Once the medieval church assimilated Witchcraft to Devil-Worship in the 15th century, the stereotypical image of a Witch was that of a perverse, amoral, ghoul-like creature; after two hundred years, this stereotype appeared to have the solidness of oak. As James (the first Stuart king of England) was known as a proponent for the maligned view of Witches, play-writer Ben Jonson is very careful to indulge his Majesty’s prejudices when he puts up The Masque of Queens in 1609, at the royal court. Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper together had nothing on these Hags, who (as one can see from the copy of the play posted on The Holloway Pages) make their various entrances (p. 348) boasting of killing infants with a dagger, in order to gain their infant-fat; rifling the hanged corpse of a murderer for grotesque trophies; and killing a black cat for its brain. Demented and psychotic as the Hags undoubtedly are in their characterizations, there is a logic to the performance of their rite, and a layer to their presentation, that suggests the deliberate demonizing of something otherwise “real” in the culture. In describing the outfitting of the Hags (p. 345), Jonson indicates quite a bit of folklore-association going on in their costuming; they are “all differently attyr’d [attired]: some with Rats on their Head; some on their Shoulders; others with Ointment Pots at their Girdles; all with Spindles, Timbrels, Rattles, or other veneficall Instruments, making a confused noise, with strange Gestures.” Other than the “rats on the head” (surely one of the most unusual costume-directions in the history of theater), nothing about this presentation of Witches fails to conform to what we might imagine of early 17th century village Wise-Women- identified by their “ointment pots” worn on their belts (“girdles”); with the spindle of a spinning wheel; and with timbrels (tambourines), rattles, and other “veneficall” (for being associated with Witches) music-making instruments.
The fact that the Hags gather for a Witch-Ceremony, tricked out with rats on their heads, ointment-pots at their girdles, and with music-making instruments in their hands, indicates that rhythm and music-making were an important part of 17th century Witchcraft. Jonson goes on to describe how he “prescribed them [the Witches] their Properties of Vipers, Snakes, Bones, Herbs, Roots, and other Ensigns of their Magick, out of the Authority of ancient and late Writers.” Jonson wants to assure us that his Witches are as realistic as possible, so he carefully makes a point to tell us that he has consulted both “ancient” (meaning “Classical”) writers, as well as “late” ones (meaning, “more modern ones”) as “authorities” on the subject. In addition to vipers and snakes (possibly used in traditional English Witchcraft, but more likely, in my opinion, to be a grotesque detail of a kind with the “rats on the head”), Jonson’s Hags are presented with such Magick-Working devices as bones, herbs, roots, and other “ensigns of their Magick.” One notes a portrait based upon traditional elements- ointment-pots; bones, roots, and herbs; and musical-instruments- “Hagged up,” or made sensationalistic, by being combined with vipers, and rats worn as chapeaus.
Further insight into what Jacobean English culture considered “the Witches’ Craft” is seen in the fact that the Witches join in a collective, collaborative “Working”: they function as a coven (although they do not use that word). This Magickal dynamic is seen in other dramatic works, notably Macbeth and Middleton’s The Witch. One important element is missing, however: as soon as the Witches gather, “one of them missed their Chief.” Utilizing invocation, the Witches summon their Dame- or what we would term their “High Priestess.” (“Dame” being a medieval term intended to confer honor upon a lady as one high-ranking, the highest honor that the British Empire can bestow upon a female still being the title of “Dame,” akin to a male “Knight.”) Jonson assures us of the habit of making some Witch of the coven the “Dame Witch,” or what we would call the “High Priestess,” in somewhat confusing form. As the English of the 1500s-1600s are excessively well-educated in Latin, they tend to accept the Romans as cultural authorities; moreover they don’t seem to make much distinction between Classical Witchcraft and that of their own English milieu: as Jonson demonstrates in his Notes (e) to The Masque of Queens (p. 345, in Holloway), when he says that, “amongst our vulgar Witches [meaning the 'lower-class Witches' of his own time], the honor of Dame (for so I translate it) [he is here referring to the Latin writers, explaining that he translates their Latin term for 'High-Ranking Female' as 'Dame'] is given with a kind of preeminence to some special one at their meetings.” As his authority, he cites Delrio, quoting Apuleius.
In essence, what Jonson is saying is, that both “our own vulgar Witches” (the Witches of his time, stereotypically thought of as uncouth and of the lower orders), and the Classical Witches, gave “with a kind of preeminence” the title “Dame” to “some special one” when they met in a Witches’ Meeting. He is basically describing a High Priestess, a practice otherwise seen in the leadership-role assumed by Hecate in Middleton’s The Witch, as well as in an authentic Elizabethan Witch-Case- that of the Windsor Witches, who seemed genuinely to have formed themselves into a coven (although that word is not used), with “some special one” acknowledged as the “Mistress-Witch” to the rest (a “Mistress” being the same as a “Dame,” both words meaning “women whose orders one must obey”).
In short order, the Dame appears, and is She a sight. (If you pursue Jonson’s Notes, you will see that he has modeled Her upon Classical depictions of Witches, say, with snakes intertwined, a la Medusa, in Her hair. But soft: She gives an Invocation to the Powers of Witchcraft, which the Elizabethan/ Jacobean theater-going types recognized as essential in the Performance of the Witch’s Arts- because that is what Medea does, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (held by all in the time to be among the greatest of the Latin writers). According to Jonson (p. 349), this speech boasts “all the power attributed to Witches by the Ancients; of which, every Poet (or the most) doth give some.”
In this speech (and in imitation of Medea), the Dame does something very interesting from the point-of-view of Witches; She pauses to venerate the Moon. It’s a little difficult to tell if this is purely something derived from Classical literature, or if venerating the Moon was something that native English Witches did as well. On the one hand, A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains so many Moon-references as seemingly to make plain an English culture-observation (at least, if not outright veneration) of the lunar orb, and I believe that I am right in saying that both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic culture at least suggest Moon-Worship.
“And thou three-formed Star, that on these Nights art only powerful, to whose triple Name thus we incline, once, twice, thrice, and thrice the same.”
In other words, at this time of the Full Moon (who of all the Heavens art the “Only” Powerful “these Nights,” or the Nights of Her Majesty’s Brilliance, Goddess of the Night Skies), the Witches gather to work their secretive Craft: stopping first to honor Her Glory, by bowing, first three times- then “thrice the same.”
The Full Moon presents an interesting association for us: we tend to associate the Full Moon with Diana, Luna, Selena- maybe Isis (Heathen Traditions, I understand, consider the Moon as a God, and the Sun as a Goddess). However- to Jonson’s mind (and perhaps to the general mind of early 17th century England), the Full Moon represented Hecate (perhaps, again, because of Ovid’s Medea, who specifically invokes Hecate at the time of the Full Moon). In Note (c), Jonson refers to Hecate, called Trivia and Triformis, “believed to govern in witchcraft; and is remembered in all their Invocations.” As authorities, he cites Virgil, Seneca, and Lucan.
In fictionalizing a Witches’ Rite, Jonson draws upon the Classic writers for inspiration, and because Elizabethan/ Jacobean England was used to deferring to the Ancients as experts. However, the Rite that he begins to assemble at this point (one hopefully agrees) represents nothing so much as an Energy-Raising Ceremony, punctuated and energized by deliberately intensifying energies, assisted by rhythmic chanting, hand-clapping, and (so we were told at the very beginning) musical-instruments.
This is a procedure not encountered in Classical literature (that I know of); assuming that it is of English (Celtic-Anglo-Saxon) derivation: the best explanation that I can think of for performing such a (mutually cooperative) ritual, is that offered by Gerald Gardner in Witchcraft Today- that Witches believe that they can generate an Energy- a Witch-Power- out of their bodies, and that this Energy-Raising is beneficial to Witchcraft.
The thing is, that Witches consistently act out the same Ceremony, in three notable Jacobean plays: The Masque of Queens, Macbeth, and Middleton’s The Witch. Each time, the best explanation (to my mind) for, why do they keep doing this?- Is, as Mr. Gardner stated: to raise their Witch-Energy.