It is warty, chubby, clumsy, adorable, and has a very long history of being associated with witches, the devil, and poison. The toad is a beloved symbol and familiar of we witches. I have long wanted a pet toad, just an ordinary little Western Toad (Bufo boreas, pictured), but have not wanted to tame one and keep it in a terrarium instead of its home in the wilds. I have instead been happy just to encounter them in nature whether saving one who was burying himself in the middle of a trail from being stepped on or catching a huge one by a river who was hiding under the large green leaves of false lily of the valley in spring.
“What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? I can pound a toad in a mortar, and make a broth of it, and stir the broth with a dead man’s hand. Sprinkle it on thine enemy while he sleeps, and he will turn into a black viper, and his own mother will slay him.” ~ Oscar Wilde
“The toad is one of the shapes assumed by a demon when he sits upon a witch’s left shoulder. Thanks to the two tiny horns borne on his forehead, a toad was recognisable as a demon, and witches took infinite care of him. They baptized their toads, dressed them in black velvet, put little bells on their paws, and made them dance.” ~ Grillot de Givry
Once upon a time I heard a hint of a rumour that toads were used in flying ointments. Considering my reputation with flying ointments and my use of animal bits in magic, I of course found it necessary to research this curious idea and found not only documentation but modern scientific and experiential proof that the toxins contained within a toad’s skin and glands can indeed produce a psychoactive substance.
THE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE
In the Arras witch trials from 1459-60 clerics charged the witches with feeding toads wafers stolen from holy communion and then using the toads to make a sacrilegious flying ointment.
In 1487 the evil Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches”) was published and listed toads as one of the ingredients of witches’ flying ointments.
In 1606 William Shakespeare includes a toad in his witches’ infernal brew in Macbeth: “Toad, that under cold stone days and nights host thirty-one swelter’d venom sleeping got, boil thou first i’ th’ charnel pot.”
In 1611 an elderly Basque woman named Maria de Illara confessed the devil appeared to her as a mysterious man and taught her to pound toads with water and use the results to make an ointment which she and other witches rubbed on their chests, stomachs, and arm pits in order to fly to their sabbats.
In 1615 French doctor Jean de Nynauld noted in his work On Lycanthropy, the Transformation and Ectasy of Sorcerers that toads were often added to the flying ointment recipes of witches and lycanthropes.
In the mid to late 1600s this flying ointment recipe appeared (likely from a witch trial): make an ointment from belladonna, datura stramonium, monkshood, and celery seeds. Add to it one toad and simmer until the flesh falls off the bones. Strain and rub upon the body, arm pits, forehead, and broom to achieve flight.
Later witch trials tell of Spanish witches using toad blood in their ointments, English witches using whole live toads, Swedish witches using the toad’s fat, snake venom, and herbs, German witches frying whole toads in oil for ointments, and similar tales reaching into the far corners of Eastern Europe.
This is all only European evidence of the use of toads as a psychoactive and ritual substance. There is much more evidence of peoples from South America and Africa also using toads as poison and entheogen, but for the sake of specificity I will keep this piece focused on European tradition.
SCIENCE (THE BAD NEWS)
Yes, today we know that some species of toad produce an alkaloid called bufotenin which is closely related in chemical make-up to DMT and psilocin (a relative of psilocybin). More interestingly, it is also present in fly agaric (amanita muscaria) mushrooms which may validate our ancestor’s association of toads and toadstools. The bad news is that the common European toad contains only a very tiny amount of bufotenin (0.3% of the dried secretions) and a much large quantity of bufagin, a steroid not an alkaloid, which is an anaesthetic and not a psychedelic. It would still be useful, however, for creating a sleepy, dream-like state when combined with the traditional solanaceous flying ointment herbs. The toads containing the largest amounts of bufotenin are found in the Southwestern USA, Northern Mexico, South America, and China. The only toad which supposedly creates enough bufotenin to be a strong psychoactive is the Colorado River Toad (Bufo alvarius).
As with herbs, the preparation of the toad is very important. Bufotenin does not work when ingested so no amount of toad licking or potion-making is going to show any results. Bufotenin is excreted through the skin of the toad and so the skin must be dried, powdered, and either smoked, snorted up the nostrils, or rubbed on the skin. Researchers report that some remote tribes cut or burn themselves and then rub a live toad into the wound – though I would not recommend this method for health and safety reasons.
EXPERIENCE (THE GOOD NEWS)
Despite the disappointing evidence from the scientific community, experiential use has shown different results. One amateur researcher Adrian Morgan reports his successful, if unpleasant, experiments using the European common toad and the European green toad resulting in trailed images, light traces, colour saturation, saliva build-up, and general intoxication. Though he reports mild psychedelic effects with more pronounced anaesthesia, it is likely due to the species of toad used and also the sex as female toads produce twice as much bufotenin as males. He also reports that bufotenin and its relatives can survive temperatures higher than 125°C (257ºF) and therefore can survive being heated in a witch’s cauldron to make a flying ointment. This is very good news.
There are also those who have smoked the skin of Colorado River Toads and Cane Toads and have reported much stronger psychoactive effects. If one were to craft a flying ointment using a toad, it may be wise to use the species that have a larger amount of bufotenin over bufagin.
European witches and exotic tribesmen most likely scared or pissed off the toad as much as possible to get it to excrete as much toxins as it could before skinning it or boiling it for their concoctions much like the Haitian bokor would do in order to prepare the infamous zombie poison. One can also milk the glands of a live toad for the toxins instead of killing it, though I’m sure the toad is not appreciative of it. Toads are endangered in North America and increasingly rare due to habitat loss. It’s best to leave the living ones alone.
The most humane way to collect the bufotenin is to collect freshly dead toads. This isn’t as hard as it sounds if you go hunting for dead toads during breeding season or late autumn. Due to the way toads mate (in giant gang banging clusterfucking balls of male toads wrapped around a single female in a pond) many of them drown in the process (especially the female who they’re trying to impregnate but end up suffocating). In autumn, sudden cold snaps can kill off toads before they have a chance to hibernate and you can often find their frozen corpses. How do you know if a dead toad is fresh? Go by the smell.
Take your dead toad home, wash it, and carefully skin it. If the skinning is too much to handle, simply cut of the glands on each side of its head instead. Dry the skin completely and then grind it to a powder with a mortar and pestle. It is now ready for smoking, snorting, or infusing into a flying ointment. If you wish to keep the bones too, boiling the toad will be the quickest way, but also the smelliest – do this outside. The slow way would be to bury it wrapped in burlap in a pot of soil that will be left outside and well watered for 2-5 months (depending on the size of the toad). After this time exhume it, pick out the bones, and wash them.
Added (common sense) note: research the species of toad before you handle it with your bare hands and use it in any way. Some toads are very poisonous and contain more toxins than just bufotenin and bufagin, some of which can be very harmful.
A MODERN TOAD FLYING OINTMENT
Using my own knowledge of traditional flying ointment herbs and their dosages, I have taken the 17th century recipe mentioned above and brought it to life by infusing aconite flowers, belladonna leaf and berry, datura stramonium seeds, celery seeds, fly agaric caps (for the association), and poplar buds in sunflower oil and beeswax and to this mixture adding the skin of an already dead cane toad (which are killed by the hundreds as an aggressive invasive species in many countries today).
The result is an updated and more traditional version of my previous toad ointment recipe that can be used for soul flight, shape-shifting, and to aid in work with a toad familiar or any toad magic or rites. It should not, however, be used by those with a serious morphine allergy due to the belladonna content. If you are interested in this ointment it can be purchased here: Black Arts Foundry.
- “Broomsticks and Toad Skins” by the Quantum Biologist, Oct 29, 2010.
- Toads and Toadstools:The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association by Adrian Morgan, 1995.
- Herbs and Things: A Compendium of Practical and Exotic Herbal Lore by Jeanne Rose, 1972.