Blog Post 229 – Frogs and Toads

Illustration of woman spitting frogs and snakes from her mouth to illustrate fairy tale
“As she spoke, vipers and toads fell from her open mouth.” – from “Diamonds and Toads (or, The Fairies)” (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson 2020)

“Just then there came a second knock at the door, and a voice called out:

Youngest daughter of the king,
Open up the door for me,
Don’t you know what yesterday,
You said to me down by the well?
Youngest daughter of the king,
Open up the door for me.

The king said, “What you have promised, you must keep. Go and let the frog in.”

-From “The Frog Prince, or Iron Heinrich” from the Grimms’ fairy tales collection

Witches go together with frogs and toads almost as readily as they do with broomsticks and pointy hats in the popular imagination. In the story “The Frog Prince, or Iron Heinrich” from the Brothers Grimm collection, a handsome prince has been transformed into a frog by a “wicked witch,” although we pointedly do not get her side of the story. The story “Diamonds and Toads (or The Fairies),” found in the pre-Grimm French collection done by Charles Perrault, reveals that while a good sister is rewarded by precious jewels dripping from her mouth when she speaks, an ill-mannered girl is punished by a fairy (sometimes a fairy tale proxy for a witch), who curses the girl to spew toads and vipers when she speaks.

Beyond the fairy tales, however, several folk magical practices are woven into the webbed toes of frogs and toads. This post will share a few of those bits of magical lore from North American sources and practices. I will note that there are some gruesome spells herein, including some that involve harm or death coming to these marshy denizens, and I am in NO WAY ADVOCATING that you actually do anything hurtful to frogs or toads. They are a valuable part of our ecology and virtually any spell can be adapted in ways that avoid harming them (although I have nothing against the respectful collection of their remains after their demise). In fact, I’ll even begin with this bit of North Carolina folklore to help warn you away from such cruelty:

-Every frog you kill makes your life shorter (or killing a frog or toad will lead to the death of your mother, father, or another kinsperson) (Brown, p. 54). 

Another series of entries from that collection mentions that killing a frog or toad will lead your livestock to give bloody milk (p. 437-38), but conversely it recommends that an ill animal be fed a live frog in order to cure it (p. 449). That may very well have to do with the sympathetic nature of the magic, and the belief that a frog might have been used to initiate the curse, so forcing the frog into the animal is a way of doubling the hex back on itself and thus purging it from the animal’s system (we see a similar logic in the flogging of bewitched milk over hot coals, which is thought to return the harmful spell to the witch who cast it). 

Along that same vein of logic, we see in a number of folkloric instances the ways in which frogs or toads are sympathetically linked through magic to the world around them. They serve as familiars to witches in many stories (including as the representations of the witch’s power in tales like “The Frog Prince” and “Diamonds and Toads”). In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth we also get a reference to a toad as a witch’s familiar, or spirit companion, an idea commonly echoed in popular accounts of witchcraft. One sixteenth-century witch named Joan Cunny from Essex, England, for example, was associated with a pair of familiars that looked like black frogs and another Essex witch named Margery Sammon kept a pair of toads named Tom and Robin as familiars (Wilby, p. 230, p. 109). These creatures could also hold familiar bonds with other living things, such as trees. For example, some American lore states that killing a tree frog in its tree is thought to also kill the tree, also indicating the “familiar” like nature of them (Brown, p. 499). 

Both toads and frogs seem to operate between worlds, making them liminal agents that can run between either the land and water or between our world and the underworld. What they did in that underworld realm made them even more fearful in the folk imagination. For example, one bit of lore says that because they are thought to eat coals of fire (possibly also hellfire, given their traffic with the underworld), toads and frogs can be venomous or toxic. There are indeed toxic species of these creatures, so the belief about their dangers is not entirely untrue in the case of some poison-skinned frogs, but their dangers do not seem to be caused by the ingestion of brimstone (Brown, p. 409). A similar belief prevails about frogs eating buckshot, too, linking them to fire and iron, weapons, danger, and death. Their toxicity, however, might also be a connection to their witchier lore, especially as some frogs and toads secrete substances that can cause psychedelic reactions in humans (as evidenced by the minor fad–massively overplayed in popular media–with “licking frogs” among college students a few decades ago and even portrayed on The Simpsons). 

Frogs and toads also had more positive qualities (although admittedly these qualities didn’t do much to benefit the animals themselves). For example, an oft-repeated claim seems to indicate that some medieval physicians recommended placing a live frog in one’s mouth to remove a sore throat or other ailments, a supposition that has been dubiously linked to the phrase “a frog in one’s throat” (in reality, the phrase derives from an American lozenge rather than any medieval phraseology). Transferring diseases to animals by touch or by holding them in the mouth was not all that uncommon as a folk remedy or cure, and we see it come up in folklore about maladies such as warts quite frequently. That brings me to one of the other common bits of lore about toads and frogs, which are often accused of causing warts in anyone that holds them. This is essentially bunk, but the belief in magical transference of the disease makes some sense as it is a sort of “contagious” magic. Considering just how many folk wart cures and spells there are, it’s probably not a real crisis for someone to touch a frog or toad even if there were a risk of warts (which, again, there really isn’t).

Illustration of a witch's finger touching a frog
A popular folk belief says that touching frogs or toads causes warts (although that is not scientifically accurate). (Illustration by Cory Thomas Hutcheson 2020)

Curing the magical or venomous maladies of the Anuran order (which, frankly, sounds like the kind of club I’d like to join–”I’m a member of the Anuran Order, Bufo Chapter, Horned Toad House”) include the use of the “toadstone,” a type of secret gem or mineral deposit thought to be carried in the head or body of a toad and which could dispel any number of ailments. Specifically it was believed to be good against poisons, and is mentioned both in Roman lore and once again in Shakespeare as well (it may well be that this stone was actually a type of fossil).

The idea that a toad might carry in its body a powerful magical object was not limited to the toadstone, however, for within witchcraft lore a widely pervasive rite known as the “Toad’s Bone” ritual has captivated occultists for centuries and received a recent uptick in popularity due to the late Andrew Chumbley’s essay, “The Leaper Between.” Historical witchcraft writer Nigel Pennick discusses how in many parts of rural England and the British Isles, the toad’s bone rite was associated with a secret society known as the Horseman’s Word. Reputedly, those who were part of this group were a society of horse whisperers who could calm wild horses and easily help to break them, as well as treating them for certain problems. While they were esteemed for their equine skills, they were also suspected of witchcraft in many cases. They were thought to be brought into the fraternity by completing a toad’s bone rite of some kind, one that mirrored similar rites in witch lore, such as this one:

“The Norfolk witch Tilley Baldrey had her techniques published in The Eastern Counties Magazine in 1901. She tells how she became a witch through the toad-bone ritual. In standard English, ‘you catch a hopping toad and carry it in your bosom until it has rotted away to the back-bone,’ then, ‘you take it and hold it over running water at midnight until the Devil comes to you and pulls you over the water.’ This is the initiation as a witch.” (Pennick loc. 1154).

This initiatory rite resulted in the possession of the toad’s bone, which was carried as a token of power and a symbol of initiation, much in the same way that the black cat bone appears in other witch lore. Similar rituals involved crucifying a toad with thorns (usually blackthorn, although it could be hawthorn in some variants) on top of an ant hill and waiting until the ants had devoured the toad’s flesh. The bones would then be taken to a stream and submerged, and whichever floated against the current was the fabled toad’s bone.

I should note once again that I adamantly do NOT encourage the use of animal torture for the procurement of magical tools. These rites may have some significance in the historical context, but you are just as likely to be able to get many of these tools–even toad and frog bones–from sources that do not require the animals to suffer (given how popular frogs’ legs are in parts of the South, contacting a frog-gigger who hunts for restaurant fare might be a better way to handle this). Waiting to find a frog skeleton is just as good, and comes with a sense of feeling like the bones were meant for you rather than extracted through cruelty and malice.

A desiccated frog skeleton found in my in-laws’ house hidden in the back of a cabinet; you never know when you’ll find these sorts of things!

As a final note about the magic of these lovely amphibians, I should note that they are also thought to be harbingers of changing weather and seasons. A belief found throughout the eastern half of the United States says that the croaking of frogs is thought to signal the end of winter (Brown, p. 323). If you’ve ever been in the South in the early summer, you’ll know the sound of “peepers” out in any even mildly wetland area pretty well. Seeing a large number of frogs (and potentially hearing them as well), is also thought to be a sign of coming rain. In this way we can see the deep connections between the watery world of the pond and the stormy sky as connected, with the toads and frogs acting as those “leapers between” as Chumbley phrased it. 

This is been only a webbed toe dipped into the very deep pond of frog and toad lore, but hopefully it gives you a sense of just how much enchantment can be found in these creatures. Perhaps if the spoiled princess in the story of the golden ball had known that, she might not have been so quick to run away or fear her froggy beau. I’d still prefer not to have them jumping out of my mouth every time I speak, though. It would make teaching pretty awkward.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

 

References:

Blog Post 98 – Critter Bits (Magical Animals, Part III)

So I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to talk a little about the use of animal parts in magic.  Animals and magic have gone hand-in-hand for a very long time.  The reading of entrails from ritually slaughtered animals has been used as a divination technique since at least the pre-Roman era.  Talismans designed to imbue the carrier with the particular power of an animal were often made from that animal’s fur, bone, or skin.  Owen Davies chronicles the frequent use of virgin parchment—a type of scroll medium made from a highly treated animal skin, usually from a creature like a lamb or goat—in the construction of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean grimoires (in his book appropriately entitled Grimoires).  The thought was that this particular material would endow whatever was written on it with an extra layer of power, thereby charging sigils, elevating incantations, and generally adding a little va-voom to the inscribed workings of magicians.

On North American soil, many of the old rituals and magical practices found in places like Europe and Africa took root.  Some of them changed quite a bit as they grew here, and some stayed more or less recognizable.  I thought a brief survey of the common animal curios used in witchcraft—both folklorically and practically—might be a good way of seeing the connection between critters and crafting.  Please take note now, I AM NOT ADVOCATING THE INJURY, SENSELESS SLAUGHTER, TORTURE, OR HARM OF ANY ANIMAL.  This information is for educational purposes.  If you choose to use this information in your own practice, please do so responsibly and without resorting to cruelty.  There are lots of ways to gather magical tools and ingredients from animals which are already dead (see Ms. Graveyard Dirt’s excellent site for some great examples).  Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at some of these critter bits:

1)      Rabbit’s Foot – We’ve covered this here in the podcast (on Episode #13) and the blog (in the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot entry), so I won’t spend a lot of electrons on it here.  It suffices to say that the rabbit’s foot remains one of the most popular luck charms in the canon of animal curios.  It may have significant underworld ties, and it may simply be related to speed and fertility. Whatever its originally intended meaning, it stands for good luck now, especially in gambling.

2)      Toad’s Bone/Black Cat Bone – These are some of the darkest and most disturbing of animal curios, as the rituals required to obtain them are brutal.  The Toad’s Bone is mostly found in British magical lore, and was written about extensively by Andrew Chumbley, former Magister of the Cultus Sabbati.  Scholar Ronald Hutton also details the significance of this bone to members of the Toadsmen, a secret society along the lines of Freemasonry, in his excellent history of modern witchcraft Triumph of the Moon.   This ritual artifact was obtained (at least in one version—there are multiple ways this ritual can play out, depending on what source  you look to) by burying a toad alive in an anthill and letting the ants  strip it down to the bones.  The bones are then taken to a stream and floated one by one until one bone floats agains the current.  This bone is then the magic bone, and can imbue the witch carrying it with all sorts of interesting powers from spirit summoning to invisibility.  The black cat version of this same rite is even more gruesome.  As it is recounted in Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston, the cat is thrown into a pot of boiling water (also alive), and cooked until all the flesh falls from the bones.  The bones are then either floated in a stream (the same as the toad’s bones) or passed under the tongue of the magician.  The magic bone in this tradition turns the user invisible, and can also be used in some powerful love spells.  Most places selling this bone today are actually selling chicken bones painted black, and hopefully few people are actually performing this ritual as it occurs in folklore.  Again, I don’t condone this rite, and present it as a curiosity of history and culture rather than a suggested magical practice.

3)      Racoon Penis Bone – This is a popular charm in hoodoo, used in luck and love magic.  The bone itself, which is usually very thin and has a curved shape, has no disturbing ritual for obtaining it, but can simply be taken from an animal killed for meat or even from a roadkill hit (though I’d suggest being very careful how you handle remains of this nature, as they can often be riddled with diseases).  Cat Yronwode suggests that this particular curio entered American magical practice by way of Native American sources, and points out that the Pawnee often placed these bones along with ears of corn into sacred bundles.  I’ve heard that in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, it was common for boys to give girls these bones on red thread necklaces as love tokens (though I’ve not yet found a primary source for this claim).  Raccoons are not the only animal to have this bone—or “baculum”—and in fact many mamal species have it.  Other animals like foxes and dogs also have these bones, and occasionally these will turn up in magical charms, too.

4)      Rattlesnake Rattle – Snakes in general have a lot of lore about them, but the rattlesnake is particularly of note because its rattlemakes it a unique member of its family.  The rattles themselves have been collected for years as lucky charms.  Cat Yronwode suggests uses including:

  • A charm to help musicians play well
  • A simple “Live Things in You” curse
  • A personal power token
  • A gambling charm to bring luck

Rattlesnake rattles are fairly delicate things, especially once they’ve been dessicated for use in crafts and magic.  You can occasionally find one which has been turned into a key ring or charm, but the best way to handle these is to put them in a little vial or a small box of some kind and carry that with you.

5)      Snake Fangs/Bones/Skin – As I said earlier, snakes generally have all sorts of magical connotations.  You can look back at our blog entry on them (Snakes) and find out a good bit there, but here are some highlights:

  • Fangs can be worn as necklaces or carried as tokens of protection (from snakebite in some cases)
  • The bones or skin can be powdered and added to food to cause a “Live Things in You” curse
  • The skin of a snake soaked in vinegar can be used to treat boils in the Ozark magical tradition
  • The shed skins can be powdered and added to all sorts of crossing and jinxing formulae, including goofer dust and a variant on hot foot powder

Many pet stores will happily give you any leftover snake sheds they have if you call and ask politely, and if you develop a good enough relationship, you can sometimes wrangle dead snakes and/or bones out of them, too.  Roadkilled snakes are also good, but be absolutely sure they’re dead before approaching them.

6)      Dog/Cat Hair – These curios are nice because the animals don’t have to be hurt to acquire them.  Usually black hair is used, and preferably from all-black animals.  When the two hair types are mixed together in a mojo bag or vinegar jar, they can cause people to fight “like cats and dogs.”  Black cat hair can also be used to gain good luck, and black dog hair can be used to inspire feelings of loyalty or obedience in others.  If you have a black cat or dog, you probably have plenty of this available to you on furniture, carpet, etc. (I speak from experience here).  If you don’t, you might find a friend who does and see if they will let you have some of it for use in your magical workings.  At worst, you might have to snip off a little from the animal, but thankfully that does no harm (unless it’s the middle of winter and you leave a bald patch—don’t do that).

7)      Chicken Legs/Feet/Feathers – Chickens are popular creatures for magic, mostly because they are expendable (I call them like I see them) and ubiquitous.  Black hens and their feathers are wonderful for curse-breaking, according to Cat YronwodeStarr Casas, a notable rootworker from Texas, often speaks of using chicken legs or feet during cleansing work.  Even just having chickens can be particularly magical, since they will scratch up and destroy any curses laid for you on your property.  A Pow-wow charm from John George Hohman suggests that you do the following to prevent house-fires:

Take a black chicken, in the morning or evening, cut its head off and throw it upon the ground; cut its stomach out, yet leave it altogether; then try to get a piece of a shirt which was worn by a chaste virgin during her terms, and cut out a piece as large as a common dish from that part which is bloodiest. These two things wrap up together, then try to get an egg which was laid on maunday{sic} Thursday. These three things put together in wax; then put them in a pot holding eight quarts, and bury it under the threshold of your house, with the aid of God, and as long as there remains a single stick of your house together, no conflagration will happen. If your house should happen to be on fire already in front and behind, the fire will nevertheless do no injury to you nor to your children. This is done by the power of God, and is quite certain and infallible. If fire should break out unexpectedly, then try to get a whole shirt in which your servant-maid had her terms or a sheet on which a child was born, and throw it into the fire, wrapped up in a bundle, and without saying anything. This will certainly stop it. (#114)

The chicken’s wings can also be used to make a fan which some magical folk use to direct smoke during spiritual fumigations.  So popular is this animal in magic that one of my favorite grimoires is actually called The Black Pullet (a pullet being another name for a hen).

8)      Eggs – These are often used for spiritual cleansing, across several traditions.  In Mexican folk healing (curanderismo), an egg can be used to sweep, massage, and mark a person’s body to remove the Evil Eye (mal ojo) or harmful witchcraft.  The egg can also be “read” after this process to determine things like spiritual attachments, disease, bad luck, etc.  Another Pow-wow cure with a curious resemblance to the Toad’s Bone ritual earlier mentioned directs anyone suffering from failing health to catch rain water in a pot before sunrise without speaking to anyone, boil an egg in it, poke holes in the shell, and leave the egg on an anthill to be devoured.  This will supposedly allow the ailment to be “eaten” by the ants.  Eggshells also have some magical significance.  When powdered, they become cascarilla, which is used in Afro-Caribbean magic.  Cat Yronwode also lists several really interesting spells that can be done with black hens’ eggs.  For example, boiling a black hen’s egg and feeding half to a black cat and half to a black dog while saying two people’s names will cause them to have a falling out.  There is also a rather fascinating magical detective spell that can be done by placing an egg in each of a murder victim’s hands.  After the burial, the eggs will rot and eventually burst, at which time the murderer will return and be caught.

9)      Animal Fat – This is less of a curio than an ingredient, and the different fats from different animals (often referred to as that animal’s “grease”) have distinct properties.  According to Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, “Rattlesnake fat is a powerful ointment.  Rub it on any painful body part, or stroke the whole body downward to expel conjure poisons” (p. 162).  Ozark healers commonly used “skunk grease” to cure various rhumetoid conditions.  Vance Randolph says “The grease from skunks or civet cats, mixed with peppermint leaves, is highly praised by some hillfolk as a lubricant for rheumatic joints. It is said that the fat of a male wildcat is best of all” (OM&F, p. 108).   In Pow-wow magic, a range of animal fats is used to make a potent anti-rust treatment for firearms:

Take an ounce of bear’s fat, half an ounce of badger’s grease, half an ounce of snake’s fat, one ounce of almond oil, and a quarter of an ounce of pulverized indigo, and melt it altogether in a new vessel over a fire, stir it well, and put it afterward into some vessel. In using it, a lump as large as a common nut must be put upon a piece of woollen cloth and then rubbed on the barrel and lock of the gun, and it will keep the barrel from rusting.  (#110)

Wild animal fat has mostly gone out of use, though it can occasionally still be found, particularly in the mountain regions of America.

10)   Bear/Badger/Other Teeth – These curios are usually gambling, luck, or protection charms.  Hohman mentions the badger’s tooth as a wonderful gambling talisman.  Bear teeth appear in protective necklaces (along with claws in many cases).  One of Vance Randolph’s stories from the Ozarks recounts a man who kept a big boar’s tooth on a leather thong over his fireplace.  Whenever any of his children would get a toothache, he’d make them wear the necklace until the pain went away.  These charms are common in many places, and hardly unique to the New World (the badger is an Old World animal, after all).  Plenty of places, including the wonderful site The Bone Room, sell teeth, bones, and other animal curious for use in crafts, magical or otherwise.

I think that will end our survey for today.  There are still plenty of parts and pieces I’ve missed, including gator paws and heads, various animal skins, porcupine quills, and the myriad insect charms that could still be discussed (and hopefully will be at some future date or dates—ants alone obviously have plenty of magical uses).  If you can think of other charms, I’d love to hear them, and feel free to share your folklore regarding animal remnants and magic in the comments section!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory