Toad of Legend Considered Venomous and Deadly

Although many eighteenth and nineteenth-century people thought the toad of legend had curative properties there were also tales about it being highly venomous and deadly. Whatever bad could be attributed to the toad was because there were numerous ancient stories about its lethality. Perhaps, the toad’s bad reputation also had to do with William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” because his witches concocted a hellish brew that contained the “juice of toad.” The Roman author Claudius Aelianus also considered the toad’s venom so potent “people might be killed by its breath or glance,”[1] and ancient people also thought the toad unlucky and deadly because of its “swelter’d venom.”

toad of legend - Edward Topsell

Toad by Edward Topsell. Courtesy of University of Houston.

In certain European countries there was the belief that the toad was “able to poison the plants among which it lurked.”[2] The toad of legend was also thought to be venomous because of its horrid appearance described as “disagreeable, ugly … and ‘the most deformed and hideous of all animals.'”[3] Superstitious beliefs about toads included the following:

“Touching toads will produce warts on the hands … killing toads will produce bloody milk in cows … a toad’s breath will cause convulsions in children.”[4]

toad of legend - adult toad

Adult toad, Author’s Collection

There were plenty of other superstitions when it came to the toad of legend. For example, in Dorset it was thought “if a toad should seize a person nothing will make it loosen its hold except boiling water be poured upon it.”[5] Even seeing a toad was supposedly bad karma:

“Whenever you see a toad you should always spit or throw a stone at it, in order to ward off any evil effects the sight of it would otherwise cause you.”[6]

The Italians thought eating toads brought death but soon learned otherwise. In 1692 German soldiers captured the Italian castle of Arceti. The soldiers then watched their captives entertain themselves by catching frogs. Deciding to do likewise, the soldiers began to amuse themselves and not discriminating between the toad and the frog, they caught numerous toads. They took them home and fried them up “Italian fashion.” As the people of Arceti believed toads were venomous, they were overjoyed thinking the German soldiers would soon die.

“However their joy was changed to anxiety, [then] to astonishment, and then to a superstitious awe of [the] gastronomic abilities of the Teutons … [as] no evil effects resulted.”[7]

In the 1730s, the people of the city of Bath also thought the toad of legend poisonous. Many distinguished people frequented the area at the time including Beau Nash, a celebrated dandy, notorious gambler, and leader of fashion, who made Bath his watery kingdom because of its wells and springs. One day, a greatest physician who had been affronted, published a pamphlet that said, “he would cast a toad into the spring [at Bath].”[8] This threw the people of Bath into a tizzy for they feared the toad would poison their spring. In response to the physician’s threat, Nash reassured them humorously telling them that he would handle it.

“[He promised] he would charm away the poison of the doctor’s toad … by music. He was therefore, immediately empowered to set up … a band of music against the poison of the doctor’s reptile; the concourse of people very sensibly increased, Nash triumphed, and the sovereignty of the city was decreed him by all ranks.”[9]

The Dandy, Beau Nash, Author's Collection

The dandy, Beau Nash. Author’s collection.

The toad of legend remained venomous in many people’s minds even into the 1800s. Demonstrative of this is a story told by John George Wood, a popular English writer of natural history. In the mid-1800s, Wood and several French friends were one day walking in the Meudon forest when a large toad suddenly appeared in front of them on the path. One Frenchmen went to strike it, but Wood stopped him and attempted to move the toad. Another Frenchman reacted with horror saying, “It will bite you.”[10] Wood objected telling the men that the toad would not bite because toad’s don’t have teeth, but his French friends argued, “In France, toads always have teeth.”[11] Wood decided to show them that the toad did not have teeth, but before he could touch the toad they objected again stating that the toad was deadly. Finally, the men reached “a compromise, that … [Wood] would not handle the toad; and … the only mode by which they might kill it was … putting tobacco on it.”[12] After the tobacco was placed on the toad, it remained still for a moment or two, which caused one Frenchman to declare it was dead. “However, the toad [suddenly] rose, shook off … the tobacco, and recommenced his march.”[13] Wood remarked that although he saved the toad’s life, the Frenchmen maintained their believe in toad’s having teeth, “and probably thought that the creature would not touch [him] because [he] was a trifle madder than the rest of [his] nation, who [were] always very mad on the French stage.”[14]

John George Wood, Public Domain

John George Wood. Public domain.

Despite many people believing in the deadly toad of legend, Woods was not alone in concluding a toad would cause no harm. That was also the conclusion of the novelist, playwright, and poet Oliver Goldsmith who wrote A History of the Earth and Animated Nature in 1774. In his book he explained the natural world to people of the Georgian Era and maintained that the toad suffered “injustice,” erroneously received “reproach,” and declared it should not be so maligned:

“We are to treat … as fables those accounts that represent the toad as possessed of poison to kill at a distance; of its ejecting its venom, which burns whenever it touches; of its infecting those vegetables near which it resides; of its excessive fondness for sage, which it renders poisonous by its approach: these, and a hundred others of the same kind, probably took rise from an antipathy which some have to all animals of the kind. It is a harmless defenceless [sic] creature, torpid and unvenomous [sic], and seeking the darkest retreats, not from the malignity of its nature, but the multitude of its enemies.”[15]

Oliver Goldsmith, Public Domain

Oliver Goldsmith. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Bulletin, No. 26, 1894, p. 5.
  • [2] Chambers, William, Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 73, 1896, p. 158.
  • [3] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 39, 1769, p. 426.
  • [4] Bulletin, p. 7.
  • [5] Stuart, Morton G., ed., Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, Vol. 10, 1889, p. 44.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Bulletin, p. 5.
  • [8] The Common-place Book of Anecdotes, 1831, p. 218.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Wood, John George, The Common Objects of the Country, 1886, p. 55.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 56.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Goldsmith, Oliver, Animated Nature, 1825, p. 276.

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