Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog?
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
"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.
William Shakespeare- “Macbeth”
The image of a bubbling cauldron being stirred by a witch originates from the large containers in which women boiled their ingredients to produce simples. Simpling was the brewing and distilling of herbs and was practiced by women in most medieval households in order to keep a very necessary supply of medicinal remedies on hand. During that period, the arts of herbalist, alchemy, and magic were difficult to separate, and the herb women often added the role of spell-caster to their role as the dispenser of home-brewed herbal therapies.
The Macbeth witches’ famous list of ingredients is thought of as a witch’s brew but did witches back then actually use such ghastly bits and pieces as they stirred their cauldrons? Because witches are closely connected to nature and respect all sentient beings, so how in the world did they get away with using bat’s wings, cat’s foot and tongue of dog in their potions and brews? The answer is simple. Witches created codenames designed to keep magic within the magic circle.
Back in the Dark Ages, people believed witches were powerful practitioners of evil so those practicing the Craft needed to devise a way to scare the common-folk as a means of protection and the disturbing names they created stopped non-magical folk from replicating or sampling their brews. For example, Toe of frog is really just a buttercup, wool of bat are holly leaves, and tongue of dog is houndstongue, which is a herbaceous plant. Bird’s foot is feunugreek, Calf’s snout is a snapdragon and fairy fingers are foxglove. Many herbalist’s believe that Eye of Newt actually refers to mustard seed.
As the story goes, a coven of witches were so angry with Shakespeare for using real incantations in his play that they put a curse on him, the play and anyone else who dared utter the word, “Macbeth” and it seems to have worked. Legend has it the play’s first performance, around 1606, was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumored mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan which resulted in the actor who played the part's death. To this day, according to a theatrical superstition called The Scottish Curse, speaking the name Macbeth inside a theatre, other than as called for in the script while rehearsing or performing, will cause disaster.
Since the beginning of time, mankind has given plants interesting folk names based on certain attributes of the plant, it's growth habits or even specific reasons it was used for. The common dandelion has been called bitterwort for its strong and bitter taste. Depending on where you live, you may call Glechoma hederacea either Creeping Charlie, ground ivy or Runaway Robin because of its aggressive runners. Cat's foot is named for the shape of it
s leaves, alehoof because it was commonly used in the making of beer and ale, and field balm because it has been used for as a general heal-all herb for balms, salves and teas for thousands of years.
So next time you’re wanting a hearty cup of coffee, make sure you add a pinch or two of Beard of Monk (Chickory). For a nice, calming cup of tea, try some Blood of Hestia (Chamomile)… both of which would be delicious with a yummy piece Scaldhead (Brambleberry) pie.