Astronomy Picture of the Day for February 11

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos!Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2012 January 17
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

IC 2118: The Witch Head Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Gimmi Ratto & Davide Bardini (Collecting Photons) 


Explanation: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble — maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. This suggestively shaped reflection nebula is associated with the bright star Rigel in the constellation Orion. More formally known as IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula glows primarily by light reflected from bright star Rigel, located just below the lower edge of the above image. Fine dust in the nebula reflects the light. The blue color is caused not only by Rigel’s blue color but because the dust grains reflect blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth’s daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in Earth’s atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. The nebula lies about 1000 light-years away.

A Witch’s Charm Twice Told

Author: Zan Fraser

Those who seek clues as to the nature of English witchcraft prior to Gerald Gardner turn their attentions sooner or later to William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Macbeth. “Witch Plays” appear to have been highly popular with Elizabethan/ Jacobean theater-goers; virtually every significant play-writer from the 1580s to the early 1600s contributes a “witchcraft work” and Macbeth’s fame is such that nine people out of ten will cite it as their first association with witches. The virtue presented by these bodies of work is that they describe and demonstrate the puzzling phenomenon known as the “witch’s craft” in a way not found otherwise in period sources.

One should not allow oneself to be distracted by the disagreeable elements of Shakespeare’s presentation, such as the infamous ingredients-litany of the Witches’ Brew (IV.i.1-37) , which starts off with eyes of newts and toes of frogs before culminating in a horrific porridge of body-parts and animal intestines.

Such sections represent Shakespeare’s concessions to the rabidly anti-witch views held by Elizabeth’s successor, the new King James I of England, who ascended following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. As James VI of Scotland, his Majesty had published Daemonologie, an attack on witches as socially corrupt persons and failure to be in endorsement of royal opinion was a severely fraught stance.

Peering through the grotesque but self-protective veil that Shakespeare hangs in front of his work, one finds that the witchcraft depicted by the Bard of Avon nonetheless plays heavily upon two traditional and fundamental concepts- the performance of magic through the creation of charmed, circular space, and the powering of this specialized space by the raising up of magical, charming energies.

Folklorists have long identified the “ring-dance” (holding hands and dancing in a ring) as a particular activity of both faeries and witches; in Witches and Jesuits, Garry Wills interprets the blocking of the Three Witches of Macbeth in terms of their “spinning” or generating a magically charmed precinct through circular motion. (The notorious Cauldron Speech that opens Act IV actually accompanies such an “energy-generating” performance, immediately prior to the Scottish King’s entrance.

It is fascinating to consider that the Witches’ line “Open locks, whoever knocks” [IV.i.45] suggests that they have placed magical protections around their spell-working site- exactly as we ourselves would do- and that it is necessary to “cut” others into the circle. It is also interesting to reflect that they describe Macbeth as the “something wicked” that “this way comes.”) .

The conclusion to the so-called “Witches’ Scene” is another example of a witches’ circle-dance, as the Three launch into an “antic round” (IV.i.130) in mocking contempt for the Scottish King and Murderer: “I’ll charm the air to give a sound while you perform our antic round, that this great king may kindly say, our duties did his welcome pay!” Thus with one final whirling circle, the Three take their last leave of the soon-to-fall tyrant.

The instant before they first greet Macbeth (“A drum- a drum! Macbeth doth come!”) , the Witches (who have been anticipating this encounter since the play’s opening scene) perform a ring-dance (or dance in a witches’ circle) in order to create the charmed atmosphere that the late 1500s and early 1600s considered appropriate for events of a magical nature. As if to remove any doubt about the matter, they helpfully (in fact) inform us so (I.iii.31) :

“The Weird Sisters, hand in hand, posters of the sea and land, thus do go about! About! Thrice to thine and thrice to mine and thrice again to make up nine! Peace- the charm’s wound up.”

As the text makes plain, the Three join hands (“hand to hand”) and “thus do go about”- they go around in a circle (presumably nine times, although one imagines this may be fudged a bit during actual performances) . Their purpose is made explicit when they halt (“Peace”) and judge that their charm is “wound up.”

It is within this mini-arena of charmed and potent space that they greet Macbeth, soon to be the Scottish king through murder and usurpation.

Unique in Shakespeare’s canon is Macbeth’s status as a hexed play with a dark and malevolent curse attached. It plainly is not clear when this superstition might have developed, but within theater communities there is a firm belief against uttering The Name out loud when one is backstage, for to do so is to invite the terrible malignancy of outraged fate. (Productions of the Scottish Play, as it is cautiously called, are famed for plagues of injury and accident.) In sensible and sage manner, a ceremony exists to throw off the dark importuning of the Fateful Word. The rash actor must immediately move herself outside the space of the theater (or at least the dressing room or backstage area) and unwind the grim energies by spinning in a counter-clockwise circle- she must spin widdershins, in other words.

In the movie The Dresser, Albert Finney plays an actor who must perform this ritual when he lets slip the Name of the Scottish King. The superstition is fascinating because it mimics in minor the execution of a witch’s round-dance. However, in this instance, one does not “wind up” a charm- one “unwinds” bad or wicked fortune.

An activity on a par with much documented English folk-magic, the ceremony of “casting off” the dark energies of Shakespeare’s Scottish play has become as intertwined with the play as any portion of its text. How remarkable then, that within the play’s lore, are found two examples of the logic that lies behind the witches’ ring-dance – an express instance of the “winding up” of a witch’s charm and an implicit demonstration of the “unwinding” of ill-omened actions.

In both cases, these seem to me to be examples of the strange and obscure practice attributed to witches and articulated by Gerald Gardner as “raising energy.”


The Cauldron

The Cauldron

The Cauldron has a mythological based on the Celtic traditions, and another on popular beliefs. It has been associated with witches from the begining, as the place where the infamous potions were boiled. The symbology takes it both as a tool of transformation (elements enter it in one state and leave it in another) and as an image of the mother’s womb.

Celtic mythology tells us about the Goddess Cerridwen, who cooked in her cauldron the potion for wisdom for a year and a day, curiosly the same time one needs to serve as an acolite before being formally initiated. There are many mentions to the witches’ cauldron, and among the most famour we can name the one featured in a scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when they make a potion as Macbeth decides his future as a traitor. Another legend taken from the Mabinogion tells us of a cauldron that has the virtue of bringing dead warriors back to life.

The cauldron we’re talking about here doesn’t need to be enourmous like we see in the movies. It’s still somewhat easy to find cooking pots very much like we need, even though they’re not the average nowadays. During rituals, depending on the size, we can either put it on the altar, or on the floor, to our left.

The uses of the cauldron varies. As representing the Primal Womb, is obviously feminin, belonging to the element of water. But as it’s solidly built, and usually isolated from the floor by three legs, we can use it, for instance, for every ritual that requires a small fire, or the burning of an element (paper or candles), without worries about security risks. It’ll be usefull in every case we need to symbolise a transformation or rebirth. Also, when full of water it can symbolise the element, though we’ll generally use the chalice. Another of it’s ritual uses can be as a place to discard every material used along the ritual, for instance matches or ashes, to keep them off the altar.

As with all tools, but with this in particular due to it’s possible uses, we must remember to scrupulously clean it after it’s use.

If necesary, it can be replaced by a small metal bowl if we need to burn something, or with the chalice if we just need it to contain water.

Road Opener Hecate

Hecate  presides over three-way crossroads. Hecate truly controls all roads:  not only does she control avenues of opportunity, she also guards the frontier between the realms of the living and the dead, and the various planes perceptible only with psychic vision.

Hecate’s color is black. She only accepts petitions after dark, the only illumination permitted being torchlight. The last day of every month belongs to her, as do the days of the Dark Moon. These are the best times to request her favor.