Tangent-lovers, greetings! I’m taking a break from completing my second book, an illustrated cultural history of patterns, to explore a fun sideline topic: the symbolism of frogs and toads. Bees and rabbits yielded excellent tales both. What do frogs and toads, so commonly featured in imagery over time, symbolize across different cultures and contexts?
In The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, author Jack Tresidder describes frogs and toads thusly: “a loathsome familiar of witches, suggestive of death and the torments of the damned—a demonic symbolism … based perhaps on the toad’s noxious secretions.”
But not everybody holds their noses when frogs and toads toddle onto the scene. In China, toads are regarded as lunar, “yin” and humid symbols, used medicinally and bringers of much-needed rain. In parched regions of Mexico and Africa, toads are also seen as bringing the rains and are given rock-star status accordingly.
A phosphorescent toad sits quietly on mystic Liu Haichan’s shoulder in classic artistic interpretations. Originally a councillor to the emperor, Liu withdrew from public life to master inner alchemy (“the circulation of light within,” according to The Book of Symbols). His emblem, the light-filled toad, bespeaks of longevity, fertility and purity.
In ROY G. BIV, Jude Stewart takes a closer look at the meaning and impact color has on our daily lives.
Chinese folklore has it that a three-legged toad lived on the moon, also explaining a full eclipse: The toad had swallowed the moon. Similarly, if more ferociously, the Aztec toad goddess Tlaltecuhtli was supposed to have swallowed the sun in her “‘maw of the netherworld, a womb of cyclic destruction and rebirth.”
Frogs also symbolize fertility and birth rituals. Describing an ancient Egyptian faience frog statue, The Book of Symbols notes: “The squatting birth position of a woman, when her legs are widely parted, bears a striking resemblance to that of a frog.” The extraordinary degree of the shape-shifting frog—from round egg to tadpole to long-limbed amphibian—also added to the animal’s mystique and symbol of transformation.
Why do we call French people “frogs”? It’s a surprisingly twisted tale that starts a solid millennium-plus ago with the Frankish King Clovis. Uniting the regions that would later constitute France, Clovis converted to Christianity around 500 C.E. on the heels of a victorious battle. Legend suggests a hermit appeared to Clovis bearing God’s message: that he should swap his family’s heraldic shield—three sable (or black) toads standing erect—for the Christian (and now iconically French) fleur-de-lis, whose three stylized leaves could be read to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Nothing punches up the drama of a conversion like a king ditching a frankly evil shield for a purely noble one.
But how did heraldic toads get mixed up with an insulting nickname for the French? Enter Nostradamus. In Seward’s Anecdotes, we find:
When the French took the city of Aras from the Spaniards under Louis XIV it was remembered that Nostradamus had said: ‘Les anciens crapauds prendront Sara’—the ancient toads shall Sara take. This prophecy of Nostradamus (he died in 1566) was applied to this event in a somewhat roundabout manner. Sara is Aras backward. By the ancient toads were meant the French, as that name formerly had for its armorial bearings three of those odious reptiles instead of the three fleur-de-lis which it now bears.
Voilà: French frogs. Incidentally but not accidentally, “Jean Crapaud” is the name for the French Everyman, equivalent to England’s “John Bull.”
Toads are larger, more earthbound, muddier in coloring than frogs—and, to be frank, regarded as much less elegant. The word “toady” gives a full flavor of our disgust for them: Originally mountebank’s apprentices, toadies swallowed fake poison for their bosses, enabling themselves to be miraculously “cured.” Yet stolidity offers considerable upsides. Western alchemy tethered the symbolic toad to the eagle to illustrate how the volatile—and perhaps flightier?—elements of the spirit must be grounded in reality. Meanwhile, both toads and frogs’ glistening wet patches have given rise to the notion of these animals as marked with a jewel, emblematic of magic and wisdom.
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