I was struggling to think of what word to choose for today’s Wednesday Word Tangle. Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous as English has thousands to choose from. But I needed something I’d be inspired by and I was in the mood for something other, something different … Something weird. And that’s when inspiration struck like a well-cast magic spell. Let’s see what
has to offer.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, weird might now mean ‘peculiar or unusual’, but in the 14th century and later it meant ‘having the power to control fate’, from the Old English wyrd – ‘chance, destiny, the Fates’. It literally means ‘that which comes’.
The dictionary also states that our understanding of the word to mean ‘uncanny’ comes from the phrase ‘Weird Sisters’ to describe the Norns, beings from Norse mythology who controlled the destiny of man and god alike.
Does the phrase Weird Sisters sound familiar to you? Damn well hope so, because it’s from this mythology that our old pal Bill Shakespeare shaped his Three Witches in Macbeth.
If there’s any other single work of literature that’s shaped how we imagine magical ladies, I’d like to hear about it. Their sinister conversations, the use of rhyme, the way they finish each others’ sentences, as if their minds have a supernatural link, all go to making the ‘sisters’ the epitome of corrupting evil.
Shakespeare lays his stall out with these harpies as they open the play.
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning or in rain?
Are there no bright, sunny days in medieval Scotland? No possiblility of meeting on a warm, balmy afternoon for a cuppa and a chin wag? Not really. These crones do like to brew up concoctions, but they’re rather more imaginative than slinging a couple of English Breakfast teabags in a pot.
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 followed by a barrowful of antacids, I should imagine.
As so often happens with Shakespeare, there is an element of currying favour with the monarchy in the play.
James I & VI came to the English throne in 1603. Macbeth was written in 1606 and features the wronged ghost Banquo – who James I was supposedly descended from. James also had a bit of an obssession with witches, having written his Daemonologie on the subject in 1597. Clever old Shakespeare, stirring all of these elements into a witch’s brew which was sure to be popular and gain him some Stewart Brownie points.
In its turn, of course, Will’s Weird Sisters inspired others. There’s a band in the Harry Potter stories called Weird Sisters (though what makes them extra odd is that they’re all men).
My favourite is the Terry Pratchett Discworld novel Wyrd Sisters which follows the witches Magrat Garlick – very wet and New Agey, prone to burning candles and wearing tassels: Granny Weatherwax – hard as her own hobnail boots, exponent of ‘headology’ and prone to riding in the minds of passing wildlife: and Nanny Ogg – terrible mother-in-law, flirt, drinker and singer of lurid songs like A Wizard’s Staff has a Knob on the End.
If any doubts remain as to whether Wyrd Sisters might be a nod to the Bard …
As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.’
© Terry and Lyn Pratchett, 1988