Category: cults

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.

Episode 5: The Great God Pan

Episode 5: The Great God Pan

 

We follow our previous episode on the god Pan with a second this week, delving even deeper into the creative and bizarre ways the figure has been embraced after his much publicized “death.”

Our first several minutes are devoted to literary explorations of Pan in the decades around World War I. Naturally we examine only writers  providing the more fantastic or horrific examples, including the creator of the high fantasy genre Anglo-Irish writer Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron Dunsany (aka Lord Dunsany).  In The Blessings of Pan, he imagines ancient rites to Pan resurrected in the England of his day. If you like what you hear, you might want to have listen to another one of his stories narrated by Vincent Price here.

Lord Dunsany wrote The Blessings of Pan in 1928.
Lord Dunsany wrote The Blessings of Pan in 1928.

Wilkinson also provides us a reading from “The Music on the Hill,” by writer Hector Munro, who wrote under the name “Saki”.  There is a spoiler in the reading,  but it’s pleasingly grisly.  We make up for the spoilage by providing you this additional unsettling, darkly comic (to us) story by Saki, one in which a defiant young boy decides to provoke his caretaker by creating a religion around his ferret, whom he names “Sredni Vashtar.”  As it turns out, the ferret proves to be a dreadfully vindictive god.

But I digress.

As it turns out, the idea of a return to pagan Pan worship in the Christian era written about by Dunsany and others, may be more than simply a matter of fiction.  Our next segment deals with such a case.  In 18th-century England, in the town of Painswick, England, a member of the gentry, one Benjamin Hyett, was known to have built “an Arcadian retreat” featuring a building known as “Pan’s Lodge.”  You can have a look here at a contemporaneous painting of the lodge grounds and Hyett’s statue (one of two — the other met a curious fate).

The statue at Hyett's "Pan's Lodge in Painswick. Background: contemporary painting of grounds.
The statue from “Pan’s Lodge in Painswick. Background: contemporary painting of grounds.

Hyett eventually brought the entire community around to join in these rites to Pan.  The story grows more complex and curious as these rites are resurrected roughly a century later by a priest who, as we learn, had some intriguing notions about their meaning and origin.  Entangled within this story are other local oddities of Painswick culture, including a dish known as “Puppy Dog Pie,” and a practice known as “clipping the church” or “church clipping,” in which members of the congregation join hands and perambulate their place of worship.

Clipping the church. Painting by W. W. Wheatley in 1848
Clipping the church. Painting by W. W. Wheatley in 1848

Somehow we then arrive at the topic of Lupercalia, the Roman festival involving priests dressed in nothing  chasing the Roman woman through the streets with whips.  Oddly enough this topic brings us back to Arcadia, home of Pan.

Detail: Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei. 1635.
Detail: Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei. 1635.

Lupercalia brings us to some interesting myths and tales related to the Arcadian festival Lykaia and King Lycaon, whom Zeus transformed into a wolf (history’s first werewolf, some would say.)  Find out what loathsome act drove Zeus to take this action as Wilkinson provides another excellent reading from Ovid.

Detail: More details Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf. Hendrik Goltzius. 1589.
Detail: Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf. Hendrik Goltzius. 1589.

A bit more ancient Greek werewolf lore, a ghastly story about Pan and his ill-fated pursuit of the nymph Echo, and we end up — of all places — on Summerisle, that is, talking again about The Wicker Man, as we are wont to do.  Somehow, the Wicker Man leads us back to Pan.  You’l have to just trust me on this.

Benjamin Hyett, was not alone in resurrecting the notion of Pan worship.  We find religious devotion to Pan and other pagan nature spirits (as well as inexplicably thriving vegetables) at Northern Scotland’s Findhorn Community.  Some clips from a 1973 BBC show make clear their roots in the hippy culture of the era, giving us a bit of background before we meet Findhorn’s primary acolyte of Pan, Robert Ogilvie Crombie (aka ROC).  His encounters with Pan in 1970s Edinburgh bring up an interesting point about the difficulties of directly encountering Pan.  And naturally, this brings us to our next and final topic.

Early Findhorn meditation circle and book by ROC.
Early Findhorn meditation circle and book by ROC.

Arthur Machen’s 1890 horror novel, The Great God Pan was highly influential not only to Lovecraft, but other writers in his circle, and in general on the genre variously identified as “weird fiction” or “cosmic horror.”  Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, and Arthur C. Clarke have all praised the story.  Stephen King has called it “one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.”

Once again Wilkinson provides a couple readings of wonderfully morbid passages from the book complete with the usual Bone and Sickle audio ambiance.

We go out with the song “The Great God Pan” from the soundtrack to Mondo Hollywood, a 1967 a documentary in the “mondo” style presenting a mix of LA celebrities and countercultural oddballs, heavy on the oddballs.