Tag: Basque

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 9: Cave Witches

Episode 9: Cave Witches

In this episode of Bone and Sickle, we’re looking at the folklore and history of witches associated with caves.  We begin with the Bell Witch, of Adams Tennessee and a quick audio montage saluting the creature, one based around the eccentric country-western song “The Bell Witch” by Merle Kilgore.  Also included are snippets of The Bell Witch, The Movie, The Bell Witch Featurette, The Bell Witch Haunting, Cursed: The Bell Witch “reality” show on A&E, and a bit of Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures scaring himself in the Bell Witch cave. Just so you know, there is also a Bell Witch ballet.  It’s a love story.

Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,1961Reproduction
Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,1961Reproduction

I neglected to mention the source for the original Bell Witch legend.  It is An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, published in 1894 by the newspaper editor Marvin V. Ingram.  His source was allegedly a diary kept by John Bell, the primary target of the witch’s animosity, though the existence of this diary has never been independently confirmed.

Next we visit the cave of the 16th-century seer Mother Shipton in Knaresborough, England.  Wilkinson provides a dramatic reading of an account of her birth from a 1687 volume, and we learn about the curious wishing well attached to Shipton’s Cave, a geological oddity known for “petrifying” objects hung in its waters, some of which are available through the site’s gift shop. You can read more of the prophecies attributed to Shipton here.

Our next stop in England is the cave known as Wookey Hole about 20 minutes northeast of Glastonbury.  Wilkinson reads us a poem from 1748, “The Witch of Wookey” describing how and why a witch formerly haunting the cave was turned into a stalagmite bearing her likeness.  We also learn of Leicester’s Black Annis, a monstrous hag said to occupy a cave in the Dane Hills and do terrible things to children.

Carving of Shipton at Cav
Carving of Shipton at Cave

Next we visit the town of Zugarramurdi in northeastern Spain’s Basque region, known for its “Cave of the Witches,” featured in the 2013 horror-comedy The Witches of Zugarramurdi, released to English-speaking audiences as Witching and Bitching. We learn of the world’s largest witchcraft investigation that took place in this town and something of the Basque folklore that may have given the inquisitors their idea of the Devil.  The song “Baba Biga Higa,” a Basque witches’ rhyme set to music by Mikel Laboa, is featured as well as music by the Basque folk group Kepa Junkera & Sorginak.

Film Still: Witches of Zugarramurdi
Film Still: Witches of Zugarramurdi

Then it’s off to Italy to learn about the Sibyls, seers rooted in classical mythology and associated with caves.  Our first stop is in central Italy’s Appennine mountains where the Sybils of ancient Greece and Rome was transformed into a sort of fairy, occupying an vast underworld entered through a cave on Mount Sibilla. Nearby is the town of Norcia and the Lake of (Pontius) PIlate, sites famous int he Middle Ages for witchcraft. Our story extends a bit to Germany as we learn that the Appenine legend was borrowed into German culture and associated with the minnesinger and knight Tannhauser, whose story was taken up by Richard Wagner in his opera Tannhäuser.  in the background of this segment we hear an excerpt from this opera related to the Appenine legend.

Tannhäuser und Venus, Otto Knille, 1873.
Tannhäuser und Venus, Otto Knille, 1873.

The second Sibyl, associated with a cave near Naples, is the Cumaen Sibyl featured in a story about some hard bargaining over her books of prophecy with the last king of Rome and another about the problem with wishing for eternal life.  The Cumaen Sibyl’s cave, described as an entrance to the Underworld by Virgil in his Aeneid, is also near a sinister body of water, Lake Avernus, whose mephitic atmosphere is more than a little harmful to certain mortal creatures who venture too close.  There’s also a mention of a rather obscure novel Mary Shelley attempted as a follow-up to her success with Frankenstein.  Yes, it also relates to the Cumaen Sibyl and her cave.

Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown, ca 1800
Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown, ca 1800

We close the show examining the strange way the prophecies of the pagan Sibyl intertwined with church teachings, and through this weird nexus ended up echoed in the soundtracks to certain horror films.