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Totems: Toad, Part 2

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


Most cultures have myths and stories about toads. They have augured fortune and misfortune, disaster and prosperity. The one you’ve probably heard the most is that they cause warts. Even though toads look warty, these much-maligned amphibians do not cause warts. Because of their association with water, the bones of toads were often used in rain charms. And despite the fairy tales where princes are turned into toads, these creatures are truly amazing. Those princes had hidden power. The Hopi say that Horny Toad Woman will return at the time of Purification to help. We’re in a time of purification now; possibly the time.

Toads embody the energies of fertility, and stages of transformation because of the huge numbers of eggs that are laid in rosary-like strings, in pools of water (encased in a very bad tasting jelly to discourage predators). Fertilized eggs turn into long-tailed, round bellied polliwogs, and eventually metamorphose into adult toads. Some toads give birth directly to live toadlets, and still others, like the 3-toed Toadlet live on the forest floor, laying eggs amid leaf litter. In some species, like Midwife toads, in which the female produces up to 100 strings of eggs fertilized by the male, he carries the eggs for 3-5 weeks, entwined between his legs, before returning to water, where the eggs hatch as free-swimming tadpoles. Even more interesting is that toads in the class Bufonidae have Bidder’s organs, which are glands that enlarge and become functioning ovaries when male testes are damaged. They can become mothers!

As an emblem of female sexuality (toad is linked with Aphrodite, goddess of sexual passion) in Africa, Europe, China and Mesoamerica, toad Medicine is also linked to birth and rebirth. When ancient Egyptians saw all these toads and frogs emerging on the banks of the Nile after it flooded, they associated it with rebirth and fertility. Heqet – She who hastens the birth, became the goddess for midwives. Women often wore amulets depicting a toad or frog sitting on a lotus. An ancient Egyptian creation story speaks of the whole earth being covered by water until a large toad squatted and brought forth earth from the water at a time before any humans ever existed. Sounds like a good depiction of early earth to me!

Toad is a totem for Samhain (Halloween). This is traditionally the time when the veils between the seen and unseen worlds are thin. Transformation is more apt to happen. Communication with the spirit world is facilitated. Call on toad to help you. Toads were a favorite familiar of witches. Some toads were even adorned with ribbons and bells. Have you ever thought of where the name "toadstool" comes from? Probably from their association with faeries, and the hallucinogenic and potentially toxic properties of the fluid that toads extrude and toadstools contain. At the communal eating of the toadstool psilocybe, the pre-Columbian toadstool god, Tlalóc was represented by a headdress of a toad with a serpent. Shakespeare included toads in six of his plays.

The American toad (13 species in the U.S.) is the most common toad along the Atlantic seaboard as far south as Mississippi and as far west as Kansas. Though only found in water during breeding season, it lives in a variety of habitats: forests, meadows, gardens, and near houses. Brownish-olive in color, it blends into its surroundings. People with this totem also blend into the culture they’re in; they don’t like to stand out; however, even wallflowers have break-out moments. The female takes on a bright coloration during mating season. Females are usually larger than males. At night during mating season, groups of males will loudly announce their presence with song that is quite beautiful. At the start of the season, males develop special clasping thumbs, which press out the female’s eggs during amplexus (mating). He then externally fertilizes the thousands of eggs in a gelatinous envelope. If you time it right, you might find black, wriggling masses of teeny, tiny tadpoles, before they transform into toadlets seeking life on the banks of the waters from which they emerged. Unfortunately for them, predators are also timing it right, so that even though there are so many, their numbers depreciate drastically at this stage. Survivors will remain on land until they are ready to mate.

Smaller and more compact than it’s cousin, Fowler’s toad has similar coloration and its range overlaps that of the American toad. Since Fowler’s toads usually breed later than American toads, this cycle prevents some interbreeding. With a huge vocal sac emitting an impressive, several-minutes-long resonant trill, the Great Plains toad (Bufo cognatus) has the status of the longest call of any frog or toad species.

Just in case you were beginning to think you could "type" the characteristics of toad, in hops the female Surinam toad, which has distinctive pockets in her back, from which toadlets emerge direct from the egg stage; whereas in other species of toads, larvae complete their development as tadpoles. Both sexes have star-shaped sensory structures on the ends of their fingers. Another interesting thing about them is that they lack tongues or vocal cords. They make rattling and clicking sounds that diffuse through the water in which they spend most of their time.

There are four species of Spadefoot toads. These plump, short-legged toads with large eyes are found under logs or rocks. They have webbed feet with large, horn-like, spade shaped warts. When they burrow into the ground, these toads have a unique movement that corkscrews backward and downward. They can disappear in seconds. Because they are nocturnal, you will only see them at night or after a heavy rain, when they come out to feed. Even feeding for just a few nights allows them to survive underground for months. Spadefoot tadpoles eat plant material and algae, or their pond mates while they are in metamorphosis. After leaving the water for land, they will not return until mating season. People with a toad totem who exercise a lot should be alert to staying hydrated. Toads absorb water through their skins. Unlike toads, people cannot go into estivation, which is when toads bury themselves in very hot or dry times. In winter they hibernate deep underground.

Some toad species have very limited ranges and exist in limited numbers, which makes them vulnerable to change. Such is California’s Black toad, which lives only in the Deep Spring Valley of Inyo County in scattered oases. They only walk - never hop - and they never stray far from water. Toad’s natural predators are snakes, raccoons, foxes, skunks, dogs, alligators, owls, hawks, ravens, crows and grackles. However, none of these compare with man-made perils: pesticides, other chemicals and pollutants, commercial exploitation, increased exposure to UV light, artificially introduced predators, competitors for food and habitat, being run over on highways during migration/breeding time, increased loss of habitat and breeding sites, and infections by parasites due to weakened immune response.

In the 1930’s, Australia ignored the warnings of biologists and imported a toad from Hawaii to control the Grayback cane beetle in sugarcane fields. Without any predators, the Cane toad flourished. The cane fields lacked cover from the sun, so the toads quickly moved into the surrounding countryside instead. At night the ground was like a dark, moving river of toads. Australia now has millions of toads. It never works to try to "fool Mother Nature." If we don’t interfere, Nature keeps things in balance. In the film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy, a six year-old force of nature says: "The whole Universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire Universe will get busted."

In their natural environments, toads are highly beneficial in keeping down the beetle population and other insects. A report from the Center for Biological Diversity in September 2013, identifies the nation’s 10 least protected, most at-risk amphibians and reptiles. The report details the population decline, and the ongoing threats that have left once-common species like the Boreal toad spiraling toward extinction. Once common in the western United States, boreal toads have seen their populations plummet in recent decades due to the spread of a deadly fungus and the destruction of high-elevation stream and wetland habitat by pollution, and poorly managed recreation and livestock grazing. Boreal toads now exist in less than 1% of their historic breeding areas in the southern Rockies. In 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a full status review of the toads in that area.

Mesoamerican cultures considered toad a shaman’s animal, assisting man in his quest to obtain the secret of fire. In many indigenous societies, toad is connected with lightning. Lightning is the sign of the healer, especially the Thunderbird clan. Toad signifies for humans, that no matter how deeply entrenched in darkness one might be, the power of the Light sooner or later will draw us. Even though dusk through nighttime is the power time for toads (and those with this totem), toads are strongly attracted to light. Streetlamps and fire attract them in droves. I witnessed this one evening before doing healing work with a troubled couple. A sensor lamp in my driveway went on as they were arriving and a toad appeared. The toad let me hold it; its Medicine was prominent in their healing.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for 40 years. For Healing for you or your animal, Flower Essences, Training, or her Book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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