A Tale for a Life Lover
Last night I was thinking about the giant western toad that is living in my garden when I had a peculiar thought: Write a story about the Toad and an Old Woman and call it A Tale for a Life Lover. At this very moment I heard my toad’s rasping guttural cry outside my window. I was so shocked I got up and went out on the porch, hoping to hear the call again, but the toad only spoke once. Afterwards, I wondered if I had imagined it.
When the giant western toad appeared in my yard last week I had been in a state bordering on despair over baffling health issues and the ravages of Climate Change. Maybe it is no longer possible for me to separate the two? After the visitation I sensed that the toad’s abrupt appearance meant something beyond the amazing fact that I had met a giant toad who apparently had been living here all along.
Some preliminary natural history research revealed that the western toad is becoming extinct in the Southwestern states due to UV light, chemicals polluting water, vulnerability to other toxins, loss of habitat etc. so I was even more grateful to have a venerable Grandmother Toad living here near the river’s edge. She must be a grandmother of many thousands –her impressive size suggests her sex and her age.
Toads literally change forms; they are shapeshifters beginning their lives in vernal pools as strings of eggs becoming “toadpoles.” They metamorphose quickly into lung/skin breathing terrestrial toadlets moving away from the water, who, if they survive predation, become adult toads that inhabit meadows and mesas. Most toads also have poisonous parotid glands whose secretions can irritate the skin; a few are deadly. Toads deal with the heat and lack of rain by spending most of the day under protective leaves in gardens, underground or in a burrow, emerging at dusk or during rain to hunt. During a drought, they do not breed. In the winter they hibernate. Toads also shed their skins and often eat them. Mine still had sloughed off skin attached to her back legs. Adults are also long lived, even in the wild.
Two days after meeting Toad who had just shed and eaten a skin I also found an empty snakeskin. Discovering two creatures that shed their skins almost simultaneously couldn’t be coincidence and helped me to prioritize the probable importance of some kind of personal transformation that I was undergoing.
I have intuited by living my life and following my dreams that if I want to learn more about how to be in the world I needed to turn first towards Nature to provide me with a Guide and then to mythology to unravel her/his story. I know a lot about toads having raised so many from tadpoles… so I investigated Toad’s mythology.
Christianity demonizes both women and toads attaching both to evil, darkness, sorcery, and poisoning, a too obvious distortion of Patriarchy which seeks to control both Nature and women and therefore isn’t of much use. Too one sided. However, what emerges in other mythologies is Toad as a powerful figure, a literal manifestation of the Earth Mother.
Marija Gimbutas mytho – archeologist and scholar traces the toad back to the early Neolithic period 8000 – 5000 B.C. in old Europe when a toad shaped figurine with a flower shaped head was discovered at Sesklo 6000 B.C. – 5800 B.C. The toad/frog motif is common in Neolithic pottery, especially in Italy and Crete. Gimbutas doesn’t make it clear what the distinction is between the Frog and Toad Goddess beyond that the former seems to be associated more frequently with birth and the latter concerns herself more with death and regeneration, a possible distinction I find useful. Certainly both are two facets of one female goddess as Creatrix/Destroyer.
More recently the Egyptian Goddess Creatrix Haquit was portrayed as a woman/frog. Hecate of Greece has a name Baubo that also means toad. Gimbutas also writes that the names given to the toad link it with the goddess in many European languages, for example, hexe in German, and fata in Italian dialects. All words refer to the ability of this goddess to read the future as prophetess. But primarily the toad was associated with the powers of death and her ability to restore life.
In the Americas I found more recent Indigenous mythology on the Toad as Goddess. Tlatechtli is a Pre – Columbian (1200 – 1519) goddess belonging to the Mexica. Although Tlatechtli’s name is masculine modern scholars interpret this toad figure as female because she is squatting giving birth. Some see her as crouching under the earth, mouth open waiting to devour the dead. Since the Aztec culture was a warring male dominated Patriarchal one I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the Earth Goddess/Toad was seen as masculine to the Mexica.
In Mesoamerica we find Toad widely represented in art, often with feline or other non-naturalistic attributes, including jaguar claws and fangs. These images can be regarded as versions of Tlaltecuhtli. In contemporary Mexico, as in Guatemala, and throughout South America toads play a role in myth, sorcery, shamanism, and in curing/healing.
In South America the story of Toad begins with the birth of the divine hero twins when their natural mother is killed by the Jaguar People. The unborn twins are saved by Toad Grandmother, who is Mistress of the Earth, Owner of Fire, as well as Mother of the Jaguars, who can change back and forth between jaguar and toad. As the black jaguar she is a threat to humankind, as well as to other non human species. This wild cat aspect of the toad interests me because “cat women” are sometimes experienced as negative figures, perhaps legitimizing the dark side of the female in a concrete way.
Toad Grandmother rears the twins teaching them to hunt, cure, etc. but eventually they kill her. From her dismembered body comes food – cassava, or bitter manioc, and other useful plants. Toad as Grandmother in this story dies violently but also literally transforms herself in the process becoming food for the people even after she is slaughtered. This profound level of transformation suggests her immortal nature.
There are also many related stories in which a culture hero is taught hunting skills, etc., by a Toad who seems to be identical with the Earth goddess in the twin tradition. Myth’s abound in which an Indian takes aim at a giant supernatural toad, only to have her disappear and reappear elsewhere in the form of a gigantic black jaguar.
In many respects the most interesting South American version of the Earth mother as Toad is that of the Tacana of lowland Bolivia. In the male-dominated pantheon of the Tacana, the Earth Mother is one of the few female goddesses, but she is clearly of fundamental importance. She is also known as Pachamama, Guardian of the Earth.
In her animal form as a live toad (Bufo marinus – a toad with very toxic properties) she is kept in a circular hole dug below the altar of the temple somewhat reminiscent of the sipapu, or place of sacred emergence in the Hopi kiva, or the emergence hole of the subterranean gods of the Mexican Huichol Indians. The toad’s home is kept covered with a cloth, or, more, usually, a flat disk of cedar wood. Curiously she is fed a diet of frogs, which harkens back to Gimbutas’s distinction between the toad and the frog suggesting that the toad is more powerful than the frog because she symbolizes death and regeneration as well as birthing. On ceremonial occasions, offerings are made to this Toad goddess.
Toad is the originator of cultivated food plants and tropical forest horticulture. She is a culture bringer incarnating as Earth Guardian and Mistress of the animals, especially those that make their home underground. She also functions as Bringer of the Seasons. She is the mother of Rain, and the Bearer of the Moon. In her negative aspect (as usual) she devours the dead. Toad is therefore a complex figure. On one hand she is a protector, mentor of shamans, mother, teacher, regenerator of the Earth, bringer of fire and cultivated plants, and on the other hand she is also a vicious killer and one who swallows the dead.
There are also some interesting parallels from Asia. Especially in China and Japan we find numerous traditions in which toads appear as creatures skilled in the magic arts, transformers, mentors, spirit helpers and alter egos of curing shamans, etc. There are a number of apparently quite ancient tales of sages living in mountain caves in the company of giant toads who taught them their magical knowledge and who function as their spirit companions and avatars. Some toads were feared as monstrous supernatural beings capable of inflicting death and destruction, others were highly regarded as benevolent creatures that could draw down the clouds and bring rain and radiant visions. Again and again we see Toad as the nurturing and frightening animal/human aspect of the goddess as Creatrix/Destroyer.
After this journey through toad mythology I returned to my original question about what messages my garden toad as Earth Mother, Guardian, might be trying to convey to me.
What follows is what I learned…
Toad reminds me that I need more protection from the sun (from the desert sun and from the fathers of patriarchy) than I am getting.
Even more challenging S/he models that I have to shed an old skin by ingesting it. This second idea suggests that shedding an old skin or “letting go” is not enough. I also need to integrate more shadow qualities as I become a toad grandmother.
Toad is a terrestrial creature who spends a lot of time underground listening to the pulse of the Earth. As a goddess she communes with underground spirits. She also knows how to avoid extremes. Perhaps choosing to align myself with her “ground way of seeing” will help me to send down deeper roots and gain knowledge not otherwise available to me. She may help me to accept my amphibious nature, one that requires regular moisture to thrive, even as she breathes through her skin underground.
Toad also needs water to breed. This creative act is not possible in times of drought and escalating heat, one of the results of climate change that is impacting all life forms including myself. The Earth is on Fire. Perhaps all I can do is to witness what is, and ask her for guidance…
Toad is a healer and has been associated with female shamans for millennia so she carries the potential for healing splits that are the result of living in a patriarchal culture. I am just one of millions of women seeking closure for this collective wounding…
Toad comes to life during the nocturnal hours. Like her I can lean into starry skies and waxing moons just as she does finding nourishment by embracing the dark.
Since I am in the process of becoming an old woman I can’t think of a better Guide or Grandmother figure than Toad whose knowledge of destruction re –creation can help me negotiate the joys and difficulties of aging and dying with grace. Perhaps I can even acquire some wisdom in the process. Her venerable age reminds me that I too may have many more years to live. Only Toad and the cells of my dreaming body know for sure.
So ends this tale of Toad, an almost Old Woman and one who is surely a fierce lover of her own life.
Postscript: This is the second time I have written this essay! In it’s earlier incarnation I wasn’t clear how Toad was guiding me. Now I am.