The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Frogs and Toads
Frogs and their land counterparts, toads, are probably the most ancient and universal fertility symbols. The toad represented the uterus for the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians. It is a fertility symbol throughout the Semitic world. Some theorize that this association was made because of the appearance of frogs prior to the flooding of rivers, an important herald of fruitfulness in desert lands.
Frogs seemed to call the rain or maybe to announce it. Frogs herald the start of the rainy season in Puerto Rico, too. Here on the other side of the world, years before Columbus, they became the ancient Taino emblem of fertility. Frogs represented fertility to the Aztecs and Mayans and to various indigenous cultures of North and South America. The Aymara of Bolivia and Peru traditionally placed small frog images on hill tops to magically call down rain when it was needed.
Frogs are related to human reproductive issues throughout East Asia. In China, frogs exemplify maximum yin, the ultimate feminine force. There’s no man in the moon, according to Chinese folklore; only a woman, a rabbit, and a frog—each one symbolic of intense yin forces as is the moon herself.
Frogs and toads are amphibians: they begin their lives as water creatures (tadpoles) but eventually shape-shift into land dwellers. According to estimates there are at least 4,360 species of frogs (including toads) worldwide. Frogs are found on every continent except Antarctica.
Maybe people perceived the link between frogs and fertility because, although they need to await proper conditions, when the frog finally does give birth, the tadpoles are so numerous. The tadpole is the Egyptian hieroglyphic for the number 100,000. Frogs appeared in great numbers during the annual Nile floods; they were harbingers of abundance and prosperity.
Maybe the shape of the tadpole and its watery environment were reminiscent of the human embryo. Modern people see a resemblance between the form of a tadpole and the shape of a sperm. Rationales are fascinating but ultimately tell us more about people than about frogs. What is significant is that very early in the development of human cultures and thought, the frog and the toad became symbols of birth and the entire regenerative process.
Eventually, the frog became a Halloween animal—a representation of the witch. This is for a reason: in Europe, frogs represented midwives. In the way that a barber’s pole advises you that haircuts are available, the frog was the midwife’s advertisement: “I can help you have a safe and easy birth.” When midwives became denigrated as witches, the frog was condemned as her familiar, her telltale sign.
Frogs represented the force that initiates life to the Egyptians, symbolic of the sacred powers of fertility, regeneration, and rebirth. In one Egyptian creation story, the world is formed from primordial chaos by the collective efforts of four frogs and four snakes. Heket may be the most ancient of Egypt’s many deities. Controller of human fecundity, the consort of the spirit of the Nile, she was revered as the “Giver of Life, Goddess of Primordial Waters” and as “the great magician.” Her hieroglyphic symbol was the frog. Heket could manifest purely in frog shape as well as a woman with a frog’s head. (Whether Egyptian Heket is or isn’t identical to Anatolian Hecate remains subject to fierce debate.)
Not all frogs are female: ancient Celts called frogs “Lords of the Earth,” identifying them with healing waters and sacred wells. Vestiges of these royal frogs linger in European fairy tales, like “The Frog Prince,” where enchanted frogs lurk in magical wells awaiting transformation into fabulous princes by true love’s kiss. Because toad venom may be hallucinogenic, frogs and toads are also associated with shamanism and divination.
Although most ancient associations with frogs and toads were positive, it wasn’t always the case: Zoroaster declared that all toads should be exterminated because of their venomous, malevolent nature. This exception to the rule eventually became the general perception in post-Christian Europe. Toads and frogs were perceived variously as slimy or warty, disguised demons or witches’ familiars.
Toads’ associations with magic, fertility, and women’s wisdom never disappeared but they were certainly reinterpreted. From Northern Italy upwards through Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine, toads are named by words that also indicate “fairies,” “witches,” and “sorcerers.” In parts of Italy, for instance, frogs are called “fada” or fairy. “Rospo,” the Italian word for toad, may derive from the Latin “haruspex,” the word used for Etruscan diviners.
By the Middle Ages frogs and toads were considered among witches’ most prevalent familiars. According to Reginald Scot, author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, toads were considered second in popularity only to the cat as a witch’s familiar.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the witches say “Paddock calls” they refer to a familiar toad, “paddock” being a diminutive of the Anglo-Saxon word for toad “pad.”
According to testimony given during Basque witch trials (on the French side of the Pyrenees) toads were favored familiars. Great companies of witches allegedly traveled to cemeteries for the purpose of “baptizing” their toads, which were dressed to celebrate in black and red velvet with bells at their neck and feet. One young woman claimed to have seen a noble lady dancing at the Sabbat with four toads: one belled and costumed in velvet riding on her right shoulder, three more naked toads riding on her left shoulder and wrists.
Frogs and toads were perceived as diabolical, disgusting and grotesque. A Swiss woodcut from approximately 1500 depicts a dead witch lying on a table following her dissection. A large toad is shown where her heart should be: this was intended to demonstrate her depraved, inhuman, demonic nature.
Old memories die hard, however; even in post-Christian, post-witchcraze Europe, there was resistance towards abandoning this most potent and ancient of fertility symbols. According to Central European tradition frogs carried dead children’s souls, thus it was unlucky to kill them. A once popular Central European tradition involves offering frog-shaped ex-votos at the Virgin Mary’s shrines as part of a petition for fertility and women’s gynecological health.
Ancient people considered fierce, dangerous mothers desirable. A passive mother who couldn’t or wouldn’t defend her children only left them vulnerable. Thus it’s no surprise that many beautiful goddesses of fecundity also double as war goddesses (Aphrodite, Ishtar, Oshun). Frogs (and especially toads) may be harbingers of abundance, but they’re also potentially dangerous, venomous creatures.
When attacked or injured a toad secretes a thick white poison through its skin. This sometimes hallucinogenic, often lethal substance is now called bufotenine. Once upon a time, it was known as “toad’s milk” and was incredibly feared. Allegedly an ingredient in many witches’ flying ointments, it is typically the key ingredient in Amazonian arrow poison. It was believed that witches dispatched toads to poison their enemies. During Scotland’s North Berwick witch trials, Agnes Sampson confessed (under duress) to attempting to assassinate King James VI with poisonous toad juice. Toad venom may be among the ingredients of the formula that transforms people into zombis.