Toads and Frogs:
Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
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Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories

Toads and Frogs
From Ulo Valk, The black gentleman: manifestations of the Devil in Estonian folk religion. Folklore Fellows Communications, vol. 127, no. 276. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2001.
Submitted by By Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

[Ed. Note: The devil (Satan) is indeed very clever to have fooled so many people, including Christian church leaders, into believing that any of God's created earthly beings are demonic and deserving of torture and death!  Even the serpent (snake) in Eden was an ordinary snake who listened to the devil. If we follow this demonic line of thinking, then all humans and animals should be "stomped on" because we have all listened to the devil at one time or another.  We know that the Lord does not desire any living being to die, for we are told in Romans 8:18-25 that the whole of creation is groaning in anticipation of the coming of the children of God to free it from all corruption.  In this and other writings, Yuri Klitsenko exposes many of these tricks of the devil designed to lead believers astray.  We should not believe these superstitions about "demonic" animals.]

It is a common guise of the Devil which occurs already in the Revelation: "And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty." (Rev. 16:13-14.)

In the Middle Ages the toad was a witch's animal, i.e. a demonic helper of a witch. In 1580 a witch was burned in Steiermark, Germany and the watchful executioner noticed an extraordinarily large toad rushing straight towards the water. Needless to say, it was the escaping demon. (Petzoldt 1990: 116.) G. L. Kittredge describes the beliefs about toads in medieval England: "The Devil, who squat like a toad at the ear of Mother Eve in Eden, is always at hand in the churchyard after service, waiting in that guise for some evil-minded communicant to feed him with a bit of the consecrated wafer: whoever thus sacrifices to Satan will straightway become a witch or wizard. The relation of witches to toads (or frogs) is notorious; and, like everything else in this department of superstition, it is founded on fact. Toads are not uncommon in earth-floored huts, and doubtless they were sometimes petted by solitary old women who, esteemed as witches, regarded themselves as such and thought the creatures were really imps or demons. Anyhow, toad-familiars are as commonplace as cats." (Kittredge 1929:181-182.)

The toad as well as the snake (serpent) occur among the manifestations of the Devil in the exempla of medieval sermons (IE 1557, 1562, 1563, 2738, 4882). Both creatures have a somewhat devilish status also in Estonian folk religion, which is reflected in the widespread belief that killing those animals is a pious act for which a certain number of sins will be forgiven:

He who kills a viper will be forgiven the sins of one day, but he who kills a toad will be forgiven the sins of nine days. HII 20, 716 (10) < Vändra - H. Mett (1889).

If you kill a toad, you will be forgiven nine sins. The toad is the animal of the Evil Spirit (kurivaim).
ERA II188,191 (43) < Lääne-Nigula < Martna - E. Ennist (1938).

Yet the frog (or toad) and the snake occur very seldom among the manifestations of the Devil in Estonian popular religion: both cases were found only on three occasions. This serves as another example of the adoption of folkloristic influences as if through a filter which has kept out some potential loans or prevented their survival in the local belief system. It is difficult to explain this phenomenon, but one of the reasons could be that the foreign ideas did not fit in the local tradition and stood out as incredible and artificial. This is why the images that are very influential elsewhere will not be adopted into the local culture; even if the people are aware of them, they will not be universally accepted. Mall Hiiemäe has pointed out that the traditional Estonian attitude to wildlife, including reptiles and amphibians, reflects the ecological mentality of the people (1987: 851-852). It also reflects the pre-Christian layer of the tradition where snakes and frogs/ toads as the embodiments of the souls of the dead had a special status. This may be why the Devil did not take on the shape of a toad or a snake in Estonian folklore (for the grass snake as a domestic snake see Loorits 1990: 39-40). All this has nevertheless not prevented Estonians from performing the Christian act of piety of killing a viper or a toad.

There is a tale, the style and content of which reveals literary elaboration, recorded in Saaremaa where the Devil takes the form of a small toad and hides himself in a woman's apron from a thunderstorm (H14, 392 (3) < Sa - C. Alias (1893)). In one of the legends of the type "The Devil among the dancers," the Old Bad Boy (vanapagan) appears in the form of a strange youth who is pushed against the wall by a strong boy. All that is left is a toad whom the innkeeper burns on the advice from a wise man. In the end the strong boy is found hanged, the inn burns down and the innkeeper commits suicide (E 10825/28 < Amb -J. Ekemann (1894)). The abundance of episodes and the exceptional motifs in the story give an impression of partial fabulation.

The following belief account is also rare but there is no reason to doubt its traditionality:

There used to be many witches in Tuhala, and even now they think that some people can bewitch other people's animals. One cottager in Tuhala had the Old Hairy (vana sarvik) living in a box in the shape of a frog.

H II 37, 564 (la) < Kose - T. Wiedemann (1892).

The idea that demons of a lower rank who help the witch live in the latter's house in the form of an animal, especially as a toad or an insect and often in a box, was widespread in Europe. This belief was certainly based on real life: toads may have been kept by healers or fortunetellers as demonic pets. Reginald Scot (1538-1599), one of the first opponents of the witch trials, derided the idea that the devils may be "made tame, and kept in a box" to do service to their mistress (Kittredge 1929: 180). The French lawyer and demonologist John Bodin (1530-1596) laid down the principle that to keep toads in pots, though a suspicious circumstance, is not a sufficient grounds for condemnation to death (Daemonomania... 1580; see Kittredge 1929: 182).

Many farms in Estonia had special, so-called Tönn's bushels for offering. There are belief accounts saying that those were sometimes inhabited by animals, domestic snakes, but probably also by the toads:

There was an animal, too, in the Tönn's bushel (Tönnivakk). In Lelle and Käru the Tönnivakk was given to the son or daughter as a present at their wedding. Tonn is a treasure-hauler who brings his master riches.

ERA II19, 536 (4) < Juuru < Rapla - R. Pöldmäe (1929).

An interesting case has been described by J. B. Holzmayer, which confirms that the above Estonian belief account recorded by T. Wiedemann is authentic:

The toad

There was a man who wandered around a lot in Saaremaa and he told me that once on New Year's Eve he had stayed overnight in Upso farm in Sörve. At midnight stepped in Upso Hendrik (the master of the farm, a famous wizard) and thinking that the guest was asleep, spread a rug on the floor. Then he took his box, put it in the middle of the rug, opened it and let out a toad to whom he said the following words:

Üppa Jummal, Karga Jumal,
Ue astä önne peale!

Jump, god, spring, god,
For the good luck in the new year!

Then the toad jumped on all four corners of the rug and then back into the box. Hendrik closed the box and took the toad away. Holzmayer 1872: 37 < Kuressaare.

Yuri Klitsenko is a Russian living in Moscow.  He works for the Russian Orthodox Church.

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