"Though Shakespeare never wielded a wand, nor thought of himself as a magus, he is a magician, master of the spell-binding use of words, of poetry as magic."—Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age
Shakespeare was writing at a liminal point in history, where the Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age met the dawning of the age of science and rationalism in the Jacobean era. However, while his contemporaries were either portraying magic and alchemy as something to be feared or mocked (or both), Shakespeare continued to weave a thread of true magic through his work, with his late plays (The Winter's Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest) being amongst the most magical of all.
In my new book So Potent Art: The Magic of Shakespeare, I look at the various kinds of magical practice and belief that we can find in Shakespeare's works and how we can apply them in our own practice. Here, I would like to share with you my reasoning behind using Shakespeare in ritual to invoke the gods, with a specific focus in this instance on Hekate, who is popularly associated with Shakespeare through her appearance in Macbeth. Not only is her presence in the Scottish Play more significant than may first appear, but her presence runs much deeper through the works…
Hecate and the Three "Witches"
Firstly, let's look at the nature of the three witches. From the very opening they are established as being otherworldly in nature, not bound by physical laws, and though they perhaps fit the stereotypical description of witches from the time, they clearly possess qualities beyond mere mortal practitioners of the Craft. They are described as being able to vanish "into the air," seem to dwell in the wilds, and function as a sort of triple-formed hive mind.
You may be surprised to hear that the only time the weird sisters are referred to as witches in the text is when one of them recounts being insulted by a sea captain's wife. We know that, as with many of the historical plays, Shakespeare's chief source for Macbeth was Holinshed's Chronicles, in which Macbeth and Banquo meet three "creatures of the elderwood, nymphs, or fairies" (Chronicles 268) and not "witches" at all. A contemporary account of a performance of Macbeth from 1611, written by renowned astrologer Simon Forman, recalls the plot flawlessly, including this fascinating detail:
"There was to be observed first how Macbeth and Banquo, two noblemen of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them three women fairies or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth, saying three times unto him, 'Hail Macbeth, king of Codon [thane of Cawdor], for thou shall be a king but shall beget no kings,' etc. Then said Banquo, 'What, all to Macbeth, and nothing to me?' There said the nymphs, 'Hail to thee, Banquo, thou shall beget kings, yet be no king.'
In Shakespeare's time, witches and fairies were strongly linked, with the power of witches said to derive from visitations with fairies or even Faery Queens before the shift in politics and religion brought more emphasis onto the devil and evil dealings.
Hecate the Faery Queen
"And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate's team…"—A Midsummer Night's Dream
Hekate is a triple Goddess, reflected in the triplicity of the weird sisters, and her appearance emphasises the importance of this triplicity. Ovid was a huge influence on Shakespeare's works, and Hecate as the Goddess or Queen of witches is certainly a strong presence throughout Metamorphoses. There are, however, other perspectives to consider. In keeping with our three "witches" originally being faeries, it is interesting to note that in Scottish lore Hekate was often equated with Nicneven, a queen of Faery who dwelt within the mountain Ben Nevis, and it is likely that Shakespeare would have known this (and, let's not forget that in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck refers to himself and all faeries as being ruled by "triple Hecate," meaning the Moon as opposed to the Sun, but a notable use of the name.) One of the best-known associations of the Goddess Hekate is that of the triple crossroads, which is reminiscent of the traditional Scottish faery ballad Thomas the Rhymer. Based on a real historical figure of the 13th Century, the ballad (based on the original romance that dates to the 15th Century, so was known to Shakespeare's time) tells how Thomas is taken by the Queen of Elfland into her kingdom and passes through strange lands on the way, including the triple crossroads of "fairlies three," which are the roads to Heaven, Hell, and Faery.
Hekate rules over the triple realms of Earth, Sea, and Sky, so again we can find this in the weird sisters who call themselves "posters of the sea and land" and have the power to vanish "into the air."
Hekate is associated with the World Soul through the ancient text fragments known as the Chaldean Oracles, and her strong association/equation with Diana; this is an association shared with Shakespeare's most famous Faery Queen, Titania. Her name comes from one of the titles of Diana, referring to her status as an offspring of Titans, that she also shares with Hekate. There are numerous mentions of the Goddess Diana within the works, and she herself makes an appearance in one of the late plays, Pericles. But why are fairies so closely linked with the World Soul?
Folklore tells us that the origins of Faery are that some fallen angels did not wish to follow Lucifer all the way to Hell, but settled in the hollow places of the earth. In other words, they are celestial energy that has fallen into the earth that performs an important function in the sublunar realm of conveying cosmic energy into the earth and then back into the cosmos; that is, that they are regulators of an essential process whereby there is a constant flow of animating spirit within all living things—the function of the World Soul. Goddesses perceived as manifestations of the World Soul all share a connection with the Moon, which in Platonic philosophy was seen as the seat of the World Soul and the intermediary lens by which soul is conveyed between the pure spiritual source of the Sun and the material realm of the Earth. This Lunar association is strong in both Diana and Hekate, of course, both of whom were known as Faery Queens and often equated in Shakespeare's time, and both known as manifestations of the World Soul. Wisdom Goddesses, Faery Queens, and all manifestations of the World Soul also have one significant and pertinent trait in common- the gift of prophecy, which is of course the chief gift and function of the weird sisters of Macbeth. All of this is evidence that Shakespeare's works are of a substance that lends itself to magical work, as the wisdom is inherent within them.
So, what of Hekate's presence beyond the obvious mentions and appearances? In The Tempest, Prospero's invocation to the spirits of the land in Act V Scene One, which begins, "Ye Elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves," is almost certainly directly inspired by Medea's invocation to Hekate from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Here is that invocation from the 16th Century Arthur Golding Translation that Shakespeare would have been familiar with, with the strong similarities to Prospero's speech in bold:
O trustie time of night
Most faithfull unto privities, O golden starres whose light
Doth jointly with the Moone succeede the beames that blaze by day
And thou three headed Hecate who knowest best the way
To compasse this our great attempt and art our chiefest stay:
Ye Charmes and Witchcrafts, and thou Earth which both with herbe and weed
Of mightie working furnishest the Wizardes at their neede:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe.
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove: I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.
The flaming breath of firie Bulles ye quenched for my sake
And caused their unwieldie neckes the bended yoke to take.
Among the Earthbred brothers you a mortall war did set
And brought asleepe the Dragon fell whose eyes were never shet.
By meanes whereof deceiving him that had the golden fleece
In charge to keepe, you sent it thence by Jason into Greece.
Now have I neede of herbes that can by vertue of their juice
To flowring prime of lustie youth old withred age reduce.
I am assurde ye will it graunt. For not in vaine have shone
These twincling starres, ne yet in vaine this Chariot all alone
By drought of Dragons hither comes.
(Book 7, Metamorphoses, Rouse, W. H. D., Golding, A. (1904) pg 147)
Now here is Shakespeare’s speech for comparison with the equivalent sections again in bold:
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
The Winter's Tale
Paulina: "It is required
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;
On: those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart."
(The Winter's Tale, Act 5 Scene iii)
The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's less well-known plays, yet it is one of the most magical, and when considering Hekate's presence in the works we should consider the character of Paulina. She has no fear of standing up to Leontes and is a psychopomp in that she goes between the court and the outer world seemingly wielding her own authority wherever she goes. She is the protectress of Hermione over many years. In the greater initiatory rite represented by this play, she stands for the goddess Hekate and her role within the Eleusinian mysteries, the ancient initiatory tradition of death and resurrection based upon the myth of Persephone. The Winter's Tale becomes a far less mysterious title when we realise that it is essentially a retelling of this myth, which tells how Winter came to be, with Hermione as Demeter and Perdita (meaning "lost" in Latin) as Persephone. If there was any doubt to the intention of this connection, Shakespeare confirms it with Perdita's mention of her mythological equivalent in her first scene ("Proserpina" is the Roman name for Persephone and "Dis" or "Pater Dis" is an alternative name for Hades/Pluto):
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon!"
Hermione is Demeter, lost in grief at the death of her son Mamillius and with fear of what will happen to her newborn daughter. Paulina (Hekate) is her close friend and advisor. Hermione appears to die of heartbreak and Sicilia descends into grieving. Perdita ("lost") is cast away to a distant shore. When we next see her she is a young woman who has been raised by shepherds. Not only does this emphasise the connection with growth and crops, but also with the god Hermes/Mercury, who ruled over shepherds, and whose representative, Autolychus ("litter'd under Mercury") we first meet in this setting. Her connection to the Spring and divinity is further emphasised by her taking on the role of the Spring goddess Flora in the shepherd's festival celebrations. Autolychus (Mercury) is instrumental in her return to Sicilia. Paulina holds a ceremony in which Hermione appears to be miraculously restored to life and is reunited with her daughter, bring joy and restoration.
Using the Texts in Ritual
With just these few examples we have seen that there is a deeper wisdom to be found within the words of Shakespeare, which lends them a great power when either used as part of a ritual or stitched together to form ritual theatre, since the structure of life, death, and rebirth is so often inherent. The plays can be seen as having an initiatory quality, and the power of the rhythm of verse couple with the energy and intent of ritual can prove a powerful tool indeed. Online sources such as opensourceshakespeare.org allow you to search the works for specific names or words. It is possible to recontextualise and repurpose the verse for your own works or simply lift passages that already function as invocations and use them in your work—a post-modern magical technique using an early modern source.