The Black Toad: Familiar and Prima Materia

In the middle of my black nightshade experience, I went up to the woods to escape from the heat. I took a path I’ve taken before, one walked by many. During my walk, I noticed a couple of things besides a lot of self-heal: toadstools and toad. There were two stands of toadstools. I have only rarely seen these in our woods, and when I have, they were usually pretty banged up. These had been rained on, because the white specks were gone, but they were bright enough orange that when I first saw them, I thought they were red plastic balls someone had thrown into the woods. Proud little toadstools, showing off their orange coats like embers. Odd.

The other thing I saw was a black toad. There are plenty of toads around here, but they are all brown with spots. This is the first one I’ve seen that was black. Definitely odd. I figured I just hadn’t realized that black toads live in this area. Well, they don’t.

So I got to wondering if the things I saw had a connection to the experience I was having with black nightshade, which is certainly a toad of a plant and regardless of what Mr. Thayer says, has psychoactive effects,  as does the toadstool (although these effects are of a different nature).

The first thing I thought of was the toad as a familiar of Early Modern witches in Britain, wonderfully described in Wilby’s Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits.  This book is expensive right now, but an article she wrote on the topic (The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland) is available from a legitimate online source (one that honors copyright). Apparently some people kept toads as pets, which would come when called and which would be fed with milk. And of course, some of these toads ended up being identified as witch’s familiars, just as some ordinary cats and dogs did. Some people give a materialist explanation for the Early Modern European witch’s affinity for the toad, hinting that toad venom was a component in flying salves. Perhaps. That might account for why people kept them as pets, too–the venom might have had medicinal uses. At any rate, a connection was in fact made between witches and toads much as between hags and cats. Scylla has been writing about familiars and in fact used the same pic of the witch feeding her toad pets/familiars for her post re familiars as I chose to illustrate my posting on bufonics.

There’s another toad tie-in here, though, and that is with alchemy.

In the old alchemical writings, the black toad is one of the lesser used symbols for either the process of fermentation (ruled by my sign, Scorpio) or for the Prima Materia undergoing the same. The identity of the Prima Materia in alchemy is kept secret in all the old written texts. Generally, it is said to be a substance widely and cheaply available but everywhere despised. I’ve seen a woodcut of it represented as blocks of wood on the road that people are tripping over. Elias Ashmole describes it this way in his poem about alchemy called “Hunting the Greene Lyon”:

And choose what thou shalt finde of meanest price:
Leave sophisters, and following my advice,
Be not deluded; for the truth is one,
‘Tis not in many things, this is Our Stone:
At first appearing in a garb defiled,
And, to deal plainly, it is Saturn’s childe.
His price is meane, his venom very great
His constitution cold, devoid of heat.

Often this has been taken to be a description of lead (cheap, venomous, cold, dull (garb defiled), and definitely Saturn’s childe), but in some alchemical graphics, the Prima Materia is represented by a black toad–also considered venomous, also in a garb defiled (covered with warts), despised, cheap (free), and Saturn’s childe. You can see the toad at the “root” of this alchemical tree in the illustration. Perhaps one reason why the toad is connected with fermentation is because it develops from a fish creature (Water) to a land animal (Earth) with functioning limbs: toads are all about transformation, and transformation is an essential part of fermentation (turning, for instance, grapes into wine). Also, toads hibernate by burrowing down into the ground. They appear to be dead and can even freeze, but they awaken later, fine. Talk about a (literally)  chthonic symbol.

The “c” word ties in to one way that the Prima Materia is figured in modern alchemy. In fact, I just wrote about this–the Barbaults considered dirt to be the Prima Materia. They used astrology and psychic powers to locate a particular patch of dirt which they dug up at an auspicious time and then treated with warmth, the addition of buds and young flowers of medicinal plants, and imbibed the earth with specially collected dew in order to cause ongoing fermentation. As a long-time gardener, I am very much drawn to this interpretation of the Prima Materia. (And speaking of fermentation, today I finally ordered the rest of the equipment I needed to start making wine. This week I should be able to pick up some fruit for that project.)

Scylla brought up how familiars fed upon their partner witches. Weirdly enough, there is a process described in alchemy that is translated graphically as a black toad feeding on a woman’s white breast. This is in Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens.

At any rate, there’s the toad as the Prima Materia, the foundational substance that is transformed, and the toad as the familiar. How could this be connected with my black nightshade experience, if it is?

Someone in another venue asserted that plants could be familiars but that communication with them was very difficult. Was black nightshade coming forward to offer itself as a familiar? That would certainly account for its very demanding character as well as its ubiquity. I seem to remember at least one of the witches in Wilby’s book kept running into her would-be familiar, a man dressed in old-fashioned clothes. Black nightshade has a cold nature, its berries are black, it is ubiquitous, and it has its own “venom.” I have puzzled over its overtaking of my garden, and have wondered if it is not simply a manifestation of the presence of the Dark Spirit of the Crossroads (“I am here”), of the Saturnian divine in plant form. But the discussion about familiars and the toad imagery have caused me to wonder about what exactly it is. Not that I’m asserting that black nightshade is attempting to become my familiar. Perhaps, though, there are some underlying similarities in the ways we communicate with plant spirits, familiars, and other spirits. I’ve been trying to disentangle all the threads, and that’s why it has taken me so long to post. I have much more to say on this matter, but I look forward to any reactions folks might have.

12 comments to The Black Toad: Familiar and Prima Materia

  • I would be interested to know if you encounter a black toad again, and where. I am totally in over my head and can’t really come up with any impressions beyond that.

    If it were not for the assignment of gender in Ashmole’s poem, I would have taken the cold venomous childe of Saturn, in the garb defiled, to be a much-hated woman. Maybe someone driven out of the village for souring the milk, or bringing a scourge of locusts into the fields of barley.

    Methinks there are so many layers of superimposed narrative in this that it’ll be awhile before it gets tied together in a cogent fashion, if it can be. I don’t think the dark spirit has a hand in this so much as it is background and a spectator to something more fundamental going on.

    The toad could certainly be a familiar for you, but I think it would have been more than observation to bring that point home, and more than the interesting set of scientific knowns about toads which make them really symbolic creatures when it comes to the phase changes of alchemy and chthonic as well as above-ground nature. And in-the-water nature. Which brings to mind the elements of earth and water, certainly, and air because the creature respirates once it has completed that water phase w/ gills.

    Something worrisome is that toads now are not the toads our alchemist and witching ancestors knew, thanks to the Pandora’s box of modern chemistry and wasting habits, as well as transplantation into the environment as invasive species (look to the cane toad in Australia, for example). Toads (and frogs) are changing gender now, as fish are, and their habitats are increasingly being trashed with pollution. They’re among those various sentinel species observed for changes in the foodchain and environment.

    It has occured to me a couple times that we’re being warned of big changes.

    • herba15

      Re the old woman who is driven out of town, the age thing does suit Saturn. Also, Saturn is associated with lonely places, although usually dark and shadowy ones. I think the rejected crone is a good metaphor for the Saturnian, though. Sure fits with the image of witchcraft in history as well.

      The other thing is that weeds are despised by all.

      I haven’t seen another toad, but I haven’t gone up to the woods again either. I’ve been hunkering down, staying close to home and doing home stuff, like canning. No toads around here, especially this year, when it’s so dry.

  • Reading in you posting of the toad-as-prima-materia, it leaped to mind that in that ubiquitous collection of the race’s wisdom known as traditional fairy tales, if the slimy, unappreciated toad is kissed by a princess, its real nature is revealed; it is really a prince.

    • herba15

      Certainly true that I think the toad represents something unappreciated, and this fits with the concept of Prima Materia as well–the prince (the Stone) concealed in the toad (the Prima Materia, despised by all).

      • Toads are symbolic in Aztec mythology, too. I read that in the Tubelo book yesterday, and scratched my head because the description w/ the toad at the base of the tree in that one graphic you posted was a good depiction of what I was reading.

  • I think what matters here are the connections you are making.

    Spirit speaks. It speaks subtly, and as you said… with a humor that falls dead for the ape brain. That’s why we have such lovely visuals for alchemy, rather than straightforward words.

    • herba15

      The visuals of alchemy have always been what attracted me to it and what continues to hold magic to me. My parents had picture books about science when we were kids, and I loved to look at the one that had pictures from alchemy. Some showed an alchemist working in his cottage, but others were actual alchemical graphics–so striking, so graphically beautiful, so much hinting of hidden treasures.

  • herba15

    Oh, I remember seeing your boxes! They’re wonderful.

    I read about your troubles with thieves. You might want to put a watermark on your pic. I just copied it to a clipboard and pasted it to GIMP with no watermark, so people can still use your art. This kind of thing makes my blood boil. I just this week sent a DMCA notice to Google about someone who has been using my kyphi text to pretend to sell my kyphi. She has refused to remove that text from her site. Once Google acts on it, it will no longer be in the search engine results. I have DMCA letters ready to go to Yahoo and to her webhost as well. A DMCA is really worth doing when you find your stuff being used without your permission.

  • […] first thing I run across web searching the symbolism was Toads as witches familiars, and I laughed out loud. I’ve been getting a lot of witch references lately, so perhaps I was […]

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