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A Frog underwater with a crown.

An Ambiguous Amphibian: The Everchanging Frog Symbol in World Myth

Frogs and toads played a wide variety of roles in ancient cultures. Although there are some differences, they generally represented female creation energy. Frogs appear in ancient stories, myths, legends, religions, diets, art, and proverbs.

Frogs as Symbols of Fertility, Licentiousness and Unclean Spirits

In 3000 BC, in Early Dynastic Egypt, millions of frogs were born after the annual flooding of the Nile and it was held as a symbol of life and fertility. Consequently, in Egyptian mythology, a frog-goddess, Heqet, represented fertility and was depicted as a woman with a frog's head. A lesser known Egyptian god, Kek, was also sometimes shown in the form of a frog.

Anthropomorphic depiction of Heqet in the temple relief of Ramesses II in Abydos.

Anthropomorphic depiction of Heqet in the temple relief of  Ramesses II  in Abydos. ( CC BY 3.0 )

In ancient Mesopotamia, frogs symbolized fertility, while in classical antiquity the Greeks and Romans associated them with harmony and licentiousness - in association with the goddess Aphrodite. In the Sumerian poem of  Inanna and Enki, the goddess Inanna tricked Enki, the god of water, into giving her all the sacred  mes (decrees of the gods) , provoking Enki to send several watery creatures to retrieve them. The first of these was a frog whom Enki grasped "by its right hand”.

In the Bible, the Second Plague of Egypt, described in the Book of Exodus 8:6, was of frogs, and in the New Testament frogs were associated with unclean spirits in Revelation 16:13. In folk religion and occultism, frogs became associated with witchcraft and were valued ingredients for love potions and poisons.

The Plague of Frogs, 1670 engraving published in "La Saincte Bible, Contenant le Vieil and la Nouveau Testament, Enrichie de plusieurs belles figures/Sacra Biblia, nouo et vetere testamento constantia eximiis que sculpturis et imaginibus illustrata, De Limprimerie de Gerard Jollain." (Public Domain)

The Plague of Frogs, 1670 engraving published in "La Saincte Bible, Contenant le Vieil and la Nouveau Testament, Enrichie de plusieurs belles figures/Sacra Biblia, nouo et vetere testamento constantia eximiis que sculpturis et imaginibus illustrata, De Limprimerie de Gerard Jollain." ( Public Domain )

Dissecting Frog Symbolism in Mythology

To understand why almost every culture in the world mythologized frogs and toads we must look to their life cycles, which tell a story of transformation and transition from tadpole to a completely different adult form. Additionally, many frogs shed their skin and ate it and these types of transformations go some way to explaining why many ancient cultures regarded frogs and toads as symbolic of creation and rebirth and as keepers of the secrets of transmutation. The concept of death and rebirth was so important to Olmec tribes that their great toad god was depicted eating its own skin, thus being reborn by consuming itself, a perfect allegory for the cycles observed in the natural world.

Frog life cycle. (Orin Zebest/CC BY 2.0) These changes had some influence on ancient cultures perceiving frogs as symbolic for rebirth and as the keepers of transmutation secrets.

Frog life cycle. (Orin Zebest/ CC BY 2.0 ) These changes had some influence on ancient cultures perceiving frogs as symbolic for rebirth and as the keepers of transmutation secrets.

Frogs to Harm, Heal, and Teach

In Chinese tradition, frogs represented the lunar female energy -  yin, and the frog spirit Ch'ing-Wa Sheng was associated with healing and good fortune in business, but a frog in a well was symbolic of a person lacking in understanding and vision. This frog was a trickster and a magician, a master of escapes and spells. Many legends involve a wandering wise man called Liu Hai and his three-legged toad companion and according to Alan Pate in his 2008 book " Maneki Neko: Feline Fact & Fiction this toad knew the “secret of eternal life… and for friendship he revealed the secret to the wise man.”

Ch'an Chu: The Chinese money frog.

Ch'an Chu: The Chinese money frog. (Tristanb/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

In Japan, a similar legend involves the Gama-Sennin, also known as Kosensei, a wise old man with a hunched body and a warty face who wanders the land with his toad companion. This toad teaches him the secret powers of herbs, and like in China, the secret of immortality. Interestingly, many of these Asian myths refer to the secret of immortality as a fungus growing from the toad's forehead. Barbara Tedlock argued in The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine that this may be a link to the many shamanistic traditions of the Americas, where “hallucinogenic compounds derived from frogs and toads are used for religious rituals of communion with the spirit world and self-transcendence.”

Another power attributed to frogs and toads was alchemical in nature. Because some species were purveyors of poisons, their skins were made into powerful drugs, which prevented illnesses, healed wounds, induced hallucinations, and killed enemies. In many cases, these myths have some foundation in truth, as many species of frogs and toads do contain poisonous compounds and hallucinogenic alkaloids.

Blue Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates azureus) in the Frankfurt Zoo, Germany.

Blue Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates azureus) in the Frankfurt Zoo, Germany. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Devilish Creatures Which Had the Power to Detect Poison

In medieval Europe, toads were thought of as devilish creatures whose evil blood was used as a potent poison and whose body parts were associated with strange supernatural powers. Some of these anti-amphibian views were first created by writers in Classical Greece and Rome, whose opinions held great sway in medieval Europe. Pliny the Elder claimed, “a toad's presence will silence a room full of people; a small bone from a toad's right side will keep water from boiling; a bone from the left side will repel the attack of dogs.”

A widely held superstition in medieval Britain concerned the “Toad-Stone,” also known as bufonite, that was supposed to be found inside toad's heads. Believed to be an antidote to poison, they were set into magical rings and amulets from Medieval times until the 18th century. These stones were said to heat up or change color in the presence of poison, thereby protecting the wearer from foul play. The mysterious Toad Stone was actually a button-sized fossilized tooth of  Lepidotes, an extinct genus of ray-finned fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods and all of the associated powers were in heads of the wearers.

Extraction of a ‘toad stone’ for healing.

Extraction of a ‘toad stone’ for healing. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: A Frog underwater with a crown. Source: CC0

By Ashley Cowie

References

Budge, E. A. Wallis (1904).  The Gods of the Egyptians: Or, Studies in Egyptian Mythology.  2. Methuen & Co. pp. 284–286.

Satrapi, M. (2006). Embroideries. Pantheon.

Black, J. & Green, A. (1992).  Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. The British Museum Press. p. 118.

Cowie, A. (2017) The Carnal Whisper of Scotland’s Seducers. https://ashleycowie.com/new-blog/the-carnal-whisper-of-scotlands-seducers

Cooper, JC (1992).  Symbolic and Mythological Animals . London: Aquarian Press. pp. 106–08.

Pate, A. (2008). "Maneki Neko: Feline Fact & Fiction".  Daruma Magazine . Amagasaki, Japan: Takeguchi Momoko. Archived from the original on 30 December 2012. Retrieved 30 December 2012.

Tedlock, B. 2005. The Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. New York: Bantam

Francis, P. & Oppenheimer, C. (2004).  Volcanoes. Oxford University Press.

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