Macbeth’s Weird Sisters: Reason or Treason?

A Psychological Riddle:

Were Shakespeare’s weird sisters real evil hags who seduced the newly-appointed Thane of Cawdor with ambitious promises above his station?  If so, could they have been the reason why the brave warrior Macbeth murdered King Duncan?

Points to consider:

* Superstitious Jacobeans believed in magic, and would have readily accepted that Macbeth was genuinely bewitched.  Satan was stalking the land in search of souls and his coven of witches found a good, brave man who succumbed to their temptations because he was also human.

* If you were put under a spell, you had no control over your actions.  Therefore, once Macbeth was in their power he could not prevent himself from killing the king.

* The Malleus Maleficarum claimed that wicked women have been responsible for the downfall of great men since the time of Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Macbeth was following in a long tradition of doomed heroes.

* The three sisters first approach Macbeth.  He does not initially seek them out.  This implies that Macbeth was intentionally targeted by Satan, which makes him a hapless victim of evil.

* Banquo sees the women too.  They were not just a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.


Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

Or perhaps the witches were merely a convenient excuse?  In other words, did they exist only in the mind/s of the central character/s – as a projection of ambition and desire – or as a psychological attempt to rationalize the ultimate treason?

Points to consider:

* If Macbeth was truly a good man he would not have been so readily tempted by evil.  Satan picks targets who are easy to seduce. The witches were the excuse he used to explain away his actions.

* The ambition to be king may have been seeded in Macbeth’s mind even before the witches appeared.  It was common to come across poor wise women, gypsies, or cunning folk, who made a living from fortune telling.  After the murder they were fashionable targets to blame for the deeds that Macbeth was destined to do.

* Supernatural influences can be used to explain, excuse, and justify horrific acts on the grounds that they are outside of self control.  In the same way that mass murderers claim to hear voices that make them commit their crimes, Macbeth blames the popular scapegoat of his (and Shakespeare’s) time.

* If Macbeth was genuinely bewitched he would have killed without deliberation.  But he questions his actions, later wrestling with guilt and remorse.  Is this because he knows he has done wrong and fears being found out?

* Banquo sees the weird women and also hears their prophecies, in which case he should also fall under their power.  But he is content to let fate play out by itself and does not take part in any murders.

I have always been fascinated by Shakespeare’s skill as both a writer and early psychologist.  His audience would have accepted these characters as real supernatural influences (which means Macbeth was an innocent man duped by evil).  But the bard also knew the human mind.  In today’s psychoanalytical society we understand how criminals sometimes project their crimes onto external influences to escape from blame (in which case Macbeth would have been guilty of murder and treason).

What do you think?

Boggarts and Bogeymen


Boggarts have terrified English country-folk for hundreds of years.  Particularly feared in Lancashire,  they were said to haunt the fields, woods, and marshes – sometimes stealing away naughty children.  The term Boggart derives from the Middle English bug meaning ghost, hobgoblin, or object of terror (OED).

According to those who have seen these spirits, Boggarts come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes they appear as ugly humans, while others have described them as beast-like creatures.  Everyone, however, seems to agree that they are hairy, strong, have strange eyes, and sometimes resemble devils.

Tradition says that if a Boggart is given a name it becomes destructive and unreasonable, rather than simply mischievous.  Perhaps for this reason these sprites are often referred to generically as The Bogeyman. 

While they have sometimes been held accountable for poltergeist activity inside the home, Lancashire Boggarts prefer the outdoors – they scare people with eerie noises, overturn farm items, sour milk and ale, lame animals, and leave behind weird hoof-prints.  They also get blamed when children or travelers go missing.

So how do you ward off Boggarts and Bogeymen?

Stay away from the places they roam, especially at night.  And hang a horseshoe over the front door of the house – or leave a pile of salt outside your bedroom.

Sweet dreams!

Horseshoe The Golden Horseshoe (William Michael Harnett)


Wikipedia: “Boggarts” accessed 3/28/2015

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon,1993)

Olde English Cottage Pie v. Shepherd’s Pie.

I am often asked what the difference is between Cottage Pie and Shepherd’s Pie.  They are essentially the same recipe, except for the type of meat at the base.  Shepherd’s Pie uses minced lamb, so it has always been popular in sheep farming communities.  Cattle-rearing areas generally prefer minced beef instead, to make Cottage Pie.  Both versions are nourishing but can be rather bland.  So here is my own tasty version, developed from my Great Grandmother’s recipe to spice things up.


5lb potatoes

Pinch of salt

Knob of butter for greasing dish

1oz butter

2 tablespoons of milk

1lb lean minced meat (lamb or beef)

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

1 clove crushed garlic

1 finely chopped onion

3 carrots, cut into rounds

1/2 pint beef stock

6oz tomato paste

1 tablespoon mixed herbs

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4oz grated cheese

Shepherd's Pie


1.  Preheat the oven 350/ 180 /gas 4.

2.  Grease a 2-pint ovenproof dish with the knob of butter.

3.  Peel the potatoes and place in a pan of water with the pinch of salt.  Boil until soft.

4.  Heat the virgin olive oil in a large saucepan to boiling.  Add the garlic, chopped onion, and meat.  Stir until thoroughly browned.  Add the carrots.  Stir well.

5.  Slowly mix in the beef stock.  Then pour in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce.  Add the mixed herbs and stir.

6.  Reduce to a medium heat.  Cook for 20 minutes until the carrots are soft.  Remove from the stove.

7.  Drain the boiled potatoes. Mash with 1oz of butter.  Add the 2 tablespoons of milk and whisk to a creamy consistency.

8.  Place the meat mix in the ovenproof dish and spread flat.  Cover with a layer of grated cheese.

9.  Spread the mashed potato evenly over the top of the cheese, taking care to seal the edges so  that the meat will not bubble over.

10. Place the dish in the center of the oven for 20 – 30 minutes to heat through.  Brown the top layer under a high grill for 5 minutes for a crunchy topping.

Serve with fresh garden peas or sweet corn.  Enjoy!

In Search Of Evil


After recently re-reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I am again left questioning the origins of evil.  Golding takes the classical stance that there is good and bad in everyone – the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other – yet he ultimately remains pessimistic about human nature, and the fate of civilization.  Golding sides with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, suggesting that the “life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  But where does this wickedness come from?

It can be argued good and evil are human psychological concepts, projected onto outside active agents.  People need something other or outside to worship, fear, or blame — something beyond their own selves — and so they unconsciously create, and then personify, supernatural forces.  The semantic origins of God being Good and Devil being Devil supports this theory. These powers are then courted, worshipped, and offered sacrifices, in an attempt to secure individual favors.

By turning something other into the wicked outside element, communities can maintain an image of themselves as chosen or blessed.  They are then able to avoid looking too carefully at their own souls, may deny personal responsibility, and can point the finger of blame at a scapegoat: the witch, beast, devil, bogeyman, or whatever.

Over time, encounters with the supernatural have either turned into folk legends or been expanded into organized religions.  The eternal battle between good and evil was then mythologized in morality tales that showed folk how to live together in civilized societies, or served as warnings against giving in to selfish desire.

I  find myself agreeing with Golding’s conclusion that the beast dwells within us all.  As the Lord of the Flies tells Simon: “You knew, didn’t you?  I’m part of you?  Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are as they are?”

What do you think?

The Ancient Rushbearing Festival


Rushbearing is an old Lancashire custom from the early Middle Ages that still survives in a few rural areas today.  It began as an annual Catholic festival to rededicate the local parish church, and soon developed into a day-long village celebration.  In olden times, the floors of churches were made of packed earth.  These were covered with rushes, herbs, and grasses to provide a sweet-smelling insulation against the cold and damp – a practice that continued until flagstones were finally installed.  One day a year, at the end of summer, or on the Saint’s Day associated with a particular church, the old rushes got swept away and new ones were put in their place.

Over time, this religious ceremony developed into a community festival that contained many carnival elements.  The rushes were harvested and dried out several weeks in advance, and then fashioned into a bee-hive decoration on the official rushbearing cart – a float also adorned with garlands and flowers.  The cart was traditionally pulled by all the young bachelors of the parish, and a village maiden chosen as the Rushbearing Queen rode on top.  The procession was often accompanied by banners, Morris Men, street performers, dancers, bands, and minstrels.

The day began with a slow progress through the crowded streets.  Those towns that do not use an official cart appointed several Rush Maidens instead, who carried a white sheet containing the new rushes.  Once they arrived at the church everyone ceremoniously helped to spread out the fresh flooring.  It was originally customary to ring the church bells, and to provide wine, ale and cake for the rushbearers – but the ceremony later developed into a day-long drunken revel, which unfortunately encouraged a lot of criminal activity.

By 1579, this festival had become so bawdy that Queen Elizabeth 1st outlawed the custom, disapproving of the drinking and frolicking taking place in local churchyards.  It was reestablished by King James 1st as part of the “diverting exercises” endorsed in his Book of Sports. 

Rushbearing can be seen each August at Newchurch-in-Pendle.  Other Lancashire towns have replaced the ceremony with similar village processions such as Club Day or Carnival Day.


Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2007)

Wiki: “Rushbearing” Accessed on 4/6/2015