And So I Shed My Skin, and Walked Away New:
Frogs, Toads, and the Secret of Transformation
The life cycle of frogs and toads involves at least one major transformation, from tadpole to adult. Many also shed their skins regularly as they grow, and some species eat the shed skin. These spectacular transformations may explain why many cultures see frogs and toads as symbolic of re-creation, or as keepers of the secrets of transformations.
The Olmec tribes created images of a toad god of rebirth, eating its own skin. It is reborn by consuming itself, caught in a cycle of death and rebirth, like people, and like the natural world itself.
In many ancient Chinese tales and legends, the toad is a trickster and a magician, a master of escapes and spells. But he is also the keeper of the real, powerful secrets of the world, such as the secret of immortality. Many legends involve a wandering wise man called Liu Hai and his three-legged toad companion Ch'an Chu. The toad knows the secret of eternal life, and for his friendship reveals the secret to the wise man. In Japan a similar legend involves the Gama-Sennin, also known as Kosensei, a wise old man with a hunched body and a warty face. Kosensei wanders the land with his toad companion, who teaches him the secret powers of herbs, including the secret of immortality.
Interestingly, many of these Asian tales refer to the secret of immortality as a fungus growing from the toad's forehead. It has been suggested that this may be a link to the many shamanistic traditions of the Americas, where hallucinogenic compounds derived from frogs and toads are used for religious rituals of communion with the spirit world and self-transcendence.
Poison, Hallucination, Transcendence:
The Alchemical Amphibian
One of the other forms of power that frogs and toads wield in many cultures and myths is chemical, or alchemical: frogs are viewed as the purveyors of poison or of powerful drugs, which can heal or induce hallucinations. In many cases, these myths have some foundation in truth, as some species contain compounds both poisonous and hallucinogenic. Many tribes of South and Central America have used compounds from frogs and toads as poisons and hallucinogenic drugs for religious rituals.
In medieval Europe, toads were viewed as evil creatures whose blood was a potent poison and whose body parts had strange powers. Some of these views were created by writers from Classical Greece and Rome, whose opinions held great sway. Pliny the Elder imputed many strange powers to toads: a toad's presence will silence a room full of people; a small bone from a toad's right side will keep water from boiling; a bone from the left side will repel the attack of dogs.
A widely held superstition concerned the fabulous "Toad-Stone," a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the toad's head. This jewel, placed in a ring or a necklace, would heat up or change color in the presence of poison, thereby protecting the wearer from foul play. In Shakespeare's play As You Like It, the Old Duke says,
"Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head."
Toads were also commonly seen as evil spirits, or as the "imp" or "familiar" who accompanied witches, assisting them in their evil designs. These familiars could also be cats, crows, insects, or dogs. In the annals of the witch trials at St. Osyth (England), Ursula Kempe's young son testified that one of her four familiars, a black toad named Pigin, had once called illness in a young boy. Toads were also popular as poisonous ingredients in potions. It was said that "the women-witches of ancient time which killed by poysoning, did much use toads in their confections." Male witches were also purported to use toads for their poisonous magic. Such folklore and popular mythology is the result of Inquistion propaganda and does not reflect Pagan religions.