Hello, everyone! Since Halloween is right around the corner, I figured I'd share something to help you celebrate the season that ties in with herbal tea.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth remains one of the best known, best loved and most quoted works in all of literature. Perhaps the most enduring scene from the great tragedy is that of the three mysterious witches surrounding a boiling cauldron in Act IV: Scene I. It doesn’t get more supernatural and creepy than this scene and we’ve had about 400 years to come up with something to top it. In unison the witches repeat the famous lines “double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble” then rattle off a bizarre list of things to chuck into the “charmed pot”: eye of newt, dragon scales, lizard leg, tongue of dog and so on. No self-respecting fictional witch or wizard has been without jars of these magical ingredients since. While you wouldn’t be able to find “addler’s tongue” and “wool of bat” in Hy-Vee’s spice aisle, these things aren’t as outlandish as you might think. As it turns out, the three “weird sisters” were probably just making a giant pot of herbal tea.
Although it’s more exciting to think of these magical gals casting spells while dipping into their stash of baboon blood and Tartar’s lips, they were most likely using colorful language to describe common herbs of the era.
Witches, herbal healers, wizards, shamans or whatever you’d like to call them would have good reason for changing the names of the herbs they used. Calling it something exotic enhances the power of suggestion over “let me go grab a little bit of this flower growing over there”. If the person being healed (and the healer, really) feel like the act of giving a herbal remedy is more of a solemn affair, they will be in a better mindset to be healed. If you look at it from this angle, it plays in very well with the theme of self-fulfilling prophecy in Macbeth. Using exotic names was also a way for herbalists to cover their methods in a shroud of secrecy, either to preserve their craft, confound the authorities or protect individual business secrets. It was also a way of making the person being healed think twice about over-medicating. Anyways, let’s look at some of the magical items mentioned in the notorious passage... “Eye of newt” was probably mustard seeds. They’re small and black, just like a newt’s eye. “Wool of bat” was probably holly or even moss. “Tongue of dog” was likely an herb called houndstongue “Addler’s tongue” was a fern that looked a lot like a snake’s tongue
“Dragon scales” could be tarragon or perhaps a dried sap that was reddish (being "red dragon", we should track this down!) “Gall of goat” might have been St. John’s wort. They say the plant looks like goat's ear, so it's had associations with goats.
The particularly gruesome “finger of birth-strangled babe” might be foxglove. The flowers are finger-shaped and red. “Liver of the blaspheming Jew”, certainly a contentious ingredient in the modern era, could have very easily been ground ivy, or “creeping charlie” as it’s most commonly known around here. Occasionally you can still hear an old-timer call it “wandering Jew” today. Believe it or not, people used to make beer out of this in Shakespeare’s day. Yew and hemlock are of course, yew and hemlock. Hemlock is a well-known poison, this is what Plato drank to pull the plug. Would I drink a cup of the witches’ brew? Absolutely not! A lot of this is poisonous, let alone unappetizing.
Of course any interpretations of these things are up for debate. Maybe “Billy S” really meant dragon’s scales and the nose of a guy from Turkey. After all, in Macbeth the lines between real and supernatural are very blurry.
Either way, I thought this would be a good way to tie in herbs with some nice Halloween vibes. Here at Red Dragon Herbs HQ, we promise that we’ll never serve you eye of newt, wool of bat or anything like that. Just real, honest and reasonably named ingredients.