By: Aisling Bronach of House Shadow Drake
Published in Open Ways Magazine, Samhain 2000 Issue, Pages 5-6
The toad, also referred to as the borax or stelon, has held an undeniable
relationship with the lore surrounding the witch. The reasons for this association,
however, are not commonly known. Throughout history the toad has been linked with the
darker side of the human experience. In alchemy, the black toad represents the
first matter. By uniting with the eagle, the toad is then purified and transformed
into the winged toad.
One of the first cultures that associated the toad with the forces of darkness
came from Zoroaster in 600 BC when a decree was issued forth that all toads should
be killed. In China the beliefs concerning toads were more benign in nature. There
the toad represented the yin principle. They also saw the three-legged toad as
being a symbol of the moon.
During the Middle Ages, the superstitions surrounding the toad in Europe linked
this creature with the Christian Devil, whose own coat-of-arms featured three
toads. It was believed that the toad was capable of poisoning people and was
inhabited by the witch's familiar spirit. Dorsetshire folklore states that great
care had to be carried out to prevent injury of the toad when removing it from
one's house or cellar or else it might incur the wrath of the witch to whom the
familiar spirit belonged to.
Sometimes the toad also figured into the way by which a witch could be
identified. Basque tradition held that witches were marked with the symbol of the
toad's foot. In the Pyrenees, the image of a toad could be found in the left eye of
The witch was thought to utilize the toads in their worship of the Devil by
mangling the body of the toad. Sometimes the toad was killed and then used as a
component in spells. One such ritual used the saliva of the toad mixed with
sow-thistle sap which was then made into a lotion. The witch would then draw a
crooked cross on her body in an attempt to render herself invisible.
The saliva of a toad was believed to be particularly harmful, and is sometimes
referred to as sweltered venom. The toad was thought to defend itself by spitting
fire, and was also able to vomit poisonous fire. If a toad was to bite a person,
the only way to make it let go was to pour boiling water on it. Upon the sight of a
toad, in order to prevent any sort of evil effects, one should spit or throw a
stone at the toad. It is also unlucky for a toad to jump over your foot, and in
the folklore of some areas it is a sign of impending death.
The toad was also thought to hold an jewel within its skull referred to as a
toadstone. Once extracted, the toadstone was believed to be capable of detecting
the presence of poison and thus warn its owner by becoming warm to the touch, or
when set into a ring it would become paler in color. Contrarily, the toad itself
was held to be highly poisonous. Today, we know this to be true as the toad
secretes indole alkaloid bufotenine from its skin. This poisonous substance was
sometimes extracted by the historical witch for use in flying ointments.
Although the toad was associated with the darker powers, it also held strong
ties to the female womb. In some parts of Europe there were small toad statuettes
that were left at holy sites by women seeking aid in fertility. It is said in
Romania that a person who killed a toad was also capable of killing their own
mother. Within Gypsy mythology, the Queen of Fairies was said to live in a castle
that was shaped as a golden toad. Scottish folklore held that whoever carried a
dried toad tongue over their breast would be successful in matters of love as they
would be capable of bending any woman to their will.
Sometimes the toad was also given the ability to call the rains. In 1662, the
Aulderdane coven was said to have utilized toads during a prayer for the "fruit of
Toads have also been used by cunningmen to cure such sicknesses as the king's
evil, scofula, and rheumatism. In Devonshire, the hind leg of a dried toad was
placed in a silk bag and worn around the patient's neck to cure the king's evil.
For rheumatism, a toad was burned to powder and then placed in a silk bag and worn
around the throat. In some instances, the diseased part of the patient was cut from
the toad and the rest of the animal was buried. The part that was cut away is then
wrapped in parchment and worn around the patient's neck.
The Toad Fair was held annually in Dorsetshire during the beginning of May by
the local cunningman during which charms were sold against various illnesses were
sold. There are several regional differences as to the manner in which the charm
was constructed. In Stalbridge, the legs of a live toad were torn off and then
placed in a bag to be worn around the neck against scofula and the king's evil..
These same charms in Lydlinch used the whole toad. The charm made in Blackmore Vale
Dairy was good against the king's evil and tubercular wounds. The patient was first
told to open their clothing so that their chest was bared. Then, the cunningman
chopped off the head of the toad and dropped the writhing creature into a muslin
bag which was then suspended around their neck and dropped down the patient's
chest. If the patient did not get nauseated by the experience they would live and
the charm would be successful.
The Cambridgeshire Toadmen have perhaps the most extensive history with the toad
as they continued their practices up until the 1930's. The Toadmen were said to
have complete power over any horse. They acquired this power through an elaborate
ritual which involved skinning a toad and then allowing the ants to eat the bones
clean. The bones were then carried by the Toadman in his pocket until they dried.
Then, on a full-moon night, he would take the bones and cast them into a stream of
running water. The bones would then scream and one of them float upstream and leave
the others. The Toadman would then quickly capture this bone and take it to either
a graveyard or stable for three more nights. Then he would be subjected to a final
tests where the Devil himself would attempt to make the man give up the bone. If
the Toadman retained the bone he would be granted all of the powers that he had so
diligently worked for.
Throughout history the toad has been a bridge to the otherworld. It is able to
spend its life both in the water and on land. The toad often plays the part of the
scapegoat, and is made to pay penance for the guilt of another. At other times it
holds the mysteries of all that is feminine and calls the rain to the crops. Still,
the toad is sometimes seen as an omen of impending death. It is through this
duality that one is able to understand the relationship between the witch and the
toad - the ability to transcend the mysteries of life and death.
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