Category: broadsheets

Toad Magic

Toad Magic

Toads have long been associated with magic, as witches’ familiars and as a source both of poison as folk healing.

We begin with a poison allegedly brewed from a toad by the “wise wife of Keith,” Agnes Sampson, one of the accused in Scotland’s North Berwick witch trials in 1591-2. The poison was to have been used against Scotland’s James VI before he ascended England’s throne as James I.  At the center of the trial was the accusation that Sampson and others had raised a storm to sink the ship bearing James home from Oslo with his new wife Anne of Denmark.

Macbeth and the Witches
Macbeth and the Witches (Thomas Barker, 1830)

Shakespeare seems to allude to elements from this trial in his play Macbeth, mentioning toads and frogs as elements of  the concoctions brewed by his witches in Act IV and seemingly referencing the events in an aside uttered by a witch regarding sending a storm against an enemy’s ship.  The Bard’s inclusion of “real” witchcraft in his play has long been said to be the reason for a “curse” upon productions of Macbeth. Included in our discussion is a particularly ugly (and lethal) 1848 incident in New York City attributed to this bit of lore.

A witch’s servant, or familiar, in the form of a toad is also alluded to as an offstage character in Macbeth.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of accounts from 16th and early 17th century England presenting toad familiars sent to torment the enemies of witches.  We also hear of a toad exploding in a fire, and toads sustained on the blood of their witch mistresses, as well as a sad story from Newmarket, England, involving William Harvey, physician to Charles I, and an bruitish attempt to subject an alleged toad familiar to scientific scrutiny.

A woodcut illustration from a book published in 1579 of a witch feeding her ‘familiars’.

Next we discuss the fear of toad’s venom in the Middle Ages, hearing some comments on the subject from 12th-century German mystic and theologian Hildegard von Bingen and a tale associated with the English boy-saint William of Norwich involving some prisoners and an unfortunate attempt at the use of toad poison.

Toad’s venom, according to medieval folklore, could be neutralized by the toadstone, a particular mineral also assigned powers against stomach and kidney ailments.  We hear of a peculiar method of obtaining this prized artifact and an obscure reference to the toadstone in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.

Wicker Man
Toadstone lesson from “The Wicker Man” (1973)

We also hear a clip from The Wicker Man in which a toad or frog is used in folk medicine to cure a sore throat. Superstitions about toads and their magical efficacy against various ailments continued into the 19th century, resulting in the phenomena of traveling “toad doctors” and “toad fairs.”  The use of toad bones in a midnight ritual performed by English “Toadmen” in order to gain mastery of horses to be trained is also discussed as is the discovery of miniature frog coffins, stashed in Finish churches, in a folk-magic practice similar to the British and American use of “witch bottles.”

We return to the continent and the discussion of toads’ association with witches (and heretics) as conceived by the Church in terms of service to Satan.  This topic brings us a letter written by Pope Gregory IX to bishops of the German Rhineland involving Satan as a french-kissing toad, as well as a ritual attributed to French and Italian members of the Waldesenian sect allegedly consuming a ritual beverage brewed from toad excrement.

In Spain’s Basque province of  Navarre, home to the “Cave of Witches” at Zugarramurdi, witchcraft trial testimonies demonstrate a particular emphasis on toads.  We hear of them raised by novice witches in the fields, used to poison the land, and dancing at the witches’ sabbath.

Toads are sometimes mentioned as an ingredient of the “flying ointment” believed to have induced a visionary experience transporting witches to hilltop revels. However, this effect is more likely attributed to other ingredients in historical recipes (particularly plants of the nightshade family.)

While the venom produced by toads of the Old World doesn’t seem to contain the quality and quantity of bufotoxin necessary to produce such visions, this can’t be said for certain New World species.

One of these is the Cane toad (bufo rhinella) that invasive species best known for infesting Australia, Florida and other southern states and native to South and Central America.  In the Caribbean, it’s been identified by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis as a possible ingredient in a drug administered in Haiti to transform an enemy into a zombie, (i.e., to drug the individual into a deathlike state from which he is later “resurrected.”).  Research into this subject was documented in Davis’ 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, later serving loosely as inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1988 film of the same name (from which we hear a clip).

The show ends with a quick look at the role of the Colorado River toad or Sonoran Desert toad, (bufo alvarius) as a source of psychedelic experience, particularly as its been reinvented with the last years as part of a life-changing “shamanic experience” for drug consumers already bored with ayahuasca.

Murdered Sweetheart Songs

Murdered Sweetheart Songs

As a special Valentine’s episode, we present collection of folk songs known as “sweetheart murder ballads.”  We begin with two newer songs dating to the 19th century, “On the Banks of the Ohio” and “Down in the Willow Garden.”  While considered American songs and first documented in Appalachia, these ballads appear to borrow elements from older European songs.

One of the most widely known murder ballads, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” like most of songs in this program, was first recorded in America in the 1920s.  We hear a snippet of that early (1927) recording by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers and a longer cut narrating the murder itself from a 1969 recording by Porter Waggoner.

While “Banks of the Ohio” has the murderer stabbing his love and disposing of her body in the river, “Down in the Willow Garden,” throws in some poisoning to boot. One of the versions of this song we hear excerpted is from an excellent 1956 album by the Kossoy Sisters, Bowling Green, one we’ve previously sampled in our Butcher Lore episode for which the Kossoys sang about the butchering of a giant ram (“The Darby Ram”).  We hear a snippet of the first recording of this song (also from 1927) by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter.  This early version takes as its title, the victim’s name  “Rose Conley,” an Irish family name, suggesting that the song has obscure roots in that country.

The Scottish song “The Banks of Red Roses” shares a similarity with  “Willow Garden” in its garden setting.  Both highlighting the role a beautiful but remote environment can play in a deadly seduction.  We hear a 1962 version by the Scottish singer Jean Redpath, along with snippets by other artists.

Our next song, “The Lone Green Valley” or “The Jealous Lover” takes us back to America with an early recording from 1926 by Vernon Dalhart.  Following a similar narrative to our other songs, this song was the subject of a painting by American muralist Thomas Hart Benton.  We also hear a strange bit of gossip related to Benton’s interest in folk music involving Jackson Pollack, of all people.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Ballad of the Jealous Lover"
Thomas Hart Benton’s “Ballad of the Jealous Lover”

Our next song, “Knoxville Girl,” is an American update of a British and Irish song with roots going back to around 1700.  We begin with a version by The Louvin Brothers from 1956 and work our way to earlier songs from Great Britain where the song goes by “The Oxford Girl,” or in Ireland, “The Wexford Girl,” along with other names and localities, including “Ickfield Town,” the title of a 2005 version we hear from John Kirkpatrick.  The story in these is similar to “Banks of the Ohio” and “Willow Garden,” but with a bludgeoning substituting for a stabbing.  The song also adds a scene depicting the murderer returning home after his crime to night of guilt-ridden tossing in bed surrounded by imaginary hellfire.  The killer is also confronted upon his return by his mother, who notices blood on his clothing, which the killer excuses as the result of a nosebleed.

This odd details of the nosebleed can be traced, along with other elements of the song, to a 1685 broadsheet entitled “The Bloody Miller,” which makes the killer a miller’s apprentice (while other songs employ him as a butcher’s apprentice.)  In the broadsheet, the nosebleed does not occur upon the killer’s return home, but in court as his guilty verdict is handed down, and is presented as a supernatural omen confirming his guilt.

This notion of a supernatural disclosure of the guilty killer brings us to another group of lesser known murder songs, including the 19th-century Irish ballad “The Old Oak Tree,” a particularly gory tale, which includes not only a murder but the graphically described disinterment of a corpse and a suicide.

Our next song, a 19th-century Scottish ballad “Young Benjie,” gives us a different kind of murder (being thrown into a waterfall) and has the ghost of the murdered lover appearing at her own wake to demand a very particular and gruesome form of punishment for her killer.  We hear a bit of 2012 version of the song by Rosaleen Gregory.

Our last song was popularized by a 1996 version by Nick Cave with P.J. Harvery: “Henry Lee.” Older versions of the song go by other names including “Love Henry,” “Earl Richard,” “Young Hunting,” and “The False Lady.” This one is also from Scotland of the early 19th century.  The Appalachian adaptation (the version sung by Nick Cave) omits a more detailed opening describing Henry Lee (or Richard) as an early come in from hunting as well as a more elaborate role played by the bird witness — one which involves the recovery of the victim’s body and identification of the killer by supernatural means.  There is also a final verse about the cruel justice served upon the killer. Along the way we learn of a quite peculiar superstition related to the bodies of the drowned and hear a snippet of an unusual 2008 cover of the song by Jodie Holland.