#FolkloreThursday: Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Nota bene: I am a practicing witch and have been for more than two decades. Having said that, I do take issue with some claims that are made about witches who can trace their history back hundreds of years and have the spell books to prove it. There are legitimate historical reasons for why this is unlikely. Having said that, I’m also not interested in anyone trying to prove me wrong. If you believe this about your family history, then rest easy in the belief that you are right and I am not.

This week’s theme is limericks, rhymes and riddles for #NationalLimerickDay. I thought about doing a bit of history on limericks but I assume that will be a popular take so I decided to go a different way–as usual–and take a look at magic spells and why they rhyme.

I think most of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth and their very famous rhyme:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron 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 howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Macbeth: IV.i 10-19; 35-38

Although, if you’re like me, you might be more familiar with the version from the “Midnight Margaritas” scene in the 1998 movie Practical Magic:

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog.
Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting,
Barbados lime is just the thing.
Cragged salt like a sailor’s stubble!
Flip the switch and let the cauldron bubble!

Dunne, Griffin, director. Practical Magic. Warner Bros., 1998.

They’re memorable, right? We talked a bit about the purpose behind rhyming in the post about Little Louse and Little Flea. The rhyme is what makes us remember. I mean, I don’t know about y’all but I can still remember pop songs from my ’80s childhood while I can barely remember anything from all the classes I’ve taken over the last 10 years. Hell, I can still recite word for word Lestat’s song “Age of Innocence” from Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned and the “Song of Huma” from the Dragonlance Chronicles.

So what does this have to do with witchcraft and spells? Well, first off, keep in mind that we’re going to venture into areas that are prone to conjecture and a lot of how you view this is going to depend on your opinion of witchcraft and whether it’s real or not.

The general idea–which I think arises from the fact that so many poor women were accused of witchcraft–is that these women were often illiterate. As such, written spells and incantations would be useless. The idea of witches and their Books of Shadows, or grimoires, that they’ve handed down for generations is very romantic but also highly unlikely. Anything that was written down was likely via male alchemists and magicians like John Dee and Albertus Magnus (and yes, there are some women who have been named as alchemists but there are no extant writings that can be directly attributed to these women). Even if women could read and write, putting these kinds of things to paper would have been a sure way to get yourself tried for witchcraft. But a nice, neat rhyme can serve a witch’s purpose just as well and it’s easy to remember.

While I tend to discount the claims of some that they do indeed have Books of Shadows that have been passed down for hundreds of years, I don’t discount the idea that rhymes and spells have been passed down, just as songs and nursery rhymes are passed down in families.

And speaking of nursery rhymes and witchcraft, I was curious and started looking into whether our known and beloved Mother Goose stories might have begun as spells. What I found was a paper about children’s rhymes and incantations from 1889 that attributes counting songs to Romani magic. I also found a site dedicated to nursery rhymes that claims the following:

The words of the original Old Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme can be interpreted to find a darker meaning to the identity of ‘ Mother Goose’! The title ‘Mother Goose’ probably originates from the 1600’s – the time of the great witch hunts. Comparisons can be made between the Mother Goose in the above children’s poem and the popular conception of a witch during this era!

Alchin, Linda. “The Identity of Mother Goose & Her Nursery Rhymes.” The Identity of Mother Goose & Her Nursery Rhymes, 2017, https://www.rhymes.org.uk/mother-goose-identity.htm.

There are absolutely no citations for this bold statement, however, so I think we’re okay with dismissing the idea. I mean, yes, you can certainly make these types of conjecture but correlation does not equal causation. And I will fully admit that I engage in conjecture from time to time but I also state that flat out. Citations matter, people!

On a side note, there are some theories about the origins of Mother Goose that trace her back to a French queen named Bertha the Spinner, or “Goose-Footed Bertha” which directly ties back to Perchta. It’s all connected , y’all!

Anyway, I ran a little off the rails with this one, which happens when you have ADHD but my main point is that when you see witches on TV and in movies casting spells that rhyme, even when those rhymes are often very forced, it does come from a place of meaning. We chant, and sing, and rhyme because it stays in our minds. Think of how often you have been transported by the words of a song, or a poem and how those rhymes stick with you, for decades sometimes. You remember it; perhaps it even becomes a sacred prayer for you. The meaning matters and often the medium is an integral part of that meaning. Blessed be, y’all!

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