A Shakespearean recipe for Witch’s Brew

With ingredients found at the Wangensteen Historical Library

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. 

1 COMMENT

  1. 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.

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