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Witches’ Brew: The Meanings Behind The Most (In)Famous Potion Ingredients

Double, double, toil and trouble! Witches cackle as their cauldrons bubble. Spiders creep. Black cats howl. Ghosts and spirits are on the prowl. All sorts of nasty things go in the witches’ brew. But the most important ingredient of all just might be… you!

Spooky! This classic scene of malevolent madams making a most mysterious mixture entered our cultural imagination thanks to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. One scene in the play features three wily women, referred to as the the three weird sisters or the three witches in the play, chanting an ominous rhyme as they add gross and grizzly ingredients into a cauldron. The witches’ admittedly catchy rhyme is listed below (the ingredients have been bolded by us):

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
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.

Some of these ingredients, such as “eye of newt” and “toe of frog,” have become staples of witches everywhere. But what are those ingredients really referring to? The answers may just surprise you! (For the entire passage, which includes all of the ingredients we discuss, see below.)

The word weird gained popularity in large part due to Macbeth. Discover some exceptionally weird words here.

Ingredients and their meanings

eye of newt

Let’s start with one of the most popular (and memorable) items on the list. Surprisingly, most people agree that “eye of newt” refers to a mustard seed. Herbalists would often reference body parts when describing parts of plants. An “eye” is a seed, and mustard seeds are dark yellow, like the eyes of some newts.

fillet of a fenny snake

However, “fillet of a fenny snake” is the first item on the list—and source of much debate. It’s possible that this ingredient could be referring to a member of the Arum family, which includes plants with  nicknames like jack-in-the-pulpit and Snake’s Meat, which would fit with the idea of a fillet. Some other speculated identities of this ingredient include a leech (fenny means “marshy” or “swampy,” and leeches are snakelike swamp-dwellers) or snakeroot, based on the name.

toe of frog

Most agree this warty foot refers to the bulbous buttercup. This yellow flower resembles most other buttercups but it has a fat, green, bulbous stem. The froggy connection doesn’t seem like too big of a leap (or a hop).

wool of bat

The two most commonly speculated identities of this ingredient are moss and holly leaves. Moss is a general name for clumpy plants that grow on and cover trees and rocks (like wool). Mosses, like bats, also tend to be found in dark, sunless areas. Holly trees and shrubs can be found all over the world and have wing-like leaves on which red berries grow. Holly leaves and berries are often seen during Christmastime.

tongue of dog

This ingredient refers to houndstongue, a highly toxic plant that features long, hairy stalks that can grow up to four feet tall. Clumps of purplish flowers can be found at the ends of the stems.

Adder’s fork

This snaky ingredient refers to the dogtooth violet, which isn’t technically a violet. Erythronium americanum, commonly called the trout lily, is a small plant with delicate purple or yellow flowers that is beloved by honeybees and other pollinators.

blind-worm’s sting

This ingredient is a source of speculation. It may be a poppy seed, knotwood, or wormwood. Poppies are sometimes referred to as “blind eyes,” and all poppies are poisonous, which would explain the “sting.” Knotwoods are bamboo-like weeds with small flowers that often invade other plants’ territory. Wormwood is a plant with white or green stems and bulbous yellow flowers. Besides having a name that fits, wormwood has been used in traditional medicines for a long time. There’s also another distinct possibility: a blindworm is a legless lizard with tiny eyes.

lizard’s leg

This ingredient is thought to refer to ivy. Ivy is a general name for plants that grow up walls or trees as long green vines, often with many leaves, flowers, and berries.

owlet’s wing

The identity of this ingredient is less clear. It’s possible that it could refer to either garlic or ginger plants. Garlic is an herb related to onions that features a long stalk growing out of a white bulb located underground. Ginger is a plant with a long reedy stem and a banded, tasty root underground. Both of these smelly plants are often used in cooking.

scale of dragon

This draconic ingredient could refer to Alacosia Baginda, commonly known as the dragon scale plant. True to its name, the leaves of this plant resemble large green dragon scales. Another possible plant that fits the bill is tarragon, a leafy green herb found worldwide that is often referred to as “dragon” or is known by many dragon-themed nicknames.

tooth of wolf

This ingredient is speculated to be either wolfsbane or club moss. Wolfsbane, actually named Aconitum napellus, is a plant native to Europe that has distinct purple flowers. Its nickname comes from the fact that it is highly poisonous, and it was often used to kill feared predators, such as wolves. Club moss, also called wolf’s foot or wolf’s claw, are herbs that have many spiny leaves.

witches’ mummy

This ingredient is often assumed to be literally what it says: the parts or entire body of a mummy belonging to the witches. People used to ingest mummy powders (yes, human remains) as a medicine during the 1600s, when Macbeth was written. Spooky!

Would mummy powders be considered a placebo? Learn more about placebos … and nocebos.

maw and gulf of the ravin’d salt-sea shark

As far as we know, there is no plant that seems to match this ingredient. It’s possible that Shakespeare made up this plant nickname or it could be referring literally to the body parts of a shark. While not all sharks are predators, many of them are known for their teeth and fierce bite. It would make sense for this spooky mixture to include the terrifying teeth and throat of a shark—especially one that is “ravin’d” or ravenous.

root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark

Hemlock is an infamously poisonous plant that has clumps of white flowers growing on spotted stems. Famously, hemlock is supposedly the plant that killed the philosopher Socrates. This concoction just keeps getting worse and worse.

liver of blaspheming Jew, nose of Turk, Tartar’s lips

Suddenly, things take a strange(r) turn. As far as we know, these three ingredients don’t refer to any plants or animals. As taken literally, these three ingredients are body parts of people who (for the most part) were not Christians. Jews practice Judaism. The “Turks,” here referring to the people of the Ottoman Empire, were followers of Islam. The term Tartars was used to refer to the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, who mostly followed Islam although some practiced Orthodox Christianity.

During Shakespeare’s time, religious tension was the norm even among Christians. Shakespeare himself was publicly a follower of the Church of England, but he came from a Roman Catholic family. During Shakespeare’s time, there was constant mistrust and violence even between different Christian denominations. Needless to say, Elizabethan England would not have been at all tolerant of non-Christians. It’s possible Shakespeare is mentioning non-Christian people (who would have been seen by his Christian audiences as heathens and heretics) because they would be alien, mysterious, or scary to the people of England.

Relatedly, Shakespeare’s plays have been accused of being anti-Semitic. In the witches’ rhyme, only the Jew is described by Shakespeare as “blaspheming.” The Jews had been banished from England for hundreds of years by the time Shakespeare was writing his plays, which meant his audiences would very likely have been anti-Semitic or hostile towards Jews.

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gall of goat

We have to speculate on this ingredient, and there are at least two plants with goat-based nicknames that could have gone in the pot. Hypericum perforatum, also known as St. John’s Wort or goatweed, is a plant that has yellow flowers and has been used in medicines since ancient times. Honeysuckle, sometimes called goat’s leaf, is a general name for a large family of plants that include shrubs and vines that may have flowers or fruits.

slips of yew silver’d in the moon’s eclipse

A yew is a member of a group of evergreen trees that typically have leaves with needles and red berries. As should come as no surprise by now, yew and their fruits are typically highly toxic.

finger of birth-strangled babe ditch deliver’d by a drab

Once again, we have to speculate on the identity of this rather morbid ingredient. It’s possible that this ingredient could be foxglove, which is sometimes known as “bloody fingers.” Foxglove is a tall plant that is known for its drooping, tubelike flowers. Even today, foxglove has medicinal uses. Oh, and it is highly poisonous. Because of course it is.

tiger’s chaudron

This ingredient refers to lady’s mantle, scientifically known as Alchemilla mollis. Lady’s mantle is a favorite plant for gardens, as it is easy to grow and features clumps of green flowers. Bucking the trend, lady’s mantle is not poisonous and it is even known to attract butterflies.

baboon’s blood

This ingredient doesn’t seem to refer to any plant that we know of. Assuming it isn’t literal, it’s thought that this ingredient may be referring to the blood of a spotted gecko. Geckos are able to regenerate parts of their bodies, which might explain why their blood (which could be the source of their power) would be added to this magical brew.

🧙‍♀️A quiz is brewing ...

So, now you know about what a witch sings, when she fills her cauldron with stranger things. You’ve read much about the wicked witches’ brew, but there is still more for you to do. If it tickles your fancy, take our little test. See what you’ve learned about “eye of newt” and all of the rest.

Full passage from Macbeth

If you’re curious how the witches put all these ingredients together, the following is the full passage from Act IV, Scene I of Macbeth. You can also refer back up to see our explanations for each of the bolded terms.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
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.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

If the ominous is what you're looking for, look no further than this compendium of names for the Devil.

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