Category: Canidia

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.

#13: Ancient Necromancy

#13: Ancient Necromancy

Finishing up with our October theme of “talking to the dead,” we examine necromancy in the ancient world in this episode.  While the word has been generalized in its present use to mean cover any form of magic of a sinister bent, in its original meaning, it was simply what the Latinized-Greek etymology suggests: “necro-” for “dead” and “-mancy” for “divination by.”  Not that it wasn’t always regarded as a rather sinister activity.  It certainly was, and particularly by the Roman era, we’ll see the practice associated with most ghoulish sort of atrocities imaginable.  But it’s Halloween, so the more ghoulish, the better.

We begin around 630-540 BC when a necromancer was written into the Biblical book of 1 Samuel (or 1010 BC, if we are to date the figure by the time the events were alleged to have occurred — in any case, this is our oldest tale of a necromancer, known most commonly as the “Witch of Endor.”  It’s also our first of several examples of not getting particularly good news when you consult the dead on your future.  Much doom and gloom, when King Saul talks to the dead prophet Samuel, who never really liked him anyway.

"The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul" Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)
“The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul” Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)

Our next tale of ancient necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and though there’s no actual necromancer in this story, Odysseus follows instructions for summoning the dead in Hades given him by a pretty legitimate enchantress, namely, Circe.  We’ll see an interesting parallel here with the story of the Witch of Endor and learn of the vampiric love of blood attributed to the dead in ancient Greece.

Up next is a lesser known Greek tale of Periander, a tyrannical ruler of Corinth, who sends servants to consult the necromancers to discover the location of some money hidden on his estate, the location of which, only his deceased wife Melissa would know. Some interesting details here as we learn just why the late Melissa finds herself chilly in the afterlife and Periander demonstrates just how tyrannical a tyrant he really is.

A little background is then furnished the rather elaborate pantheon of the underworld and death-related spirits known to the Greeks, much of which was inherited by the Romans and one element even borrowed into a Sam Raimi film.  Interesting etymological links to modern curiosities abound!  Thanatos, Hypnos, Nyx, The Keres, Manes, Achlys, Lemures, and Lamia are all discussed.

Then there’s the story of Pausanias, King of Sparta, who led the Greeks in victory over the Persians in 479 BC.  Troubles begin when he becomes infatuated with a beautiful virgin, Cleonice, in Byzantium. One tragedy and betrayal follows another in this sad tale, and following instructions from a ghost summoned by necromancers only makes things worse.

Then we turn to the Romans for the most gruesome stories.

Detail: "Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho" John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)
Detail: “Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho” John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)

The necromancer or witch Erichtho appears in the poem Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic on Caesar’s Civil War. Her characterization was so she’s later picked up by other authors, such as Dante, who uses her in his Divine Comedy, the Jacobean writer John Marston, who uses her in a play, and Goethe, who in Faust features her in the Walpurgisnacht scene we talked about in Episode Two.  Erichtho hangs around graveyards and her spells and rites involve the most abominable elements you can imagine. Her memorably weird resurrection of a dead soldier in Pharsalia was said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her imaginings of dead things brought to life.

Next we have a look at a necromancer or witch appearing in the works of Horace, who uses her to darkly lampooning those who supported or engaged in the practice of magic in his poetry.   He embodies witchcraft in the figure of Canidia, who reappears in several of his works.  She’s nearly as ghastly as Erichtho, walking around with “tiny snakes twined in her hair,” perhaps to outdo her witch pal Sagana, whose coiffure Horace describes as “rough” and “standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar.”  After some serious spookery, Horace has some weird fun with the his story of Canidia, providing a particularly vulgar touch, while also taking a jab at a lover who rejected him.

We finish up with some actual cases of Roman necromancy, or at least some purported to have been real, though we can assume there’s probably an element of nasty gossip in some of the accounts.  Still, they make for good Halloween listening with spilled blood, entrails, and flayed skin.

"Tiresias appears to Ulysses" Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
“Tiresias appears to Ulysses” Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)