During the Renaissance it was believed that Satan sent witches malicious spirits to help them carry out their evil deeds. These 'familiars' or 'imps' would appear in animal form. The familiar of the First Witch takes the form of a cat and the familiar of the Second Witch takes the form of a toad (Paddock). The familiar of the Third Witch is not mentioned in the first act but in 4.1, it takes the form of a 'harpy', a nasty creature in Greek mythology with the head and body of a woman and the talons of a bird. Note the similarity to Shakespeare's minor source for Macbeth, Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft:
[Witches] can raise and suppresse lightning and thunder, raine and haile, clouds and winds, tempests and earthquakes. Others doo write, that they can pull downe the moone and the starres. Some write that with wishing they can send needles into the livers of their enimies. Some that they can transferre corne in the blade from one place to another. Some, that they can cure diseases supernaturallie, flie in the aire, and danse with divels. Some write, that they can plaie the part of Succubus, and contract themselves to Incubus; and so yoong prophets are upon them begotten, &c. Some say they can transubstantiate themselves and others, and take
the forms and shapes of asses, woolves, ferrets, cowes, apes, horsses, dogs, &c. Some say they can keepe divels and spirits in the likenesse of todes and cats. (Book I, Chapter IV)
On stage we should hear one familiar mewing and one croaking, which the Witches are supposed to answer.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Macbeth Glossary. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethglossary/macbeth1_1/macbethglos_graymalkin.html >.
Scot, Reginald. The Discovery of Witchcraft. Imprinted at London: By William Brome. 1584.
"The "Weird Sisters" in Macbeth seem to us neither on the one hand mere mortal witches of popular superstition, nor yet, as Holinshed states, and as their name would imply, do we see in them "goddesses of destiny" -- "fates" determining human actions and issues without regard to that fundamental essence of personality, will. They know the future and can foretell events; yet they are not able of themselves to make those events come to pass." N.B. Bowman. Read on...