Vegder's Blog

August 2, 2018

Toads, toads, toads: toad magic, toad art, toad stuff – Part One

…eye of newt and toe of frog…
Macbeth Act 4: Scene 1
William Shakespeare 

Let me tell you how this all started: I was researching a Hokuei print in the Lyon Collection – see below – isn’t it magnificent? – and everywhere I turned it seemed to lead to toads. So, while I don’t believe in signs (i.e., omens), that was a sign if there ever was one. So… here goes nothing, which I hope will lead to something… and just possibly be interesting on the way.

Hokuei print of Soma Tarō from 1832.
Lyon Collection

As you can see, there is nothing obvious about this print’s connection with toads, but trust me there is one. A little digging, metaphorically speaking, and there are toads everywhere. This journey has just begun. However, before I make this connection clearer, let’s move on to a more generalized approach – the role of toads in art everywhere else in the world. We’ll eventually get back to the more specific subject of toads in Japanese art later. But for now…

When I was a kid… all I knew was that you shouldn’t touch toads because they will give you warts. An old wive’s tale, of course. That was about it, but now I know that there are lots of other misconceptions about these creatures: they are created by spontaneous generation; they are associated with childbirth – both of gods and humans; they are associated with the concept of resurrection; they are a symbol of avarice; they are harbingers of fire and/or rain; they, or something very much like them, open the way to the underworld, i.e., hell; and so much more.

But let’s get one thing straight right now, right from the get-go

I will not be making a distinction between toads and frogs. In some languages the word for one is the same word for the other. So, nitpicking will do you no good. If you have a cogent argument you would like me to read and even post then I will consider it – without prejudice. But for now…

According to one source, the ancient Hebrews did not have separate words for toads and frogs. Of course, the second plague in Exodus was the plague of frogs. Below is part of this tale of woe as told in the King James version of the Bible.

8 And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him,
Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me.

And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs:

And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house,
and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people,
and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs:

And the frogs shall come up both on thee, and upon thy people, and upon all thy servants.

And the Lord spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch forth thine hand with thy rod over the streams,
over the rivers, and over the ponds, and cause frogs to come up upon the land of Egypt.

And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came up,
and covered the land of Egypt.

And the magicians did so with their enchantments, and brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt.

Egypt, a long time before the birth of Jesus – even before the Jews were let out of captivity – maybe even before they were enslaved

In the West we have a habit of dividing time into the ‘before Jesus’ and ‘after Jesus’ paradigm. It makes it easier for us to grasp certain historical ideas. Of course, it is a bit Western-centric of us to think in these terms, but that is just how it is. We are raised on this stuff. Even more arrogant of us is the ooooh and aaaah factor of early artistic representations when they astound us for their beauty because they were created before the start of the Christian era – another euphemism. It is this ooooh and aaaah factor that makes this next piece so remarkable in our eyes. It was supposedly carved from ivory in ca. 1700 to 2000 B.C. Ooooooooh!

Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin

“Another goddess, Hekt, Heket or Heqet, whose name looks the same in English but is spelt with quite different hieroglyphs and determined by the figure of a frog, symbol of teeming life and resurrection, was a birth goddess like Isis, but of inferior rank, and, unknown outside Egypt…” This quote is from the Journal Folklore from 1942. Sometimes this goddess has the body of a woman and the head of a frog or toad or the body of a toad or frog and the head of a woman.

Heket assisting in the possible birth of a god


‘Mud contains the generative seeds of green frogs, and generates them without legs, soon giving them legs for swimming, and, at the same time, with hind legs longer than their forelegs, so that they are fit to take long leaps.’ Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book XV: 375

In 1920 Dr. Eugene S. McCartney of Northwestern University published a paper ‘Spontaneous Generation and Kindred Notions in Antiquity’. In it he said: “There was a well-established notion in antiquity that frogs were generated from mud, an idea that persisted beyond the Middle Ages. We find Sir Thomas Browne writing [in 1642] of frogs that arise from putrefaction and are called temporariae because they soon die.”

An apotropaic rod

I just love the word apotropaic. Don’t you? Clearly I don’t love it enough to remember it every time I see it, but every time I do see it I smile. Then I look it up again. And here it is again prominently tagged in the description from the Met. Wow! Not to mention that this piece is a show stopper. Wow!

As a side note, I looked up the use of this word at the Collins dictionary site online – a wonderful tool for nerds like me – and it showed that apotropaic appeared the most in print in 1953 at 0.06% of the time. It hadn’t even showed up at all in the year 1900. By 2008 it was on the rise again – whoopee – at 0.05%. That is the last year it was charted. Maybe this web log will raise it one-tenth of one percent even more. Whoopee! Where there is a will there is… Just trying to do my part.

Another side note: it doesn’t show up in my condensed two volume OED. Bummer! But wait: it does appear in the supplement, right after ‘zymurgy’. Hooray! It says in part:

“Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.” It was first mention in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1883. “The sacrifice of the ‘October horse’ in the Campus Martius..had also a naturalistic and atropotaic character.”

Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, ca. 1878–1640 B.C.
Glazed steatite
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The curatorial files note:

“Composed of four joining segments, this so-called magic rod is the only completely preserved example of its type. Perhaps related to the four “birthing bricks” arranged for the protection of mother and child during delivery, the rod was used to ward off harmful spirits. Some of the protective motifs—feline predators, crocodiles, toads, a turtle, wedjat eyes, and baboons with flaming torches—were also depicted on apotropaic wands and feeding cups, objects with the same defensive function.”

But even earlier were the proto-Elamites of Susa

Proto-Elamites lived in what is now Iran around 3,000 B.C. and still have the world’s oldest undeciphered language texts. I only mention that incidentally. What I do want you to see is a toad-shaped vase found at Susa. It is now in the Louvre.

Proto-Elamite toad-shaped vase from Susa – ca. 3,000 B.C. [my guess]
The Louvre

What about the Greeks?

Below is modern, i.e., the early 20th century, reproduction of a gold toad from Pylos, Greece. The original form was cast in ca. 1400 to 1200 B.C. and is in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Designed by Émile Gilliéron père and/or fils from 1900-13 in Württemberg, Germany
The British Museum

Before we get back to the art aspect of toads, let us talk etymology, okay?

The Oxford English Dictionary says: “OE. tádige, of unknown origin and unusual form, has no known cognates in the other langs. Da. and Norw. tadse are not connected. The relation of tadde and tádigetádie is not clear: Björkman thinks it is a hypocoristic form with shortened vowels and double cons.; it survived in s.w. ME tadde.” [see ‘tadpole’]

I’m sorry, but I have to say something here: thank goodness Björkman put his two cents in. I mean… I mean… ‘hypocoristic‘. Really? Look it up. That tells it all – at least for now.

John Ayto gives a more readable description:

“[OE] Toad is a mystery word, with no known relatives in any other Indo-European language. Of its derivatives,
toady [19] is short for the earlier toad eater ‘sycophant’ [17]. This originated in the dubious selling methods of
itinerant quack doctors. They employed an assistant who pretended to eat a toad (toads were thought to be
poisonous), so that the quack could appear to effect a miraculous cure with his medicine. The toad-eating assistant
came to be a byword for ‘servility’ or ‘dependency,’ and hence for ‘servile flattery.'”

While scanning through the OED, one of my favorite research tools ever, I ran across references to toads in Milton, Shakespeare, Bentham and a ton of other people I have never heard of before. However, one quote really piqued my interest. It was from a play by John Ford, first produced in 1633, called ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’. It would be funny if it had been written by Sheridan or by Wilde, but sadly here it is deadly serious. I am not recommending it to you. There are many more things you should read first, but there is one specific quote that caught my eye:

You toad-bellied bitch!

Now, why do I mention this? Because, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that the word toad was often used as a term of derision. I know you already know this, but still… I mean, why else would references to others who are too fawning be called toadies? I remember reading an editorial in The Kansas City Star decades ago and in the same paragraph they used two words I had to look up. One was ‘purblind’ and the other was ‘smarmy’. When I looked up the definition of smarmy it said that it was someone who was unctuously servile. I loved that phrase, but they could just as easily have referred to them as a toady.

The jaws of Hell – gee what a big maw you have

Mexican ceremonial greenstone yoke with the face of a toad
300-1200 A.D.
The British Museum

The curatorial files say: “Sculptures like this were once erroneously interpreted as ‘yokes’ worn when playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. In fact they were used as moulds for shaping the protective leather belts secured to the waists of players to cushion the impact of the heavy rubber ball. The ball court itself was a carefully circumscribed sacred space and a symbolic entrance to the Underworld for the losers in what was a life-and-death contest. The toad lives at the threshold between the earthly and subterranean worlds.”

Somehow Hieronymus Bosch had the same idea –

Richard III according to Shakespeare deserved the comparisons to toads –

Queen Margaret said to Queen Elizabeth of Richard:

The time will come when thou shalt wish for me
To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.

Queen Elizabeth later agreed saying to Queen Margaret:

O, thou didst prophesy the time would come
That I should wish for thee to help me curse
That bottled spider, that foul bunch-back’d toad!

How about something exquisite from Panama from ca. 500 to 1000 A.D.

A cast gold filigree toad or frog
Art Institute of Chicago

If you are as awed by this piece as I am then you might be surprised by how it was discovered at Venado Beach, Panama in the first place. “In 1948, the United States Navy discovered a rich Precolumbian cemetery with a bulldozer in the target shooting area of Fort Kobbe, a former military installation within the Canal Zone of Panama.”

Their curatorial note states: “Throughout the ancient Americas, the animal world was closely linked to social hierarchies and obligations. In this worldview, frogs were seen as callers of water in connection with the onset of the rainy season, suggesting a ruler’s ultimate responsibility to the community to virtually ensure the continuity of the agricultural cycle.”

Another cast gold frog from the Azuero peninsula was made later, but in the same vein.

Cast gold frog, Azuero peninsula, Parita culture – 12th to 14th century A.D.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

“This frog is also a bell: its bulbous
eyes contain clappers. The spirals around
the mouth of the frog at the bottom may
be symbols of water.”

Heidi King wrote in ‘Gold in Ancient America’ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin in the spring 2002: “In many Precolumbian cultures frogs and toads were associated with water and vegetation. They also appear in myths about man’s acquisition of fire, of which they are donors, carriers, or keepers. Most of them have “fire” in them, as they produce toxins. Some of the most poisonous frogs, notably Dendrobates, are gold colored. In South American lore the croaking of frogs foretells death and the journey to the underworld. The Bribri of south Costa Rica consider them burial helpers who sit on graves to prevent the deceased from arising to trouble the living.”

A pendant, a frog or toad pendant

Costa Rican or Panamanian
700 to 1550 A.D.
2 3/8″
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

And all strung together

Frog/toad and bead necklace – 1000 to 1530 A.D.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, Columbian
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As symbols of fertility

Mixtec or Aztec necklace – 15th to 16th century
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Mets curatorial files note: “Fertility connotations of frogs and turtles are further supported by the fact that these animals lay thousands of eggs and assume a squatting position similar to that of women in childbirth.”

An ‘otherworldly toad’ decoration on a Mayan drinking vessel

Mayan ca. 650-800 A.D.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The taint of the toad

Henry Stanley of the “Doctor Livingstone I presume” fame published a book entitled My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories in which he told an origin story in which a toad played a major role. In December 1883 Stanley and his porters were sitting around a camp fire near the Yambuya rapids (in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) when a generally taciturn African, Matageza told a creation story. According to his account, in the beginning the earth was covered with a very sweet water that in time receded living some grasses and trees and one large Toad. At that time the Moon ruled over everything.

The Toad got it into his head that he would create a man and a woman, but the Moon argued with him that that power was the Moon’s alone. The Moon told the Toad that he wasn’t powerful or creative enough to do that job correctly. The Moon did agree to work with the Toad once the creation had happened, but the Toad jumped the gun and created the humans anyway. However, they weren’t what we would recognize as ‘normal’ humans today. They were more lumpish, unresolved. The Moon was furious and was determined to punish the Toad for his impertinence.

The Moon came down to earth and destroyed the Toad, but not completely. There was just a bit of the Toad’s essence left over. Then the Moon sought out the humans, but they were hiding in fear. In time the Moon found them and bathed them in the same pool where he had boiled and burned the Toad. He bathed the humans with loving care and reshaped them into the forms we know today. Not only that he taught the humans about survival and how they could rule over the plants and animals all around them.

At first mankind lived long lives, but eventually death would take them. Death was something that the Toad could not overcome, but the Moon could have. Thus, in time all humans would die. Also, in time humans knew conflicts and disease because they were flawed in their original construction. Remember how the Moon failed to destroy the Toad completely. A small part of it continued to exist everywhere and in everything. That is why today we still have toads – small ‘t’ – and death: the taint of the Toad exists in us all.

Note that the taint of the Toad is not unlike the story of the “mark of Ham”. Humans are supposedly flawed because of some kind of original transgression. That is, if you believe in that sort of thing. I don’t.

The toad in Christian lore

Illustration of Revelations 16: 13 by Garsia Stephanus, 11th century, Spanish
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs;
they came out of the mouth of the dragon,
out of the mouth of the beast
and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

14 For they are the spirits of devils working miracles,
which go forth unto the kings of the earth
and of the whole world to gather them
for the battle of that great Day of God Almighty.

There is a toad in this picture of St. Didymus, just one of the noxious creatures shown

St. Didymus (the Blind) of Nitria reading a book. He lived from ca. 310-98.
Engraving from ca. 1583-88 by Johann Sadeler I (1550-1600) after a painting by Maerten de Vos (1532-1603) –
The Rijksmuseum

Didymus lost his sight at the age of four. After that the information which he gathered, which was copious in the extreme, was recorded (metaphorically) in a large book or library which he kept in his head.

A crocodile, a snake, a toad, a frog, two lizards and a basilisk, but no Didymus

Engraving by Adriaen Collaert (ca. 1560-1618)
The Rijksmuseum

Africa: a crocodile, lions, elephants, dromedaries, a basilisk, manticore and chameleon… but nary a toad! So where’s the toad?

Maybe the crocodile ate it.

Another engraving by Adriaen Collaert
The Rijksmuseum

The Proud Frog by Phaedrus (ca. 15 B.C. to 50 A.D.)

When poor men to expenses run,
And ape their betters, they ‘re undone.
An Ox the Frog a-grazing view’d,
And envying his magnitude,
She puffs her wrinkled skin, and tries
To vie with his enormous size:
Then asks her young to own at least
That she was bigger than the beast.
They answer, No. With might and main
She swells and strains, and swells again.
“Now for it, who has got the day ?”
The Ox is larger still, they say.
At length, with more and more ado,
She raged and puffed, and burst in two.

Images of Avarice are often accompanied by a toad

Avarice (and the toad) by Georg Pencz, ca. 1541
The British Museum

Jacques Callot (1592-1635) etching of Avarice

Above her head is a devil delivering another bag of ‘geld’. At her feet, in her shadow, is a toad. A toad!

Sins are the toads of the devil or “kröten des teufel” or, at least, that is what Bertold von Regensberg (ca. 1220-72), “the greatest preacher of the later middle ages”, is reported to have said. Martin Luther started calling one of his followers, one who had turned on him, Dr. Kröte or Dr. Toad.

Below is an illustration by Nicolas le Rouge from 1496 showing the gluttonous forced by demons to eat toads.

Bibliothèque nationale de France

In the Fasciculus Morum, loosely translated as ‘a bundle of sins or habits’, a 14th century English text probably composed by a Franciscan monk. Half of it deals with the seven vices. In one account it says that when the tomb of a usurer was opened it was discovered that upon “…his black and stinking body… [was] a toad sitting… [which] like a nurse, held burning coins to the dead man’s mouth and fed him these.”

Elsewhere the Fasciculus Morum continues: “They say that after death three kinds of vermin are literally born of a human body: a toad from his head and throat, a scorpion from his spine, and a weevil from his body and stomach.” Sins eat at the soul in life and vermin eat at the body in death. (This information comes from Animals in the Middle Ages.)

A 15th century female mystic wrote in A Revelation of Purgatory that nuns who have lusted and kissed men will be punished by having their tongues pulled out by devils for the sins of lechery and slander. Snakes and toads will be placed on those tongues. A fit punishment.

Below is the “Young Man and Death” (Jongeman en de Dood) from the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet from 1485-90. At the feet of Death are a snake and a toad.

I found this at Wikimedia Commons. It comes from the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

A defense of the toad from an 1840 publication –

“”Few animals have ever suffered more undeserved persecution as the victims of an absurd and ignorant prejudice than the Toad. Condemned by common consent as a disgusting, odious, and venomous reptile, the proverbial emblem of all that is malicious and hateful in the human character, it is placed under universal ban, and treated as an outlaw both by man and boy throughout the country.”

Of course, then there is always Renaissance toad jewelry

16th century – unknown (to us) origin
The Louvre

In the Rijksmuseum there is another pendant of a toad, possibly of Spanish origin.

Baroque pearls, gold, enamel, jewels
Possibly Spanish ca. 1600-20
The Rijksmuseum

What could he have been thinking?

Hieronymus Bosch is almost universally liked. His fantastic creatures never cease to amaze us. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love/like his work. Of course, I haven’t polled everyone, but I am not sure I would want to know anyone who doesn’t like his oeuvre. That said, I ran across this drawing from a collection in Germany and can’t imagine what he was getting at. Two very toad-like figures, one very human looking. Bosch lived more than 500 years ago, but it wouldn’t be until the early 20th with the publication of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, in 1915 to be exact, that such an image would be so captivating – for me, at least. Also, giant toads are somewhat easier to take than giant cockroaches – in my not so humble opinion.

Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450 – 1516)
Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Who puts a toad on their coat of arms? We don’t know.

Below is Holbein’s earliest heraldic design. It was probably made for a family near Lucerne, but no one knows which one.

Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497-1543) – ca. 1517-19
The British Museum

However, if at first… you only find one coat of arms with a toad on it, keep looking

Lust riding on a camel with a toad coat of arms
Heinrich Aldegrever (1502-55)
The Rijksmuseum

Notice the term ‘Libido Dei‘ in the text below the image. ‘God of Lust’? Close enough. Also notice the crowing cock about the coat of arms and the ‘fox rampant’ on the waving banner. Here the toad image makes more sense. No surprises here. Gregory the Great (540 to 604), one of the Four Fathers of the Church, told us that lust is brought on by gluttony and that lust is the basest form of gratification. Jerome (347 yo ca. 419) was another one of the Fathers, and I have probably already told you this somewhere else in my posts, but Jerome believed that early Christians should not bathe more than twice a year and that Christian virgins not more than once because bathing might cause arousal and we all know what that leads to… lust or worse. Whoever said that cleanliness was next to godliness must have been selling beauty products, because that sure wasn’t the way the early Church saw it. No wonder so many well-bathed, well-groomed Romans hated them.

A stoneware ceramic crapaud from 1892 – the fascination continues

Ceramic crapaud by Jean-Joseph Marie Carriès (1855-94)
Cité de la céramique, Sèvres

Variation on the theme of kissing the frog

Years ago I read an entry in the Bad Faulkner contest. I tried to look it up, but couldn’t find it online. It may be out there somewhere, but I can’t find it. So, here is my loose rendition:

In the morning the beautiful princess woke up exhausted from a long night of passionate, athletic love making.
Slowly she rolled over toward her lover, but suddenly realized that lying next to her was a 6′ tall, slimy,
disgusting frog. She nudged him awake and said: “You told me that if I slept with you that by the next
morning you would have turned into a handsome prince. The frog stretched languorously and said:
“So sue me!”

Girl kissing a toad by Raphael Kirchner (1876-1917)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What we don’t know is what the frog/toad did after he ravaged the princess 

Perhaps the illustration shown below will give us a bit of an idea.

1890 lithograph of a toad smoking a cigarette under a toadstool by Theodorus van Hoytema (1863-1917)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Here is a teaser for what is to come with the second toad post: toad art, magic and general folklore in Japan and China –

Ohara Matsuhiro (1810-75) ivory carving
The Walters Art Museum


This is just the beginning of this post. As per my modus operandi I will be adding a ton more soon.
Please come back soon and often to see what has been added. Thanks!
There will be a plague of great art and information
in the form of toads and frogs. 
Coming soon to a computer near you.
Don’t miss it!


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