Sometime around 1606, William Shakespeare wrote the play Macbeth, in which a trio of witches create a powerful potion. “Double double toil and trouble,” read the famous lines. The list of exotic and gross-sounding ingredients in their cauldron have for centuries formed the basis of what people think of as a witch’s brew. “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 howlet's wing.”
But few people know that the list was neither a work of imagination on Shakespeare’s part nor as weird and visceral as the names make them sound. It’s actually an herbal concoction, and the strange names and body parts are nothing more than folk names for common plants.
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Many historians and Shakespeare scholars now believe that this list of strange ingredients is primarily composed of folk names for common wild plants, and would have been familiar ingredients at any herbalist or apothecary shop. Eye of newt, for example, is nothing more than black mustard seed. Toe of frog was a folk name for the flower we call a buttercup. Holly leaves were known as “bat wings” in many languages and traditions due to their batlike shape, and tongue of dog is a poetic way of referring to the plant we still call houndstongue.
In folk names for herbs, terms like legs, toes, hands, and wings, often referred to the stalks or leaves of particular plants that resembled these animals’ body parts. Feet or guts could refer to the root section, and blood (“dragon’s blood,” in the witch’s parlance) could mean the sap.