May 22 is marked as the International Day of Biological Diversity. Last year the theme was Nature is the Solution. And carrying forward the same, the theme this year is We are Part of the Solution—a reminder that humans are but one strand in the intricate web of life, and that our lives are intricately and inextricably bound with every other strand in this web. Nature sustains us not only in terms of resources, but also nurtures us culturally and spiritually.
A few weeks ago I wrote about an example of how plants are an integral part of the traditional knowledge, culture and customs of many indigenous peoples. (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/22/maria-and-her-magic-mushrooms/).The study of this close relationship is called ethnobotany. Scientists and anthropologists also study the past and present interrelationships between human cultures and the animals in their environment. This is called ethnozoology. One of these relationships that has long fascinated anthropologists is the one with snakes and amphibians. These are creatures that commonly evoke revulsion, fear, suspicion and awe, sometimes even hysteria. And yet these are richly represented in mythology, culture, art, and literature of indigenous cultures around the world.
While researching for an exhibition on frogs, I discovered a wealth of fascinating facts and beliefs about creatures that we don’t often give a second look, let alone a second thought to—frogs and toads.
The human imagination, has over eons, cast and recast frogs and toads in legends, and beliefs. They appear in the stories and myths of almost every human culture, taking on almost every role conceivable, from the trickster, to the devil, to the mother of the universe.
In many traditions around the globe, frog is generally associated with the water element and it symbolises cleansing, renewal, rebirth, fertility, abundance, transformation, and metamorphosis in different cultures.
In ancient Egypt, the frog appears as a symbol of fertility, water, and renewal. The water goddess Heket often appeared as a woman with the head of a frog. Frogs were also the symbol of the midwife goddess Heqit, who ruled conception and birth, and Egyptian women often wore metal amulets in the form of frogs to enlist her good favour. Ancient tribes in Central America worshipped a goddess known as Ceneotl, the patron of childbirth and fertility, who took the form of a frog or a toad with many udders.
This association with fertility was also ecological. Every year the flooding of the Nile provided water and brought rich silt to grow crops; at that time frogs also proliferated in such huge numbers that the frog became a symbol for the number hefnu, which meant either 100,000 or simply “an immense number.” Thus the frog’s association with water and fertility, so important for life, made them positive symbols,
Frogs and toads were also considered to be spirits of rain, and were used in many rituals intended to invoke the rains. The Aymara tribe of Peru and Bolivia made small frog images, which they placed on hilltops, to call down the rain. Indeed, if the rains failed, some tribes blamed the toads for withholding the rain, and would lash them in punishment.
In India it is believed that the ‘singing’ of frogs indicates that the rains have come and it is a time for celebration, while the silence of the frogs means that nature and the Gods have forsaken man. In some parts of India frog weddings are held with rites and rituals, and celebrated with feasts to invoke and appease the rain gods, especially in times of drought.
In Ancient China images of frogs were found on the drums used to summon thunder and much needed rain.
Frogs feature in the myths of many Native American tribes. In some they represent transformation and growth, while in others they are associated with springtime and renewal. They are believed to have healing powers and are considered medicine animals. In the shamanistic traditions of some of these cultures, hallucinogenic compounds derived from frogs and toads are used for religious rituals of communion with the spirit world and self-transcendence.
Thus most native cultures revered frogs and toads, as they did all forms of life, and recognised that these were all intrinsically linked with the elements of nature and each other. However in later periods and cultures, the “strange” appearance of frogs and toads with their awkward form, huge eyes and croaking calls evoked fear and a sense of eerie mystery. Folklore from medieval Europe depicted toads as evil creatures whose blood was a potent poison and whose body parts had unusual powers. Toads were commonly seen as evil spirits who accompanied witches, assisting them in their evil designs, and providing poisonous ingredients for potions. Many myths were perpetuated around toads. One widely held myth concerned the Toad-Stone, a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the toad’s head. According to myth this jewel, placed in a ring or a necklace, would heat up or change colour in the presence of poison, thereby protecting the wearer from foul play. Such references are even to be found in some of Shakespeare’s plays.
In many ancient Chinese tales and legends also, the toad is a trickster and a magician, a master of escapes and spells. Some Chinese tales refer to the toad whose face is believed to be visible at the full moon; and they believe that it is this moon-toad that occasionally swallows the moon, causing eclipses.
But the Chinese also believe that that toad is the keeper of the real, powerful secrets of the world, such as the secret of immortality. There are several legends that reinforce this belief. One is about a wandering wise man called Liu Hai and his three-legged toad companion Ch’an Chu who knows the secret of immortality, and who reveals this secret to the wise man who befriends him.
This awe of the benevolent magical powers of frogs and toads is seen in most oriental cultures. In China the frog is a symbol of good luck. The Frog spirit Ch’ing-Wa Sheng represents prosperity in business and healing. Frogs and toads also signify protection. The Chinese Danwu, or Dragon Boat Festival was traditionally celebrated to ward off diseases and plagues for the coming year. Several symbolic creatures are worshipped on this day for protection against evil spirits, and ill health, among which the three-legged toad Ch’an Chu is significant.
In Japan frogs are very auspicious. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru. Kaeru also means “return”. Travellers carried bring a frog amulet on their journey as this was believed to secure a safe return.
Thus have frogs and toads captured human imagination since time began. It is also these myths and beliefs that reminded humans of the vital role that even the seemingly insignificant creatures play. But with the march of “progress” and as humans have been relentlessly destroying the habitats of uncountable, and as yet unaccounted for, living things we are losing much more than species. We are losing the essence of what makes our lives rich and meaningful. Who will populate our mythologies when these creatures are gone? Perhaps we will be left with only one story: the story of loss.