenty of examples. The motivation behind trying to reinterpret Shakespeare’s malefic witches as harmless herbalists was part of the movement in the 1980s and 90s to reclaim witches in general for benevolent Wiccan purposes.

    • Thundal says:

      Contrarily, Shakespeare’s works are known to be playful and full of double entendre. It’s notable that the “”liver of blaspheming Jew,” is exactly what one would call liver which has been prepared to be eaten… by a jewish butcher, who were the common folk who ate them (as they were seen, culturally, as tasty, while others were weirded out by them; many people despise liver and onions today who didn’t grow up with it). So even in that there are parallels. (All jews are blasphemers, as they don’t believe in the catholic church, under the commons of the story).

      Given further the context of the ambiguous things the witches give after this scene, if many of these things *were* given to be ambiguous themselves, that would certainly fit in with these themes, aye?

    • Kaz says:

      I’d love to know your source that Scott Cunningham made it up? Or that is originates with Cunningham at all. I own Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. There is no mention of Eye of Newt in it that I have seen. Adder’s Mouth and Tongue of Dog are mentioned but not Wool of Bat, Eye of Newt or Toe of Frog. I think it is fair to ask which book apparently has this as you are accusing a man of having lack of integrity and making things up.

      Cunningham in his books generally include information on source material and did his research. So if you have a source that Cunningham is the origin of Eye of Newt = Black Mustard Seed then I’d love to know. I would also point out that 1985 is the 20th century and prior to the 21st century. I realize that isn’t want you mean. You mean before 1950. Under Mustard there is no Mention of Eye of Newt nor is their any listing for it as an alternative name for Mustard seed.

  • Amanda Price says:

    Are you referring to the Roman Agrippa or Heinrich Agrippa? Either way, both of them were biased, in somewhat opposite directions, and we should be skeptical of their reports. While I have no doubt that animal parts were used in occult practices and folk medicine, many plants and their parts were referred to using names easy to memorize. “Heart” referred to the seed, “toe” to the leaf, “guts” to the roots, etc. Here are two citations that might be helpful: Andrew Yang in his work ‘Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy’ and, more specifically, Oswald Cockayne’s ‘Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest.’
    Additionally, anyone who knows anything about plant based medicine and poison would rather eat a baby’s toe or a bat wing than boiled yew and wormwood. It’s a good way to join the dead, not raise them. A lot of the herbs mentioned in the verse refer to those that cause hallucinatory experiences, but can also be deadly. In my opinion, the modern “Wicca” movement has destroyed and convoluted much of occult history, as so much of their practices seem arbitrary. Frankly, the stereotypical “witch” didn’t exist outside of religious dogma until Wicca. It was a way for the aristocrats and the churches to wrestle the last bit of control of medical treatment from the peasantry. The innocent people painted as evil “witches” deserve to be stripped of the negative, ridiculous stereotype. They were primarily local “granny women” and midwives with any outcast or rebellious thinker thrown in for good measure. So if they tried to make witches seem harmless, I’m glad. Because they were. It was a genocide in some parts of Europe, and we should remember it as such.

© 2024 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Privacy Statement | Acceptable Use of IT Resources