One of the most easily recognizable archetypes in literature, yet transmutable into so many varying forms. Old, young, wise, prophetic, repulsive, tempting, ugly, beautiful–for every one witch characteristic, there seems to be a corresponding opposite.
Macbeth’s three Witches are old and ugly hags, endowed with the gift of prophecy. They begin and end the play—indeed serving as a centerpiece of the story—as they feed Macbeth’s ambition. Lady Macbeth is, likewise, a witch figure. She is young and mortal, bereft of prophetic powers, but aligns herself with the Witches and has seductive power as she impels her husband to do wicked deeds.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, there are many more types of witches. Melisandre comes to mind as the most prominent, plot-driving witch in the story, but there is also Maggy the Frog, Mirri Maz Duur, Ghost of High Heart, Lady Stoneheart, and even Cersei. Quite the collection of sundry characters, and yet they are all witches or “witchy” in some way.
The common thread between these women appears to be their power, whether magical or not, in addition their propensity to reject societal expectations of idealized femininity. Let us boil down the cauldron a bit; the witchy hell-broth reduces to a corruption of three female archetypes that ASOIAF readers are very familiar with: maiden, mother, and crone. That is to say, the witch presents as the maiden, the mother, or the crone in role or appearance, but with a corrupted, flipped version of her fundamental nature. The maiden is innocent and pure, but the maiden-witch is a seductive temptress. The mother is nurturing, but the mother-witch is poisonous. The crone is a wise and trustworthy old lady, but the crone-witch’s prophetic wisdom is cloaked in riddles.
Such conclusions are at the crossroads of literary analysis and psychoanalysis, and that’s no accident. Archetypes are figures that are important in both literature and psychological theory. Not all writers consider the psychological implications of the archetypes they use, but William Shakespeare and George R. R. Martin certainly do. The psychoanalytical level in their stories is like a pulsating bass line beneath the richly woven themes and structure, bonding the reader with the story on a deeply personal, visceral level. Going forward in this essay, let us take a closer look at the witches in Macbeth and A Song of Ice and Fire, determine their alignment as maiden, mother, or crone, and discuss the psychological impact of this extremely fascinating female archetype.
First, considering the witch in terms of three sub-archetypes, let us talk about the importance of things in three. The number three can represent many fundamental human concepts of the world–heaven, earth, and hell; birth, life, death; past, present, future; id, ego, superego. It’s a power number that appears richly in myth and religion. Hecate, the triple form goddess. The three Fates who spin, measure and cut the thread of life. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In Macbeth, the three Witches often speak three prophecies at a time. In ASOIAF, The Faith of the Seven is seven-aspect, but really, there are two gendered groups of three and one non-gendered. In a way, the witch is a very similar archetype to the Stranger, a catch-all archetype for those who don’t fit into or have fallen from the other roles. However, the witch is gendered female, and so she takes on the role of Maiden, Mother, or Crone as she subverts the feminine qualities associated with each of those aspects.
So, before delving into deeper analysis of the maiden-witch, mother-witch, and crone-witch, let us sort the most prominent witchy characters from Macbeth and ASOIAF. Some might embody characteristics of more than one type of witch and this is indicated that in the chart below, but all present with one dominant sub-type:
|Maggy the Frog||X|
|Mirri Maz Duur||*||X|
|Ghost of High Heart||X|
Some might choose to class Old Nan as a witch–her tales of yore parallel and foreshadow events in ASOIAF in a way that feels almost supernatural. Old Nan’s stories are a testament to her wisdom and her alignment as a pure Crone archetype, but she never explicitly delivers them as prophecies. A crone-witch must have the gift of prophecy; it’s what transforms wisdom into something more powerful.
Of course, Macbeth and ASOIAF aren’t the only works in which the three witch sub-types appear. The concept of the witch in triple aspect has been perpetuated by myth, by fairytales, by Disney, and while sometimes those witches are very interesting characters, at other times they just feel flat, cartoonish, and sloppily written. Thankfully, Shakespeare and Martin are not sloppy writers. The witch contextualizes rather than sensationalizes the plot. Patriarchal ideas about gender are interrogated rather than embraced. The craft of the story-writing is heightened by thoughtful, purposeful use of archetypes. Let us continue to explore that and more by delving deeper into the psychoanalytical roles of the maiden-witch, the mother-witch, and the crone-witch.
Slender she was, graceful, taller than most knights, with full breasts and narrow waist and a heart-shaped face. Men’s eyes that once found her did not quickly look away, not even a maester’s eyes. Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible, and red. – A Clash of Kings, Prologue
The maiden-witch archetype possesses the maiden’s beauty and her allure. However, the maiden is also virtuous, innocent, virginal, beautiful–qualities that charm and captivate in a courtly, proper way. By contrast, the witch flips the maiden archetype and those innocent charms become darkly mirrored as seductive power. As a testament to her erotic magical powers, Melisandre tempts Stannis who is otherwise an almost asexual character.
However, as seen from Maester Cressen’s narrative, there’s something about Melisandre that’s not beautiful at all. There’s something quite terrible about her. This juxtaposition of beauty and terror is reminiscent of a quote from the opening scene of Macbeth:
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.” – Macbeth, I.i
“Fair is foul and foul is fair” fuses opposites: what is sinister is also benevolent, what is beautiful is also ugly. It’s interesting how Macbeth receives the prophecy from the Witches, but Lady Macbeth is the one who persuades him into pursuing it, encouraging him to “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.” Again, here is the fusion of opposites–something beautiful hiding something evil, which parallels the concept of the maiden-witch. There is also a lot of sexual innuendo in this line, and many stage and film productions show Lady Macbeth straddling Macbeth while she delivers it.
Lady Macbeth also portrays characteristics of the mother-witch which will be discussed very soon, but like Melisandre she is predominantly a maiden-witch for her role as the seductive woman who instigates evil deeds, and for her sexually-charged language.
It is this ambiguity of beauty vs. ugliness which not only contributes to a feeling of apprehension and dread, but parallels themes of good vs. evil and, on a deeper level, the equivocation of the soul. The maiden-witch stirs in us this inner disquietude; her erotic power makes her all the more beautiful, her beauty makes her power seem all the more sinister.
“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.” – Macbeth, I.vii
Even though this monologue from Lady Macbeth is her only reference to motherhood, it’s a shocking and horrifying vision of a mother-witch; a woman who rejects nurturing qualities in favor of behaviors that are violent and harmful. The mother-witch might or might not have magical powers, but it is her subversion and perversion of the mother figure that makes her a witch. We see the mother-witch in many fairy tales and Disney: the evil stepmother in Cinderella, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, even Cruella de Vil who preys on little puppies.
Probably the most iconic representation of the mother-witch in ASOIAF is Lady Stoneheart.
In the literal sense of the word, it is awesome to witness the rise of Lady Stoneheart–a wrathful, revenge-driven husk of Catelyn Stark. Death is the driving force behind this transformation, but even before Catelyn’s death there are hints of Lady Stoneheart. The Stark matriarch is successful and generally happy within the patriarchal structure of Westeros, but not when the rules of that system are broken and she ends up with the short end of the stick (i.e. raising her husband’s bastard). Catelyn is a fantastic character and well-beloved by many, but it is also no surprise that a lot of readers absolutely loathe her–largely because they associate her with an evil-stepmother character. As mentioned before, these witchy archetypes can evoke very visceral reactions! But Catelyn doesn’t fully yield to a venomous nature until she has the most important thing stripped from her as a mother–her children. Right after Robb dies, Catelyn kills Walder Frey’s disabled son–her first real act as a mother-witch. When she rises from death, the transformation is complete: she is Lady Stoneheart.
Another example of the mother-witch is Cersei. She might be a loving mother to her own children, but towards Sansa–who looks to her as a surrogate mother–she is venomous. Perhaps the prophecy Cersei received as a child partially shaped this behavior; the crone-witch Maggy the Frog dashed young Cersei’s hopes as the maiden and mother she wished to be. Now, as Maggy’s prophecies come true and Cersei loses her identity as a mother, like Catelyn, she becomes more enraged and vengeful, not to mention jealous of younger, more beautiful women.
The quote from Lady Macbeth at the top of this section seems to suggest that she, too, was once a mother, and yet there is no other reference to her child in the play. All that can be assumed is that the child died. Lady Stoneheart, Cersei (assuming her children all die in the books, as they have in the show), and Lady Macbeth form their own trio of mother-witches who have lost their children, lost their identification as mothers, and henceforth gravitate towards the witch archetype in rage, grief and frustration. However, Lady Macbeth has more in common with Cersei’s behavior and psychology than she does with Catelyn’s. The two women have significant internalized misogyny, resent their limitations as women in society, and cow their male partners for not being manly enough. Each woman states she would prefer to be a man for the sake of having a man’s privileges. Lady Macbeth even invokes the spirits to unsex her, to strip her of all feminine qualities which she considers weak:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! – Macbeth, I.v
Some will erroneously claim that Macbeth is a misogynistic play because of passages like this, but they’re neglecting to see it as the author’s own critique on society. While using the witch archetype as a central figure in his play, Shakespeare embraces gender and misogyny as main themes and, by the end, presents the danger and destructiveness of rejecting feminine-coded qualities like grief and remorse.
Martin also interrogates certain societal values of Westeros in similar fashion. Cersei and Lady Stoneheart are mother-witch characters who were once hopeful young maidens, and then nurturing mothers. Their characters aren’t just “women gone bad,” but a macabre expression of feminine rage in a repressive patriarchal system.
“Please,” begged Melara. “Just tell us our futures, then we’ll go.”
“Some are here who have no futures,” Maggy muttered in her terrible deep voice.
– A Feast for Crows, Cersei VII
As mentioned before, the crone-witch takes the crone’s quality of wisdom and powers it up to prophecy. She often speaks in riddles, like the Witches to Macbeth, Maggy the Frog to Cersei, and the Ghost of High Heart. The crone is normally a trustworthy old lady; in contrast, the crone-witch and her powers are not to be trusted. Daenerys even thinks on Mirri Maz Duur as one of the three great betrayals of her life.
A big question concerning all these crone-witches is whether they have any gift of prophecy at all, or whether such prophecies are self-fulfilling. There are two answers to this question:
1) Yes, of course they have the gift of prophecy–it’s fundamental to their archetype.
2) Well, it depends–it’s the mortal perception that makes the immortal/supernatural realm what it is.
The second point is especially applicable to the Macbeth Witches, who are farther removed from the realm of humanity and represent nothing in a way. They are construed as “fantastical” (I.iii.53), vanishing “bubbles” (I.iii.79) and “Melted as breath into the wind” (I.iii.82). As Macbeth says after hearing their prophecy, “this supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good…nothing is, what is not.” Yet it his perception of them that make them what they are. He eventually chooses to believe in and pursue the prophecies, setting the wheel of fate in motion.
But, as a general rule, the wheel of fate is not kind to those who seek out the crone-witch and attempt to manipulate her prophecies. What characters crave from the crone-witch is wish-fulfillment, but to dabble in the realm of the magical comes at a great cost–usually, sanity or life. Lady Macbeth goes mad and kills herself. Macbeth dies, his legacy nonexistent and his memory besmirched. In ASOIAF Cersei has her fortune told, but what she hears haunts her for the rest of her days. Mirri Maz Duur tells Daenerys that she can bring Drogo back to life, but in a life-for-life exchange Dany’s baby is born hideously deformed and dies, and Drogo is an undead horror. As for Stannis, it seems his psychological suffering is just beginning as a result of the sacrifices he’s made to Melisandre’s Red God.
A mortal crossing into the magical realm is not just a structural transgression, but also a psychological regression. Characters are drawn to magical thinking because it validates the id which operates on the pleasure principle—wishes fulfilled instantaneously by thought. However, children learn at a young age that they can’t have nice things at no cost. So ,when characters in literature turn to magic to tell or fix the future, psychologically these characters are actually regressing into their past and into infantile behaviors, seeking instant gratification at great costs. We vividly see time turning against Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they chase the future. Lady Macbeth’s past sinful deeds drive her mad with guilt. In Macbeth’s case, past, present and future all seem to bleed together until he is absolutely numb:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. – Macbeth, V.v
Macbeth has become like the witches; nothing. And that is the closest to the supernatural realm and immortality that his ambition can carry him.
It bears mentioning again that these are not strict categorizations, nor has every aspect of every witch been explained according to this triple aspect model. Beyond the mother-witch, there is a lot to say about the mothering and reproductive imagery that often accompanies crone-witches. The Witches’ cauldron is like a womb, round and big where things get put in and come out as something else. Likewise, Mirri Maz Duur is a crone-witch with her magic powers and the promises she makes to Dany (ultimately betraying her), but she also serves as a midwife, delivering a deformed monster-baby from Dany’s womb. Not to mention Melisandre’s unique role as a mother-witch, and how she births a shadow-baby! In general, a lot more time could be spent talking about each of these witchy characters and how they present as all three sub-archetypes.
A more in-depth discussion of this model might also discuss how witches usher in life crises for the characters who interact with them, and the specific nature of these crises according to witch sub-archetype. For example, the maiden-witch with her seductive power ushers in a crisis of passion vs. dispassion (Stannis deciding to fight for his claim to the throne with Melisandre’s help), the mother-witch causes a crisis of attachment vs. independence (Sansa coming into her own after surviving Cersei), and the crone-witch ushers in a crisis of knowledge vs. uncertainty, which has been touched on in the section above.
For now, this broad analysis of witches in terms of maiden, mother, and crone offers a unique lens through which to view A Song of Ice and Fire and Macbeth. The witch triple-aspect model illuminates themes of gender, good vs. evil, as well as what can be examined as the author’s own critique of these concepts in society. And, of course, a psychoanalytical perspective has the potential to shed light on the reader’s own response and connection to the story. After all, the real interest of Shakespeare’s and Martin’s stories is not in the archetypes and fantastical elements themselves, but in what they represent for the human condition–a topic of bottomless depth.
4 thoughts on “In Triple Aspect: Witches of Macbeth and A Song of Ice and Fire”
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Reblogged this on I Can't Possibly Be Wrong All the Time and commented:
Here’s a special treat for Game of Thrones fans and Shakespeare lovers – an essay discussing witches and their significance in A Song of Ice and Fire. (Everyone should be aware of the work ShakespeareOfThrones is doing. She’s the best.)
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