‘FOUL AND LOATHSOME ANIMALS: AMPHIBIANS AND THE LORE OF THE WITCH
“Amphibians are abhorrent: their bodies corpse-cold, pale of pigment, gristly of skeleton, squalid of skin, malign of eye, offensive of stench, vulgar of voice, horrendous of habitation, lethal of venom; so the Deity disdained manufacturing too many of them.”
So wrote the influential biological taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, originator of the binomial system of classification by Latin names, in his Systema Naturae of 1766. It is perhaps unfortunate for the reputations of the amphibians that Linnaeus was raised in Sweden. It is a trick of evolution that adverse conditions produce greater diversity: in northern Europe, where there is plenty of rainfall, conditions are ideal for frogs, toads and newts, and yet there are only a handful of species. In the semi-arid zones of Australia, where I grew up, there are more than a hundred species of frog, and in the eyes of a small boy, none of them were abhorrent. A favourite was the Pobblebonk, a squat, brown creature which inhabited sphagnum bogs, hiding well under the moss in order to evade the tiger snakes. It earned its name because of its call, which consisted of a series of deep, sporadic and randomly spaced bonks. I would spend hours turning over logs in the dry sclerophyll forest at the feet of the Brindabella mountains, in search of the Corroboree Frog, so named because its dorsal side is a pattern of bright yellow and black stripes, reminiscent of the ritual body paint used by Aboriginal tribesmen. Turn the creature over on its back, and a glistening belly is revealed, in all the colours of polished marble. The variety is seemingly unending: there are burrowing frogs which hide under the desert sands throughout the dry season, and live like embryos enveloped in membranes as watery as amniotic sacs; there are vivid green tree frogs with suckers on their feet, and frogs whose nuptial orgies rival any dawn chorus for melodious virtuosity. In Queensland, there is the notorious introduced Cane Toad – the skin of its back blistered with great, swollen poison glands – whose numbers reach plague proportions, and whose baleful glandular secretions are reportedly combined with puffer-fish poison to produce zombie slaves in Haiti. Newspapers occasionally report the discovery of outrageously obese specimens the size of footballs. In Britain, however, the diversity is more limited: there are only three species of newt, two species of toad, and one frog native to these islands. Yet the folklore associated with these six species is perhaps richer than anywhere else in the world, and most of this is inspired by our two species of toad, whose association with witches is nothing short of symbiotic.
This symbiosis is evident both in the iconography of the witches’ sabbat, and in the confessions of persecuted witches throughout Europe. In Gustave Doré’s inspiring and energetic engraving of Le Ronde du Sabbat (1870), the horned one holds torches aloft in the darkness as he stands upon a stone altar. At his feet, a witch is seated, her wand upraised, and about them whirls a dance: naked women whisk by, alongside men with bats’ wings, cockerels’ heads and other composite forms. Bats fly into the night, and in the background, a corpse hangs from a gallows: one of the martyred witches, perhaps, or a dead man whose dying ejaculation will engender a mandrake. In the foreground of all this frenzied, kinetic, and irrepressibly joyful action, there are two mute spectators: a toad and a snake. In Louis Breton’s engraving, The He-Goat Opens the Sabbath (1863), two witches and the goat are cavorting with similar energy, but on this occasion, again in the foreground, the toad joins in, prancing on his hind legs with his forelimbs waving gracefully in the half-light. Such depictions are not merely the product of nineteenth century romanticism. A toad demon figures prominently in an engraving of the phantasms of a shaman’s ecstasy in the works of Olaus Magnus (1555), and in an English pamphlet depicting the hangings of the Chelmsford witches in 1589, Joan Prentice is shown in the company of three toad familiars, two of whom are mating underneath the gallows.
When the seventy-year-old widow Dame Julian Cox was tried for witchcraft in Taunton in 1663, a witness insisted that her toad familiar had persistently pestered him after she invited him to join her in smoking tobacco from clay pipes. As he was lighting up, the toad, attracted by the warmth of his crotch, raised its head from between his legs. “What a pretty thing there is!” remarked Dame Julian, pointing to it, but he begged to disagree, casting down the pipe and stabbing at the toad with his walking stick before hurrying off to his home some two miles away. Perhaps the toad was grieved to see its mistress snubbed, for that night as he sat stuffing his own pipe at home, the toad emerged once more from between his thighs. The distracted smoker picked the toad up by one toe and hurled it to the floor, but when he settled down to his pipe once more, it quickly returned. Perhaps this time it licked the buttons of his fly, for he flew into a rage, took up his paring knife, and sliced the toad into strips. Within minutes, the toad had recovered from its dismemberment, and made its way up the folds of his britches, so he took it in his fist and hurled it in the fire, but still it reconstituted itself and returned. He took up a switch and thrashed the poor, persevering toad out of the house, whereupon the creature vanished, although it is safe to assume that the man’s taste for tobacco was much impaired thereafter.
There are many similar accounts of witches entertaining toad familiars. Elizabeth Stile, or one of her confederates, tried in 1579, is depicted in a pamphlet feeding toads with a spoon. Margery Sammon’s mother (1582) gave her a gift of some toads in a wicker basket, and told her, “If thou dost not give them milk, they will suck of thy blood.” Joan Upney’s daughter (1589) was very kind to toads although her sister despised them. Charles I’s physician Dr Harvey claimed to have discredited the magical powers of a Newmarket witch by eviscerating her toad with a dissecting knife; a callous act indeed given that the woman was so fond of the creature that she fed it with milk from her own breast. An Essex witch with the picturesque name of Joan Cunny (1589) was in the habit of kneeling in obeisance to her two familiars, which took the form of black frogs, or of black dogs “faced like a toad”. Mediaeval bestiaries had insisted that “frogs signify the heretics and their demons who linger at the banquet of the decadent senses”. By 1572, the writings of Zurich pastor Ludwig Lavater suggest that Catholic and Protestant demonologists had reached an agreement that spirits which took the form of toads were invariably evil, in contrast to those which materialised in the form of doves or lambs, which might be angels in disguise. In the early seventeenth century, the witches of Labourd in the Pyrenees often danced with toads – one well-to-do lady cavorted with no less than four at once – and their children, who were not quite ready for some of the more flagrant excesses of the full sabbatic rite, were equipped with white twigs and sent off to the side of a stream, where they shepherded the toads at pasture (indeed, witches’ children are depicted doing precisely this in one corner of Jan Ziarnko’s engraving of Du Sabbat des Sorciers, an illustration for the inquisitor Pierre de Lancre’s own racy account of goings on at Labourd). At the last witch-burning in Labourd, “a multitude” of toads were said to have escaped from the head of the victim. The Basque witches, persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition, liked to dress their toads in cowls. Back in Britain, by the time of Isobel Gowdie’s confession in 1662, the tales of witches’ associations with their toad familiars had grown more elaborate, for she and her confederates had spellbound a farmer’s field by circumnavigating it with a tiny model plough yoked with toads.
Nearly all of these examples associate the toad with womanhood, and the perceived ugliness of the toad may explain this connection. The warty texture of a toad’s skin allies it with the image of the crone. More importantly, whether the toad is supremely beautiful or supremely ugly is a thoroughly subjective matter. All of us have encountered mothers – and fathers too – who are convinced that their newborn offspring is the most beautiful human being alive, whilst the rest of the world, quietly realistic, affirms that the child looks like a withered prune. Witches who suckle toads at their breasts might be seen as similarly deluded, but their delusion is in fact enlightenment, and we spurn the toad at our own expense: a fact which is recognised by the authors of European fairy tales, whose toads are always princes, as it is in the Russian folk tradition, where the amphibian may just as likely transform into a ravishingly beautiful Tsarevna with magical powers. Whilst Milton places Satan “Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve”, Hieronymus Bosch covers a woman’s genitals with a toad rather than a fig leaf as a warning against sexual temptation, and Spenser makes Envy ride on the back of a wolf whilst chewing on a toad, it has also been said that the man who would kill a toad would just as lightly kill his own mother. Indeed, it is a pity Dr Harvey did not pause to consider this proverb. Perhaps he listened too much to tales of Fair Rosamond, whom Queen Eleanor was said to have dispatched by getting an old hag to attach her toad familiars to the damsel’s breasts, whereupon they sucked her blood to the last drop.
One entirely masculine magical tradition explicitly recommends the killing of a toad. The survival of the “toad bone amulet” as a magical tool from antiquity to the present day, and its gradual transformation into a self-initiatory witchcraft ritual involving the devil in the nineteenth century, is the subject of an article by Andrew Chumbley which is essential reading for anyone interested in the interface between folklore, witchcraft and natural history. The amulet, initially consisting of two bones, and later of one, was variously employed throughout history as a love charm, a means of controlling animals and changing water temperature, a prophylactic against disease, and a token of diabolic initiation. By the end of this process, the toadmen of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire observed an elaborate initiation ritual. A live toad was captured and skinned alive, or pegged to an ant-heap until the flesh was eaten. The toad’s bones were then carried in the initiate’s pocket until dry (the eighteenth century wise woman Tilly Baldry preferred to deposit the live toad in her bosom until it was thoroughly decomposed), whereupon they would be cast into a stream. One bone would detach itself from the others, sometimes, like the uprooted mandrake, emitting a fearful scream; this bone would be retrieved, and would be the new toadman’s source of magical power. For three nights in a row, the toadman would carry his toad bone amulet into a stable, and on the last night, the Devil would appear, and initiate him by drawing his blood. In some variants, the Devil would fight the initiate for the bones, or even try to snatch the bones away at the stream. Quasi-masonic guilds such as the Horseman’s Word in Scotland, as well as the solitary East Anglian practitioners, excelled in horse-whispering after conducting the ritual, and could unerringly stop a horse in its tracks.
Perhaps the ability of the amulet to confer power over animals implies an element of sympathetic magic, for when threatened, a toad will inflate its lungs and assume a statuesque defence position, with head tucked downwards and legs extended to their full length. Older natural history textbooks include pictures of toads which have adopted this position after being thrown alive into formalin or preserving alcohol; it is a moot point whether the authors of these books would have considered murdering their own mothers. In any case, to move from the sublime to the ridiculous, the role of the real toad as victim of the ignorant is doubtless preserved in folk-tales of the tick-toad, recorded in Darlaston, Staffordshire and in Bishop’s Cannings, Wiltshire. The reaction of the yokels who find the tick-toad is always the same: smash it to pieces with whatever piece of agricultural equipment is nearest to hand. Always, they are blissfully unaware that the tick-toad is merely a pocket-watch, inadvertently left behind by some wayfaring gentleman.
Why have such lowly creatures inspired such a wealth of folklore? The answer surely lies in their natural history. The very word “amphibian” is a clue to their magical significance: the toad and its relatives are equally at home on earth and in water, making them liminal, trans-elemental creatures, like fairies. In Aristophanes’ delightful comedy, it is the frogs, rather than Charon, who are the most vocal guardians of the Styx, for “If it came on to rain/ We’d dive under again/ (To avoid getting soaked)/ And still harder we croaked/ From under the slime/ Our subaqueous rhyme/… And burst with a plop at the top,/ Breplep!” Ancient Egyptians must have noticed the abundance of frogs in the places where they collected moist clay for their pottery; perhaps this is why they worshipped a frog-headed goddess of childbirth called Heket, whose name perhaps echoes the noise made by the frogs themselves. Toads have long been said to be capable of remaining alive when encased in solid stone. One John Malpas, for example, informed the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1756 that he had found an adult toad whilst dividing a piece of solid free-stone: “I took the toad out of the hole with my compass; I did not observe that I in any ways hurt it… [but] when it was on the ground it hopped about, and died in less than one hour.” A further example, encased in a nodule of flint, is on display in the Booth Museum in Brighton. There is something magical, too, about the tongues of amphibians, which are rooted to the front rather than the back of the mouth, allowing an almost mystical proficiency for catching flies. The sinister hag in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens (1609) surely recognised this when she used the skin of a frog as a purse, in which she imprisoned a crane-fly: “The blood of frog and bone in his back/ I have been getting and made of his skin/ A purset to keep Sir Cranion in.”
The metamorphic life-history of amphibians (as well as their ability to change colour in different environments) is also suggestive of shape-shifting, and is all the more magically potent because the tadpole appears to “breathe” one alchemical element – water – through its gills, whereas adult amphibians clearly have lungs and breathe air. The metamorphosis also effectively turns the toad in particular into an “earthy” creature which only returns to the water to breed. It is little wonder that some classical enthusiast for all things amphibian thought it would be satisfying to associate the salamander with fire, thereby spawning a string of fantastic accounts in mediaeval bestiaries. Perhaps the insistence of Pliny and Agrippa that certain toad bones had the power to either stop water from boiling, or to increase its temperature, is another way of making toads the masters of all the alchemical elements. The importance of metamorphosis is oddly emphasised by the ability of some amphibians, notably newts and salamanders, to attain their full reproductive capabilities whilst still in the larval stage. Richard Dawkins, who has more recently been sidetracked into a futile assault on fundamentalist religion, once made the attractive suggestion that we humans relate to this amphibian tendency – technically known as neoteny – because we too, with our hairless bodies, are like apes who have somehow never grown up. Perhaps this explains the vogue in the 1970s for keeping neotenous axolotls as pets.
The extraordinary ability of frogs to entirely fill a garden pond with their spawn has made them symbols of fertility: another persuasive magical credential. Like us, all amphibians are bilaterally symmetrical on the outsides of their bodies, but the dorsal surface of a natterjack toad is divided by a yellow vertebral stripe which is never quite straight – a hint, perhaps, of the creature’s crooked nature. Moreover, captive amphibians frequently exhibit behavioural characteristics which we instinctively associate with intelligence – not least amongst these is the tendency of frogs and toads to exhibit resentment. Place two toads in a fish-tank with an unsuspecting fly. The first toad to catch the fly will most likely be snapped at by its haughty companion. Finally, something about the bodily simplicity of batracians is, to us, grotesque, and therefore inherently magical. If a toad eats something unpleasant, it must vomit up its entire stomach and then swallow it again. The oesophagus of an amphibian is not equipped with the muscles required for peristalsis: the morsel, whether blowfly, cranion, or in some extraordinary cases, a full-grown mouse, is forced further down the digestive system by the pressure of the creature’s eyeballs, which are able to be depressed right through the skull. Indeed, the average toad appears to practise this reflex at regular intervals, whether or not an insect is lodged in the gullet: readers who do not wish to confirm this by observation in the flesh can do so by tracking Touchwood through episodes of Catweazle on DVD.
Dog owners may have observed that their pets have a marked aversion to toads, for any dog which seizes a toad will rapidly exhibit symptoms of extreme distress, and begin to foam at the mouth. Hedgehogs have been observed to make use of toads in a similar manner when they wish to produce a surfeit of frothy saliva for their own bizarre self-anointing rituals. Toads exude a complex cocktail of biotoxins from their cutaneous glands, including bufotalin and bufogin, which act upon the central nervous system, and slow the heart to an alarming degree. A person who ate a toad would fare little better than a person who had feasted on a salad of foxgloves, for the effect of these toxins is rather similar to that of digitalis: a fact well understood by Roman women who wished to be rid of their husbands. Indeed, natural selection has at times weeded out misguided members of the human race who have mistaken members of the genus Bufo for edible frogs. Unfortunately it has also weeded out some innocent French witches, who in 1390 were blamed along with the Jews for poisoning wells with toads’ blood. Additional side-effects of toad secretions include muscular paralysis and irritation of the mucus membranes. The alkaloid bufotenine is also hallucinogenic. This fact alone has contributed to the toad’s mystical credentials, and perhaps promoted the cultural association between toads and poisonous mushrooms – or toadstools – which is common both to Europeans and to the Mayans of Mesoamerica. The skin of all amphibians tastes disgusting; even newts, which the stalwart herpetologist Miss Ormerod tasted in 1892, give out an “acrid exudation”: “The first effect was a bitter astringent feel in the mouth, with irritation of the upper part of the throat, numbing of the teeth… and in about a minute a strong flow of clear saliva. This was accompanied by much foam and violent spasmodic action…” The admirable Miss Ormerod also noted that an alarmed newt emitted an odour of “bruised poppy-heads” – an allusion which suggests she was a woman of wide experience, and perhaps one who would have been a candidate for denunciation to the Inquisition in an earlier century. Today she might be subject to surveillance by a narcotics squad. In any case, throughout the centuries, witches have learnt much about defence strategies from their amphibian friends.
As old age advances, it lies within the power of the witch to retain a certain charisma whilst acquiring all of the characteristics of the archetypal hag. So it is with amphibians; just try staring into the eye of a toad. The iris is the most gorgeous dream wrought in gold, as Shakespeare’s Juliet affirmed: “Some say the lark and the loathed toad change eyes.” Some say that the beauty of the toad’s eye is the source of the myth that it carries a precious jewel embedded in its skull, although it is more likely that the jewel was originally simply the bone sought by mediaeval magicians and the toadmen of East Anglia alike. A toad’s voice may be beguiling too; W.H Hudson, in a delightful turn of phrase, likened it to a “fairy bassoon”. The toad’s power of beguiling is no better attested than by the eighteenth century naturalist Thomas Pennant, who described it as “The most deformed and hideous of all animals… its general appearance is such as to strike one with disgust and horror.” Yet he tenderly kept a tame old lady toad under his doorstep for thirty-six years. Daily, the toad hurried to greet his scab-kneed children, or sat on the kitchen table, ready to be regaled with earthworms. Doubtless Pennant watched the loving way she wrapped her tongue around her writhing prey, and once or twice he saw her lap up her own nutritious skin, wriggling free from the back end of it with the fore-part down her throat. Perhaps he watched her toes twitch with anticipation, her lovely eyes tracking a fly, and suddenly the squat lady toad would be transformed into a leaping dream, a keen-tongued hunter: lark-eyed but unlovely, reviled and yet revered. It is no wonder that the toad has become the archetypal witch’s familiar: seemingly a land animal, yet born of water; seemingly vulnerable, yet possessing an almost impregnable battery of defence mechanisms; seemingly ugly, yet beautiful on closer inspection; seemingly clumsy, yet agile enough to transfix a fly without stirring a limb. We witches cannot help but have an affinity with toads. A cursory glance from the uninitiated will never penetrate the skin.
I am the dutiful, warted servant
Of Dame Julian Cox, her
Toad-in-waiting, lured by
The scent of her tobacco.
A witness at her trial saw her,
Of her pipe partaking
Upon the threshold of her door,
The smoke was upwards snaking,
Whereupon, she offered him
A second pipe of clay.
He sat down on her wicker chair
To pass the time of day.
Twin plumes of smoke were rising,
I found it tantalising,
So I became a corporeal toad
Between his legs arising.
My mistress laughed most heartily,
“Neighbour, look,” quoth she,
“What a pretty thing there is!”
He begged to disagree.
His walking stick he stabbed at me,
My mistress’ pipe hurled down,
He stormed away towards his home
Some two miles into town.
I grieved to see my mistress snubbed,
So followed him at my leisure,
And waited ‘til he stuffed his pipe,
And gave a puff of pleasure
Then up I rose between his legs,
As once I’d done before;
He picked me up all by one toe,
And hurled me to the floor.
Returning to his pipe again,
He swore that I was dead;
I licked the buttons of his fly
And up I raised my head.
And taking up his paring knife
He sliced me into strips,
And all the while he hissed with wrath,
His pipe hung from his lips.
Returning to his pipe again
He swore that I was dead.
I found it warm beneath his crotch
And up I raised my head.
He threw me on his open fire,
My burnt flesh hissed and spat,
And when I was but smoke and ash
Upon his chair he sat,
Returning to his pipe again.
He swore that I was dead.
I clawed my way between his britches,
Up I raised my head.
He seized a switch and thrashed at me,
He chased me round the room.
He beat me sore upon the floor;
I vanished into gloom.
For smoking he had lost the taste,
I capered down the road:
He was too proud to share his smoke
With my mistress, or her toad.
I am the dutiful, warted servant
Of Dame Julian Cox, her
Toad-in-waiting, lured by
The scent of her tobacco.
Larkeyed but unlovely
By the reckoning of humans,
Mr. Pennant’s old lady toad
Lived thirty-six years
Under his doorstep;
Daily hurried to greet
His scab-kneed children,
Waited to be placed
On the kitchen table,
Thereon to gobble mealworms.
“Deformed and hideous,”
Pennant thought her, though
He entertained her long,
Watched the loving way
She wrapped her tongue
Around her writhing prey;
Once or twice, saw her
Lap up her own nutritious skin,
Wriggling free from it, like
A navvy out of overalls,
The hind part down her throat.
Her toes would twitch
With anticipation, eyes
Tracking a fly, the lady
Toad transformed, from a blob
Of warted squatness,
Into a muscled leaper,
A keen-tongued hunter,
Larkeyed but unlovely,
Reviled and yet revered.
Source material: (i) Julian Cox was a seventy year old widow who was tried for witchcraft in Taunton in 1663, and the poem reinterprets the story told by one of her accusers from the perspective of the toad. See Robert M. Degraff, The Book of the Toad, Cambridge, 1991, p. 114. (ii) Pennant’s harbouring of a female toad under his doorstep for thirty-six years (he reported this in 1776), is recorded in Malcolm Smith’s The British Amphibians and Reptiles, London, 1969, p. 98. However, M.C. Cooke quotes Pennant as describing the common toad as “The most deformed and hideous of all animals… its general appearance is such as to strike one with disgust and horror…” (p. 114.) Shakespeare has Juliet say, “Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes,” a comment which presumably alludes to the beauty of the latter’s eyes in contrast with the the rest of its anatomy.
(Poems by Giles Watson.)