Toads have just as long of a history with witches and play just as an impoerant role in the history of witchcraft as cats do. Many of us are familiar with the age old beleif that witches were comonly thought to have warts becasue of the fact that they handled toads. Of course we now know that toads do not in fact cause warts to appear. To have a wart was once a sure mark of a witch. Toads play many roles in witchcraft as do cats. Serving as familiars as well as a componoents to spells, and minions of the devil.
Toads as Familiars
Toads were perfect as familiars. “Thanks to the two tiny horns borne on his forehead, a toad was recognizable as a demon, and witches took infinite care of him. They baptized their toads, dressed them in black velvet, put little bells on their paws, and made them dance” (Givry 136). “Jeannette d’Abadie, a witch of the Basses-Pyrénées…declared that she saw brought to the Sabbat a number of toads dressed some in black, some in scarlet velvet, with little bells attached to their coats” (Summers 159).
Sent out to cause mayhem and to poison others, toads were also thought to have accompanied witches to the Sabbat. Konrad von Marburg, the German Inquisitor General and heretic-finder, believed many “Luciferians” worshipped toads (King 27).
An accused Cathar, a woman named Bilia, “admitted to having a familiar toad to which she fed meat, bread, and cheese, and out of whose feces, together with human body hair, whe made a powder from which she confected the potions drunk at the synagogues” (Russell 1972 223).
Toads were often beloved pets, and if people injured or killed such a familiar, they placed themselves in grave danger. The following story comes from Somerset, England:
There lived an old woman who kept three pet toads with the engaging names of Duke, Dick and Merryboy. One autumn afternoon, carrying her toads in a basket to keep her company, she watched three young farmers reap a field, singing to the rhythm of their flashing scythes. One of the toads hopped from the basket directly into the path of the reapers. The young men sniggered and, before the woman’s horrified eyes, slashed the beast to pieces.
‘I’ll set hell on you,’ cried the woman. ‘None of you will finish this day’s work.’ And, having said that curse, she trudged off across the field, carrying the remaining toads carefully away.
The young men only laughed, but within moments one of them had cut his hand with his scythe badly enough to stop his working. The next sliced across the toe of his boot on a downswing, and the last cut his boot open from one side to the other. Unnerved, they left the field. As their neighbor had said, none of them finished work that day
The Power of Toads
The breath of toads, and sometimes even being glanced upon by a toad, was also considered dangerous. The breath of a toad was believed to infect a person wherever it touched. Another common superstition existed stating those whom a toad regarded fixedly would be sized by spasms, palpitations, swoons, and convulsions. In the eighteenth century, Abbé Rousseau experimented with toads. He “avowed that when of these animals looked upon him for some time he fell in a fainting fit whence, if help had not arrived, he would never have recovered” (Summers 158).
In addition, toads were integral in some forms of experimental divination. It was believed “if you put the heart and left foot of a toad over the mouth of a sleeping man, for example, he will immediately reveal to you whatever you ask him.”
Toads in Potions and Spellcraft
Toads secrete a thick, white, hallucinogenic substance from skin glands when they are injured or provoked. This toxin (C24H34O5) is called bufagin, bufotenin, or more colloquially, toads’ milk (Guiley 1989 341). The secretion acts like digitalis in biological action, and was believed to have been used by witches for various nefarious purposes. Toad excrement was theoretically used as an ingredient in flying potions by Basque witches (Levack 45).
In Artois, a flying potion made from toads was created when the witch put consecrated bread and wine into a pot full of toads. “When the toads had devoured the sacrament, they were killed and burned. Then the ashes of the toads were mixed with the powdered bones of dead Christians, the blood of children, herbs, and the recipe was completed with ‘other things’” (Russell 1972 250).
Unfortunate toads could be decapitated, skinned, and thrown into cauldrons along with other strange ingredients. A lotion of sow-thistle sap and toads spittle was believed to make a witch invisible, and brandy embued with burned toad ashes was believed to be an effective cure for drunkenness. If a toad was baptized with an enemy’s name then tortured to death, the victim supposedly suffered the same fate.
In 1329, a Carmelite monk named Peter Recordi was sentenced to death for “having made images of wax, toads’ blood, and spittle, consecrating them to the Devil and then hiding them in the houses of women with whom he purposed sexual intercourse.”
Toads were also believed to have a precious stone in their heads. This stone was considered both a talisman for obtaining “almost perfect earthly happiness” (Givry 345) and a means to detect poison. If the stone became hot, poison was nearby. The adjacent illustration is from Johannes de Cuba’s 1498 work Hortus Sanitatis. It shows “a method, at once practical and elegant, of extracting this stone” (Givry 345). Sometimes, however, accomodating toads would simply vomit up the stones by themselves (Guiley 1989 341).
Toad stones were considered most effective when set in rings (Guiley 1989 341). This gold ring is from fourteenth-century Italy. “This stone, which counted as precious, allegedly came from the head of a toad, though actually it was a fossil derived from a certain kind of fish.”
Toads and the Devil
Sometimes the Devil would appear to witches as a toad. In these instances, witches would kiss the toad’s mouth in an act of homage (Russell 1972 146). Satan was believed to have presided at Sabbats in the form of a he-goat, a black cat, a raven or crow, or a feathered toad” (Givry 74).
In their worship of the Devil, witches were said to have mangled, torn apart, and bitten toads. “By stamping his foot, the Devil could send all toads into the earth” (Guiley 1989 341).
In 1610 Juan de Echalear, a sorcerer of Navarre, confessed at his trial before the Alcantarine inquisitor Don Alonso Becerra Holguin that he and his coven collected toads for the Sabbat, and when they presented these animals to the Devil he blessed them with his left hand, after which they were killed and cooked in a stewpot with human bones and pieces of corpses rifled from new-made graves. From this filthy hotch-potch were brewed poisons and unguents that the Devil distributed to all present with directions how to use them. By sprinkling corn with the liquid it was supposed they could blight a standing field, and also destroy flowers and fruit. A few drops let fall upon a person’s garments was believed to insure death, and a smear upon the shed or sty effectually diseased cattle
*Image info: Medieval witches cooking “magic” brew with toad and henbane. From the Golden Guide: Hallucinogenic Plants