In Lady Macbeth Scotland is torn between Celtic tradition and the rise of Christianity. Although the Church eventually wins out, for years the two practices coexist, and Gruadh and others, although ostensibly Christian, also rely upon pagan magic—including divination, incantations, and prayer—to heal and protect themselves and to plan for the future. Each tradition serves its own purpose, the novel suggests, and the blending of Catholicism and paganism makes Scotland and its people powerful, flexible, and able to preserve their identity in the face of widespread cultural change.
Celtic traditions are broad and include many types of prayer, fortunetelling, and magic. For many, paganism is integrated into daily life and often invoked to cast spells, tell the future, or give protection. For instance, after the birth of his stepson, Lulach, Macbeth has a star maps made to tell his future. On Halloween, Una, a prophetess, cracks eggs into water to determine if curious young women will find husbands. Gruadh has the ability to see the future, as do a handful of other characters, most notably Enya (an old Irish princess and Thorfin’s grandmother), Mairi, Ailsa (Gruadh’s mother), Una, and Macbeth’s bard, Dermot. Some of these people, plus Thorfin, can even practice magic, weaving spells of protection and enchanting jewelry and amulets.
Although all of these practices are frowned upon by the church—Father Anselm frequently criticizes Gruadh’s use of spells and trinkets—they offer insights and protections unavailable under pure Christianity. Gruadh herself wears a protective pagan tattoo of a triskele. She realizes that it is “a barbaric custom in some eyes,” but believes her tattoo connects her both to her mother, who gave it to her, and her background. She draws upon the triskele inked into her shoulder, explaining, “When I feel the need for additional strength, I draw the sign in earth, water, frost, or air: three spirals, just so. The eloquent design holds blessings near, while keeping harm at bay.” The novel thus presents pagan symbols as valid sources of strength for characters because they draw upon ancient knowledge and power and connect them to their shared Celtic past.
Catholicism, however, also provides useful structure and comfort to the residents of Scotland. Gruadh, Macbeth, and others often go to church. In most formal affairs—births, marriages, and deaths—the church is consulted as the primary authority. Seeing Macbeth praying in the chapel at Elgin begins to warm Gruadh’s heart towards him. Although she initially hates her second husband after he forces her to marry him, seeing Macbeth prostrate himself like “a suffering pilgrim” convinces her there is a seed of goodness within him: “I felt a stir of sympathy for a man who felt such anguish within himself,” she says, and his piety paves the way for tolerance and eventually love—an emotional journey that would be impossible without the church and Macbeth’s devotion to it.
Despite her faith, Gruadh sees the value in preserving Celtic spiritual traditions. She misses the wildness and freedom of ancient, Celtic times, while Macbeth believes the Christianization of Scotland has been for the best, and that, “When the Celts were taken under the wing of the Church, they left many of their heathen ways behind, gaining wisdom from faith, and learning the ways of the larger world.” Gruadh concedes this is “good, so long as we stay Celts […] and do not become Roman, or English, or Viking instead.” She knows there is “much that is good and beautiful” in the old wild ways. For Macbeth, Christianity represents progress forward. Because he is so invested in the future of Scotland, he sees the church as a useful tool to modernize the nation he loves. Still, Gruadh recognizes that Scotland’s Celtic traditions are integral to its character and should not be discarded.
Although the traditions may appear at odds, Christianity and paganism are often combined in the novel to lend ceremonies like births, deaths, and coronations additional power. When speaking to Macbeth about their beliefs in divination and astrology, for example, Gruadh explains she gained her knowledge of such traditions from her mother, who “saw no conflict between Celtic traditions and her Christian faith, though Rome disagrees. She had an independent spirit and made her own decisions.” Although specifically describing Ailsa, Gruadh could easily be describing Scotland as a whole, which remains a fiercely independent nation and manages to balance new religion and old.
Additionally, Gruadh argues, “The eyes of the church cannot easily see beyond the mountains of the Gaels.” She uses this to argue specifically that Scotland’s physical distance from the Catholic church more easily leads to “warlike behavior in women,” which would be frowned upon by the church but which “is not sinful heresy, and is sometimes even necessary.” The implication is also that, out of sight of the church, Scottish people need other types of protection to fill the gaps left by this newer religious institution. This is likely why they turn to magic and Celtic tradition—it makes them feel safe when the church feels too far away.
Even the ceremony that gives power to Scottish kings is a mixture of new and old—as she watches various men be crowned, first Duncan and then her husband, Gruadh explains the appointment of a new king “is a crowning, where a warrior is declared leader through ancient, mystical rite,” as opposed to “a coronation, or an anointing with oils and prayers with a crown bestowed by holy right of a priest’s hands.” The crowning, then is a blending of paganism and Catholicism, both traditions that lend authority to the proceedings and give legitimacy to the new king.
Although he dies before he can succeed, as King, Macbeth is concerned with blending “honored Celtic traditions with the ways of the Church and even the Saxons.” Although Gruadh is concerned with Scotland losing “its very soul” to changes in culture, Macbeth explains that as a Celtic king he must protect Scotland, to keep it “true to its Celtic nature always, but to keep pace with Britain and all the trading countries.” In his mind, the best way to do this is marry Celtic traditions, which makeup Scotland’s cultural core, with Catholicism and Saxon practices, which will bring it into the next century and beyond.
Magic, Tradition, and Religion ThemeTracker
Magic, Tradition, and Religion Quotes in Lady Macbeth
“A princess of Scotland has no use of those skills.”
“Scathach was also a princess,” I pointed out. “Scathach of the old legends, who had a school for fighting on the Isle of Skye and taught the heroes of the Fianna their skills—”
“I know the tale,” he said curtly. “Those were older days. It is not your place to fight, but ours to defend you, if need be.” […]
“I am your direct heir now,” I reminded Bodhe. “I must be prepared, since you say I could be a queen one day, and my husband a king. So men will always argue over me, and more deaths will occur on my account.” […]
“You have a warrior spirit,” he admitted, “for a gently raised daughter.”
“Scathach of Skye,” I reminded. “No one would have stolen her away.”
Our priest baptized the child to protect her soul, and the midwives bathed her in warm milk and lifted her in their hands as they spoke charms against all manner of ills: fire, drowning, illness and injury, fairies, bewitchings, elf bolts, all conceivable harms. Bodhe named his new daughter Brigid to further protect her. Yet within days, Ailsa and tiny Brigid were buried together on a hill overlooking the sea, and I, who heard equally the catechism and the Celtic tales, wondered if their souls would travel to heaven or Tír na n’Óg, the paradise beyond Ireland in the misty realm, which our bard spoke about. […]
“Ailsa of Argyll is dead,” [Father Anselm] said bluntly, stopping, “and her soul needs our prayers, not trinkets, so that she may be forgiven by the grace of God. Perhaps she need only spend a little time in purgatory before her soul is purified of sin.”
“My mother will go straight to heaven on the strength of her character,” I said. “Though she might prefer Tír na n’Óg, where she would not be judged.”
Them men formed a circle around me, friends and enemies both. Ahead, on the earth of the practice yard, two swords lay crossed and ready, shining blades reflecting the glow of the sunrise. Nearby, horses stood, gleaming and grand, ready to be ridden, while overhead, two eagles winged toward the mountains, and a raven settled on a gatepost. Moon and stars were still visible in the sky, and the sunrise flowed over the hilltops like a spill of blood, the sun in its midst like a golden wafer. […] I knew some of the elements—ravens were death and warning, eagles pride and pairing, horses freedom; the swords might be conflict or war, and the circle of warriors around me could have been a sign of protection, or the men in my future. […] My mother had been gifted with the Sight that brings spontaneous visions, so common among the Gaels that we call it Da Shealladh, the gift of two sighs. A great-grandmother on Bodhe’s side had been a taibhsear, a seer, from whom others sought advice.
Until that moment, I had not known that I, too, had a hint of that talent.
“Often the meaning of the omens we see it not clear until later. If we knew too much about the future, we might be afraid to step from our houses. Do not fret—the signs you saw speak of Scotland’s future even more than your own.”
“Scotland?” I blinked. “Because of the warriors and symbols of warfare?”
“Perhaps they will be Rue’s husbands in future,” Bethoc said. “Well, not all of them,” she amended when I gaped at her.
Mairi took my hands in hers and closed her eyes. “Two husbands,” she said. “Three, if you so choose. Like most women you will have a share of happiness and measures of sorrow. Unlike most, you will have… power.” She let go of my fingers. “You can draw strength from within yourself, like water from a well. Your mother gave you the sign of the good Brigid on your shoulder,” she went on, touching my upper sleeve, which covered the symbol. “Call upon that protection whenever you need it.”
At one point, King Malcolm himself carried his great-grandson and held him out to King Cnut. The prince, at two years old a sturdy handful, set up a lusty caterwauling, so that both men looked annoyed. Still, the message was clear: young Malcolm mac Duncan of Scotland had made a symbolic homage to the ruler of England.
And it was clear to those watching that in making his great-grandson pledge to England, old Malcolm was declaring that his line, grandson to son, would be kings hereafter. […]
The child’s mother, Lady Sybilla, stepped forward to take her boy from her father-by-law. I was among the retinue of women who walked with her, and she turned to give the squalling child to me. He struggled to get down, and I set him on his feet, taking his hand. He pulled me along rather like a ram dragging its shepherd. Others were amused, but I felt a strange sense, like a weight on my shoulders, on my soul.
And then, with a shudder, I knew it for an omen of the future—myself, and all of us gathered that day were linked to this moment as if by the tug of a heavy chain.
Peace and acceptance were not pretty threads in my wool basket that winter. I realized that I was alone in my resentment and anger. Others readily accepted Macbeth as the new mormaer, soon calling him Moray when they addressed him. […]
One day Maeve pulled me aside. “Find some peace for yourself,” she said. “This grief and torment will poison your babe.”
That night I sought out Elgin’s little wooden chapel, intending to pray for serenity and forgiveness. When I pushed open the door, I saw that Macbeth was already there, on his knees before the alter. He wore only a simple long shirt and trews, and for a moment I did not know him. His head was bowed, glinting dark gold in the light of candles. I saw him cover his face, and then he prostrated himself on the worn planks of the floor like a suffering pilgrim.
Faith is a private thing to my thinking, and here I witnessed an intimate side of the man. He appeared contrite, even tormented. I guessed at his sin, the murder of his first cousin Gilcomgan. By the teaching of the Church, it could blacken his soul and affect him for all eternity come judgment Day, if not expunged.
Backing away, I closed the door. I felt a stir of sympathy for a man who felt such clear anguish within himself. When I wanted to hate him most, I could not. By inches and breaths, my resentments faded, much as I strived to stoke them.
“The old legends are filled with such women—the great Irish queen, Macha, and Princess Scathach of Skye, who trained warriors in her fighting school, and also her sister Aoife, who bested Cu Chulainn and bore his son […] Celtic women have fought beside their men since before the names of kings were remembered. And even though Rome forbids Gaelic women to fight, it is rightful enough according to our customs.”
“They forbid with good reason,” Maeve said, bouncing Lulach on her lap. “Women have enough to do and should not have to go out and fight men’s battles, too.” […]
“The eyes of the Church cannot easily see beyond the mountains of the Gaels,” I said, “where warlike behavior in a woman is not sinful heresy, and is sometimes even necessary.” And I remembered my early vows—as a girl taking up a sword to defend herself, as a woman swearing on a sword to defend her own. Another facet of my obligation to my long legacy came clear: if others were so set on eliminating my line, and I and Lulach the last of it, then I would be steadfast as any warrior.
“My ambition was always for Scotland as much as myself. We must be careful to preserve the heart of what is called Gaelic, the honor, the power in it, when the outer world—the Church, our enemies, the trade, all the rest—stands to change us. Duncan is hastening the end of the Gaels, if he even knows it.”
“You can honor that heritage and vindicate your kin and mine,” I reminded him.
Watching the prow of the boat surge through lapping waves, I knew that I had protected Malcolm from retaliation. By honoring my promise to his mother and following my own heart as a mother, I had prevented his murder as a boy. And he had returned, just as the mormaers had warned. I had brought this tragedy about.
But if that chance came again, I could not order the deaths of children. A devil’s bargain, that, to choose sin or grief. Closing my eyes, I rested my face in my hands and struggled, overcame a weeping urge. What I had done had been most rightful, though it came with a hard price. It was the way of things.