Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirtyone
Swelter’d venom sleeping got
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.1
With this amphibious sacrifice and diabolical invocation, Act 4, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth is opened. For, even in Shakespeare’s time the toad was intimately associated with the magical arts. Indeed, one of the earliest witch trials documented at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England, was the execution of one Oliffe Bartham of Shadbrook, who had been accused of “sending three toads2 to destroy the rest (or sleep) of Joane Jordan.”3 From being the witches’ familiar to being an ingredient in her infamous flying ointment to being a therianthropomorphization of the very witch herself, the toad is virtually inseparable from witches and their craft. George Lyman Kittredge, in his 1929 study W itchcraft in Old and New England, summed up the origin of the relationship thusly:
“The relation of witches to toads is notorious… The Devil, who squat like a toad at the ear of Mother Eve in Eden, is always at hand in the churchyard after service, waiting in that guise for some evilminded communicant to feed him with a bit of the consecrated wafer: whosoever thus sacrifices to Satan will straightway become a witch…”4
However, witches were not the only demographic to be accused of distastefully fraternising with toads. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX sent letters to several important German dignitaries, in order to stimulate action against certain heretics in the Rhineland. The letters included a detailed description of the alleged rituals of the declared heretics.
“When a novice entered the sect, the shape of a frog or toad appeared before him, which some heretics kissed on the hindquarters or mouth.”5
Again, William of Auvergne, Bishop of Paris between 1228 and 1249, insisted that
“a toad appeared to the followers of Lucifer and…these persons indulged in such abominations as kissing…a toad on the mouth.”6
As the reader has no doubt connected, remnants of this latter accusation have survived to present day in the form of a charming fairytale; that of Iron Henry,better known as The Frog Prince.
Not every case of a toad reverence was surrounded by batrachophobia, though. Less diabolical were the secretive Toadmen of Britain, who were cited by Kevin Danaher as an early influence on the art of horsewhispering. 7 The Toadmen are said to have held power over horses with the aid of a mysterious keyshaped bone found within the head of a toad. Their Water of the Moon ritual, for example,
“required that the horseman kill a…toad and hang the body on a thorn tree until only the skeleton remained. This is not unlike the mythical toadstone of bufonite recorded by Pliny the Elder in the first century. At full moon the man then had to take the skeleton to a running stream and throw it into the water. One small forked bone would detach itself from the rest and float upstream, and it was this bone from which the horseman would then derive power over horses.”8
The toad bone also conferred upon its possessor the power to steal without the risk of being caught, it was believed.9
Strange as it is, the legend of the Toadmen society’s mysterious toad bone is actually reminiscent of another strange artifact that was claimed to have been harvested from the body of a toad: the mythical toadstone or bufonite, first mentioned by Pliny the Elder. Thought to have been found in the heads of toads, toadstones were believed to be an antidote against any poison. Paul Taylor of the English Natural History Museum explains:
“Toadstones were considered to be antidotes for poison and were also used in the treatment of epilepsy. As early as the 14th century, people began to adorn jewelry with toadstones for their magical abilities. In their folklore, a toadstone was required to be removed from an old toad while the creature as still alive, and as instructed by the 17th century naturalist Edward Topsell, could be done by setting the toad on a piece of red cloth.”10
As toads were frequently used to make poisonous mixtures, the use of the toadstone as an antidote against poison is an interesting innovation. Luckily, examples of toadstone rings survive to this day and are housed at the famous Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.
Certain of the Alchemists, too, were preoccupied with toads, and the appearance of toads in Alchemical manuscripts has been read in a number of lights. For some, the toad represented the prima materia or first matter. For others, it was the very lapis philosophorum or stone of the wise itself. Others still interpreted the toad as being an indication of the calcination or negredo phase of the Alchemists’ magnum opus. English occultist Aleister Crowley, on the other hand, in his ritual Stauros Batrachou or The Cross of a Frog, thought the toad an emblem of Mercurius, the patron of the Alchemical art.
Perhaps the most prominent reference to the toad in Alchemy comes from the works of George Ripley, particularly the manuscript known as The Ripley Scrowle. In it, Ripley details a veiled Alchemical operation: The toad first drinks “juice of Grapes” until it is so filled up that it “casts its Venom” and “begins to swell” as a result of poisoning. The toad dies in its “Cave” and the usual sequence of colour changes follows: black, various colours, white and red. “Thus the Venom is changed into powerful Medicine.”11
Similarly, Alchemist and Rosicrucian apologist Count Michael Maier wrote in Emblen 5 of his Atalanta Fugiens:
So that it drinks her milk, just like a child.
Then let it swell into a massive growth,
And let the woman sicken, and then die.
You make from this a noble medicine,
Which drives the poison from the human heart.”
As with Ripley’s, Maier’s toad has swelled from drinking, but rather than “juice of Grapes” he imbibes breastmilk.12 This is not unlike the accusations hurled during the English witch trials that toads, as the witch’s familiar, suckled the witch’s breast. Another example of a suckling toad can be found in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.
As the sucking imagery might suggest, toads were also considered by many to be agents of fertility. The American Folklore Society records two such rituals in their M emoirs wherein a toad is used to divine or procure one’s future mate. A ritual from Maine reads:
“Put a live toad into a box perforated with small holes, and set it on an anthill. Leave it for several days, until the toad shall die and the ants clean the bones. Wrap up the skeleton and put it under your pillow for three nights, and you will dream of your future husband.”13
Another from Pennsylvania reads:
“Shut a toad up in a box bored full of holes, place near an anthill, and leave it until the toad dies and the ants clean the bones. A certain hookshaped bone is to be taken as a love charm. If this is fastened to the sleeve of a girl she will marry you.”14
This latter example of course hearkens back to our British Toadmen, who used this same toad bone as a means to hold sway over horses, as opposed to lovers. The Mesoamericans and Aztecs too both worshipped a fertility goddess in the form of a toad. In PreColumbia it was Ceneotl, the manybreasted toad who presided over childbirth. The ancient Aztecs worshipped their goddess of death and rebirth, Tlaltechuti, as a toad. Even in ancient Egypt the toad (or in this case, frog) is present as a symbol of the frog-headed water goddess Heket, who presided over fertility.