“Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
For many, the above passage will be familiar as a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. For those who are not familiar, most will at least know that it is in reference to a witch’s brew. Amphibians and reptiles have long been associated with the occult, having deep rooted ties to ancient folklore and mythology. Though these links are not as strong in the present, the negative stigma surrounding these species has pervaded. What better time than Halloween to delve into these stories and perform some much-needed myth busting?
Did witches really go around carving out newt eyes, leaving blind newts to stumble around lost? The answer is no. In Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, jobs such as midwives, herbalists and healers were easily misunderstood, and deemed witchcraft as a result. In an age predating modern medicine, people had to be more connected with nature to create medicines. They had to understand what was usable and what was not, which combinations worked for which illnesses etcetera. This makes complete sense, as we today still rely on nature for the base ingredients of many of our own medicines. These tradespeople relied on knowledge passed down through generations to create herbal remedies. To protect their livelihoods, their ingredients had to be shrouded in secrecy. This is no different to giant companies today like Coca Cola hiding the ingredients to their “magical brews”.
In order to keep their ingredients secret, they renamed a lot of what they used. This would also deter others from taking up the same practices; as animal body parts hardly sounds appealing and there’s no business in having everyone trained as a healer! If we look at Shakespeare’s cauldron, what was really being used was mustard seeds (eye of newt), buttercup (toe of frog), holly leaves (wool of bat) and houndstongue (tongue of dog). The use of body parts to refer to parts of plants was common within these circles. Eyes would refer to seeds, tongues to petals, guts to roots, tail to stem and so forth. Admittedly, adder’s fork did refer to an adder’s tongue and a blind worm’s sting referred to a slow worm’s tail. That aside, selling potions with mysterious names would prevent customers from simply going off and making their own potions. The witchy aura of it all also may have legitimised the healer and had consumers convinced that they were taking magical cures – not too different to the placebo effect we know of today.
Still, this does not answer the question of why there is such a gravitation towards reptiles and amphibians. Why do they inspire such revulsion? From medieval times, it was believed that all toads and frogs were poisonous. This is the case for some species, but certainly not within the UK. The fear stemmed from the fact that some amphibians can cause sickness or fatality if ingested – in particular, toads, as they release bufotoxin to deter predators when frightened. Furthermore, during breeding season, it is known that these animals can swarm in large numbers. In times past, animals swarming was not seen as a marvel of nature, but instead a precursor of evil. Think of a swarm of locusts for example. They can be found in such quantities that people feared that they were spontaneously multiplying. Their choice of habitat invoked further fear as swamps and stagnant pools of water were the antithesis of consecrated holy water. The list goes on.
However, it did not always use to be that way. Frogs used to symbolise fortune, rebirth, rain, fertility and heightened spirituality. The Egyptian goddess Heqet, occasionally depicted with a frog’s head, was the goddess of fertility and childbirth. Rain was a giver of life, allowing crops to grow and rivers to flow and consequently frogs became predictors of rain as they would gather in large numbers as the heavens showered. This was a trait that was also shared with other amphibians such as our toads and newts. Snakes symbolised immortality with their skin shedding, lizards represented regeneration due to their ability to regrow tails. As we celebrate Halloween, it is perhaps a time to reflect and rediscover the awe of the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. Rather than perceive the brilliant nature of metamorphosis as these species morph from egg to adult as something to fear, it is time to shift back to the perspective that it is a magic to be revered and protected at all costs.
Emily Robinson, London T.O.A.D Project Trainee