The three witches of William Shakespeare’s play, “Macbeth” are rather famous figures, both for their role in the play itself and for the portrayal of witchraft therein. They are also identified in the play as the ‘Weird Sisters’, and, through their prophecy, plant the idea of becoming king in Macbeth’s mind, though they notably never tell him how to accomplish this, nor even fully and unambiguously encourage him to commit murder (though their delight in stirring up mischief is evident from the beginning of the play).
In creating the Weird Sisters it is also well known that Shakespeare’s sources included not only Raphael Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland’, but also possibly beliefs about witchcraft current in England and Scotland partially as a result of King James VI of Scotland and I of England’s anti-witchcraft stance and own writings against witches.
A generic picture of Lords meeting Ladies used amongst other things for illustrating “Macbeth and Banquo encountering the witches” in the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles.
For example in the play, the witches boil concoctions in cauldrons, chanting rhymes over it, and plan to sail to sea as a rat using a sieve as a boat, and some of the aspects of their character are similar to the behaviour of accused ‘witches’ during the Scottish with trials in the late sixteenth century. However, not only do the Weird Sisters as a phenomenon appear in English and Scottish literature long before the first appearance of Shakespeare’s play some time around the early 1600s, but they are also significantly regarded as separate from witches in several texts.
The first time the Weird Sisters appear alongside Macbeth is in the ‘Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland’, a metrical work in Scots which purports to relate the history of Scotland from the time of Adam and Eve, and was likely composed some time in the first half of the 1420s by Andrew Wyntoun, prior of Loch Leven. In Wyntoun’s narrative, Macbeth has a dream wherein he is seated alongside Duncan I during a hunt, holding the leashes of two greyhounds, when three women pass by.
As the appearance of these women is brief, I’ll quote it in full here:
‘He sawe thre wemen by gangand,
And thai wemen than thowcht he,
Thre werd Systrys mast lyk to be;
The first he hard say gangand by,
‘Lo yhondyr the Thayne off Crwmbachty!’
The tothir woman sayd agayne,
‘Off Moraye yhondyre I se the Thayne.’
The thryd than sayd, ‘I se the Kyng.’
All this he herd in his dremyng;’
He saw three women going by
And those women then thought he,
Three weird sisters most likely to be;
The first he heard say while going by,
‘Lo yonder the Thane of Cromarty!’
The other woman said in reply,
‘Of Moray yonder I see thee thane.’
The third then said, ‘I see thee king.’
All this he heard in his dreaming.’
Shortly after this event Macbeth is made thane and soon begins to covet the crown. As you can see, though skeletal, this version of Macbeth’s encounter with the Weird Sisters, who here inhabit the dream world, does vaguely echo the more famous lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of the locations mentioned (though the large regions of Cromarty and Moray bear a much greater resemblance to the territory of the historical Macbeth than Glamis- in Angus- and Cawdor). In other places, Wyntoun uses the word ‘weird’ (’werd’) in its original sene of ‘fate’ and, since Wyntoun’s work was the first substantial history of Scotland written in Scots, it is unsurprising that this would be the first to associate Macbeth with the ‘weird-sisters’, whose name seems ultimately derived from Old English, though John of Fordun, who wrote a Latin history of Scotland just before Wyntoun’s work, does not mention any prophetic visions regarding Macbeth (Wyntoun and Fordun were apparently unaware of each other’s chronicles, but their works seem to have been based on similar sources, many of which are now lost). Wherever the addition of the weird-sisters came from- and remember Andrew Wyntoun was writing almost four hundred years after the time of the historical Macbeth- it is interesting that they enter the work at around the same time as the story is put into the Scots language, though, as will be discussed below, they are also connected to a wider continental tradition and, while the ‘Orygynale Cronykil’ is the first time they appear alongside Macbeth, it is not quite the earliest use of the term ‘weird-sister’.
Sueno’s Stone, in Forres, Moray, to which many dubious legends have been attached, including one about Macbeth and the weird sisters, as well as various others.
Both John of Fordun and Andrew Wyntoun’s works seem to have been used as source material by Hector Boece, the first principal of the University of Aberdeen, whose ‘Historia Gentis Scotorum’, written in the late 1520s during the reign of King James V, is the next major appearance of the weird sisters alongside Macbeth.
Boece was writing in Latin, so he himself does not refer to ‘Weird’ sisters, though in the 1530s James V commissioned two translations of the work into Scots, with the makar William Stewart rendering it into poetic form and John Bellenden into prose, and both of these versions refer to ‘weird sisters’. Boece’s version of events differs importantly from Wyntoun’s, and Bellenden in turn added some of his own material in his translation but in all three versions the story of Macbeth is much closer to that which we know today.
Returning from the war with the Norwegians, Macbeth and Banquo are on their way to Forres in Moray (Bellenden) or are travelling through a deep forest (Stewart) when three women, who were according to Bellenden assumed to be ‘weird sisteris’ by the ordinary people, appear before them (Stewart does not quite use the term weird sisters in that order, but he frequently refers to them as sisters and as laying down a ‘werd’). The women are ‘clothit in elrage and uncouth weid’ (’clothed in eldritch and uncouth dress’) or ‘cleithing quihilk wes of elritche hew’ (’clothing which was of eldritch hue’) and deliver various prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo. In Macbeth’s case, they claim to have foreseen that he shall be thane of Glamis, thane of Cawdor, and eventually king, while Banquo is to be the progenitor of a line of kings. This done they vanish into thin air, and do not return to advise Macbeth at any further point in the tale. It is the urging of Macbeth’s wife which helps convince him to kill Duncan, while in Bellenden’s prose account, Banquo assists in the murder. Thus, as in Shakespeare’s play, the Weird Sisters prophecies are not necessarily intended to encourage violence in themselves, but simply provide a spur to the characters’ own ambitions, though in Boece and his translators’ version the sisters are far more morally ambiguous and do not display their sense of mischief from the beginning as in Shakespeare.
The story continues much as we might expect, though with some additions. Having reigned well for some time, introducing many good laws, Macbeth begins to fear Banquo as a result of the prophecy concerning his offspring, and sends a band of armed men to assassinate Banquo and his son Fleance. Fleance, of course, escapes, has some adventures in Wales and, before being executed himself, fathers a son named Walter there, this son being conflated with the historical Walter Fitzalan, the founder of the Stewart dynasty (this false origin story may simply have been a confusion between the names Fleance and Flaald, or perhaps a more intentional confusion- in any case, the Stewarts traced their ancestry back to Brittany not Banquo, though the area around the Welsh March also comes into the story). In the meantime, Macbeth has received more prophecies though not, significantly, from the Weird Sisters. Growing tyrannical, Macbeth regularly consorts with warlocks and witches (or, in Bellenden’s version, one particular witch) and consequently has no fear of death, having been delivered the well-known prophecy that he will not be killed by any man born of woman nor before Birnam wood moved to Dunsinane. Unfortunately for him, when he targets the thane of Fife, Macduff, for failing to provide supplies for the building of a castle at Dunsinane, and destroys his family, he seals his own fate. When MacDuff returns in the following of Malcolm Ceann Mor, it is revealed that he was ‘schorne out of my moderis wambe’ and so Macbeth meets his end. Though the story is thus broadly familiar to us, the categories of weird sister and witch are still very clearly separate in the accounts of Boece and his translators, though they are also clearly supernatural beings of the real world, rather than being part of the dreamworld that Wyntoun described.
(A woodcut illustrating the episode in Holinshed’s Chronicles where Macbetha and Banquo meet the witches)
It was likely through John Bellenden’s translation that Boece’s version of the Macbeth story, along with the translator’s additions, filtered through to the English writer Raphael Holinshed. Here the weird sisters again appear in ‘strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world’ and Holinshed writes that common opinion concerning their identities was that:
‘these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science’
Thus the weird sisters are both associated with the Fates and with nymphs and fairies (an association which, at least in the latter case, might also have been apparent in the Scottish mythos), but are given a more sinister aspect through the accusation of their having dabbled in necromancy, rather than just being somewhat mysterious and ambiguous spirits. Again though, they largely disappear as the narrative continue. Holinshed’s account is very similar to Bellenden’s- almost word for word in some places- and whilst the effects of the weird sisters’ prophecies linger throughout the tale, they themselves do not reappear. Macbeth puts faith in prophecy after that of the weird sisters is proven true, but he instead seeks out wizards to advise him, and is told the manner of his death by ‘a certeine witch’. Holinshed’s Chronicles, as pointed out above, were in turn a major source for William Shakespeare, and though there are a couple of theories as to Shakespeare having heard of various other fortune-telling women in contemporary plays, his use of the weird sisters does seem to rest to a large degree on Holinshed. However another major source was likely the witch trials of late sixteenth century Scotland and the various literature about witchcraft circulating as a result, in particular King James VI’s own ‘Daemonologie’. Shakespeare smoothed out the narrative and cut out the difference between weird sister and witch, imbuing the former with many of the attributes of witchcraft as given in the ‘Daemonologie’. Nowadays, the ‘witches’ in Macbeth and the weird sisters are interchangeable figures, being explicitly one and the same in the play. And after the publication of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the early seventeenth century, the rest is quite literally history.
The Weird Sisters do not only appear in conjunction with Macbeth in pre-Shakespearian British literature, and though for the most part they are only referenced briefly, these brief references sometimes tell us a lot. They also make at least one significant literary appearance in a Scots poem from at least thirty years before the Union of the Crowns, which is particularly interesting given that it relates to Hallowe’en (which I hope everyone is enjoying). Before this though it would perhaps also be useful to put the Weird sisters briefly in a wider context, both Scottish and continental.
Scottish folklore has rather more than its fair share of witches and spae-wives, mysterious hags, ghostly washerwomen, giantesses, fairy queens, glaistigs and green ladies. These figures may have either Celtic or Germanic roots, but the importance of old, vulgar, or unconventional women in Scotland’s folk culture is very evident, and even the words ‘cailleach’ and ‘carline’- from Gaelic and Scots respectively- have cultural implications that go far beyond their strictly literal meaning of ‘old woman’. In the case of the weird sisters, they give off an air of mystery closer to that of a variety of figures ranging from the bean nighe to the Cailleach, rather than the more witchy or malevolent Gyre-Carline or Nicnevin (though, as seen below, the weird sisters could be exceedingly abusive in their manner at times and were capable of cursing unfortunates out to an extreme degree). Thus there is certainly precedent for shadowy, ambiguous figures such as the weird sisters throughout Scottish folklore and literature. But there is also a wider context- that of the Fates, or any group of women (usually three in number) who foretell destiny in a variety of European cultures, and probably further afield as well. As pointed out earlier, ‘weird’ is an Old English-derived word, originally approximating to ‘fate’. Thus from very early in the Middle Ages, people in both England and Scotland were translating the Roman Parcae or Greek Moriae (i.e., the Fates) as ‘weirds’, or some variation on the term. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, in his work ‘The Legend of Good Women’, uses the term ‘the werdys’ to refer to the Greek Fates, while the earliest Scottish use of the phrase ‘weird sister’ is from around 1400, in the fragmentary ‘Troy Book’, a metrical Scots account of the Trojan War (which was a highly popular subject among Scottish writers at this point). In 1483, the English-Latin dictionary Catholicanum Anglicum translated ‘parce’ as ‘weird sister’ while the early sixteenth century romance ‘Clariodus’ (a Scots version of the story of ‘Cleriadus et Meliadice’, telling the story of a son of the Count of Asturias, in Spain) mentions the weird sisters as having laid out the hero’s ‘weird’ or destiny at his birth, appearing in a role similar to that of the Fates. Gavin Douglas’ landmark translation of the Aeneid also mentions weird sisters several times. As well as the Classical model of the Fates however, there may also be a connection to the Norns of Norse mythology (again similar to the Fates, but with their own subtleties, such as sometimes being viewed as giantesses, and there being a number of Norns besides the main three), as Scotland’s links to Scandinavia ran deep even in the fifteenth century.
(A sixteenth century representation of the Greek Fates from a Flemish tapestry)
The model of the Fates thus perhaps accounts for the tradition of the weird sisters to a large extent, but at some point the Scottish weird sisters appear to have acquired characteristics and tales of their own (whether this was mirrored in England or if weird sister continued to simply mean one of the Fates, I am unsure). Though most of our examples come from the Scottish literary sphere, with the weird sisters making an appearance in strictly literary circles, there are indications that they had also entered the wider folklore of the country, at least the Lowland part of it. For example, in c.1549, the Complaynt of Scotland made reference to ‘the Tale of the Three Weird Sisters’, though we have little indication of what this tale involved, or if it had any link to the weird sisters’ role in the Macbeth story, as already covered. But if the weird sisters’ place in Scottish folklore is as mysterious as the sisters themselves, they still seem to have found their place in at least one important piece of literature from the period, the late sixteenth century ‘flyting’ of Patrick Hume of Polwarth and Alexander Montgomerie- two prominent poets at the court of James VI.
To put it briefly, a flyting is a poetic war of insults, a slanging match which might take place in the street, but was also the name of a more polished- though no less vulgar and rowdy- and highly performative brand of poetry which served as entertainment at the royal court (and in which at least one king, James V, took part at some point). The most famous example is probably that of William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy (though for all the extremely offensive language and insinuations hurled at each other, the two makars didn’t necessarily have to dislike each other personally), but another notable piece is that of Polwarth and Montgomerie, with the latter poet delivering a particularly fine argument. In insulting his adversary, Montgomerie narrates a (clearly fictional and scurrilous) version of Polwarth’s life, from his conception and baptism. He claims that, “In the hinder end of harvest, on Alhallow even/When our good nighbours doe ryd’, an elf and an ape copulated and conceived the unlucky Polwarth, leaving him in a bush.
Soon thereafter the Weird Sisters ‘wandring, as they were wont then’, arrive on the scene. Disgusted by the unfortunate unchristened bairn’s ugliness and deformity, they first guess at where it has come from and then curse it roundly, laying upon it misfortune after misfortune in (brilliantly) alliterative verse in complete contrast to their role at heroes’ births. Polwarth is to be suckled twice, at least once by Nicnevin (and the emphasis placed on the implications and symbolism of nursing in medieval and early modern culture as represented here could be an essay in itself), will be beset by many illnesses and will later consort with outlaws and the like. As their cursing draws to a close, they speak in turn, one sister after the other, in a manner similar to the way in which they deliver the prophecies to Macbeth, though these are rather less promising, finishing by listing methods of death:
Fra the sisters had seene the shape of that shit,
‘Little lucke bee thy lot, there where thou lyes.
Thy fowmart face,’ quoith the first, ‘to flyt sal be fit.’
‘Nicneuin,’ quoith the next, ‘sall norish thee twyse;
To ride post to Elphin nane abler nor it.’
‘To drive dogs but to drit,’ the third can devyse:
‘All thy day sall thou bee of an bodie bot a bit.
Also such is this sentence, as sharpe is thy syse.’
Syne duelie they deemde, what death it sould die.
The first said, ‘surelie of a shot;’
The second, ‘of a running knot;’
The third, ‘be throwing of the throate,
Like a tyke ouer a tree.
With this the Weird Sisters depart, but for all their raw-mouthed reviling and terrible curses, they are still somehow portrayed as not especially evil by the standards of the piece- it is, by contrast, the hellish figures who look after Polwarth that are considered really demonic. Almost immediately after the sisters’ departure, Nicnevin appears on the scene, surrounded by her ‘nymphs’, importantly identified as witches and something approaching fairy., and it is these figures who decide to nurture Polwarth. Thus into the late sixteenth century, though the weird sisters could be omens of ill, and were thoroughly foul-mouthed in at least one particular piece of literature, they are explicitly considered different from witches and even somewhat detached from the fairy world. Whether an indication of a more general presence of the weird sisters in Scottish folklore or not though, Montgomerie’s use of the weird sisters as a literary device is an important representation of the characters outside of the Macbeth legend, and throws a different light onto the representation of the weirds in Scottish culture several decades before their most famous appearance in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.
This post is (unfortunately) not a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the texts mentioned, however, it does give something of an introduction to the few appearances of the weird sisters in Scottish literature and elsewhere prior to Shakespeare’s play. Their place in a wider European tradition and links to the Fates of continental mythology, perhaps with a dash of native Celtic and Germanic influence, or the evolution of their role in the Macbeth legend from fleeting walk-on roles in a dream to taking on the mantle of witchcraft in Shakespeare, or their important appearance in literature without Macbeth as contrasted to their possible role in wider folk tradition- all are very interesting aspects of the mysterious legend of the weird sisters.
‘The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland’ by Andrew Wyntoun, eds. David Laing
“Scotorum Historiae a Prima Gentis Origine…”, by Hector Boece
“The Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland”, by William Stewart
John Bellenden’s Scots translation of Hector Boece’s Scottish Chronicles
List of stories from “The Complaynt of Scotland”
The Poems of Alexander Montgomerie, edited by John Cranstoun
“The Weird Sisters Wandering: Burlesque Witchery in Montgomerie’s Flyting”, by Jacqueline Simpson in Folklore (106, 1995)
“We Three: The Mythology of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters”, L.A. Shamas