By Charlotte Owen
As Halloween approaches and we start spooking ourselves with things that go bump in the night, spiders, bats, rats and other natural ‘horrors’ traditionally take centre stage. Of course, none of these creatures are at all horrific but some have been immortalised in one of the creepiest pieces of natural history writing – which is perhaps not quite what it seems.
It begins in a cavern, with a steaming cauldron at the centre. Stooped over it are Shakespeare’s Three Witches in Macbeth, chanting ‘double, double, toil and trouble…’ Their grisly recipe is not for the faint hearted as they toss in hapless toads, dragon scales and wolf teeth alongside eye of newt, toe of frog and even more unmentionable ingredients. This would have shocked the audience and set a suitably scary, supernatural tone as people pictured each gruesome addition to the bubbling cauldron – but Shakespeare was probably inspired by early herbalists and healers, using the ancient names of plants to conjure up an entirely different image.
Male smooth newt © Alan Price
Any plant that proved useful to people was bestowed a host of descriptive and fanciful names, and the resulting herbal remedies were given creative titles too - sometimes deliberately misleading ones as the expert herbalists sought to protect their secrets, or dissuade the common folk from trying their own hand. Secrecy was also a priority for unlicensed healers, especially women, who were regularly accused of witchcraft and developed a code to protect themselves. On this basis, the Witches’ toad becomes common toadflax, a pretty yellow flower with anti-inflammatory properties. Toe of frog is bulbous buttercup, while wool of bat is either holly or moss. The infamous eye of newt probably refers to black mustard seed, which does resemble a tiny eyeball if you squint, and was used as a poultice to improve circulation. Scale of dragon translates to tarragon, while tooth of wolf is wolfsbane – a potentially deadly poison. Toxic yew and hemlock feature too, their names deliberately undisguised to heighten the anxiety of a nervous audience, fully aware of the Witches’ malign intent. So, while no animals were harmed during the making of their potion, it’s definitely not safe to drink.