The Frog

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE FROG


 In the twenty-third tale of the Second Book of Afanassieff, the story is told of a great tsar who commanded his three sons to shoot their bows and take a wife where the arrows fell. Each did this and the youngest son Ivan's arrow was taken up by a frog. Modestly the obedient amphibian accompanied her dismayed groom to the castle, where the tsar commanded that each of the brides should compete in making her husband the most handsome gift she knew how. All three gave a shirt carefully embroidered with ribbons and jewels. But that of the frog was the most beautiful, for whilst Ivan slept, she cast off her skin and wove her moonlit magic into its design. In her true and beauteous form she moved within a halo of light, enlisting the assistance of elemental spirits and rendering perfect everything she touched. The other brides spied upon her in an effort to learn her secrets, but the frog outwitted them and excelled in every contest posed by the imperious tsar. At last they were commanded to display their grace at a ball and the other brides confidently looked forward to eclipsing their awkward competitor and gaining the admiration of the court. Ivan was sorrowful to think of the figure his stalwart companion would cut upon the dance floor, but rejoiced to observe that she could speak and he was comforted by her consoling words. On the evening of the ball the frog shed her skin and emerged as the lovely Helena, who shone like a moonbeam tracing its golden course around the floor. Ivan, in ecstatic wonderment, rushed to destroy the frog skin and ensure that she would not again transform herself, but Helena sorrowed to see this. She stayed with him through the night, and in the morning said: "Ivan Tsarevic, thou hast not been patient enough; I would have been thine; now, as God wills it, Farewell! Seek me in the twenty-seventh earth, in the thirtieth kingdom!" She then disappeared before his eyes and many an ordeal did he perforce endure in his fervent efforts to find her.

 In some tales the frog is really a prince and the faith and loyalty of the maiden are put to the test in order to release his true form. But in all such stories the central theme of transformation is symbolized by the frog itself, which is not merely a human being in the guise of an animal, but rather a human ideal on the verge of emergence. Carl Jung once commented that more than any other cold-blooded animal, the frog anticipates man. He was struck with the fact that artists often used them in their paintings, as in the case of The Temptation of St. Anthony by Bosch, where an aged frog with a human head rests upon a central platter and represents the highest stage of evolution. There is also a very ambivalent element in the symbolism of the frog. In Christian lore the toad is generally thought to be a diabolical form of the frog which is capable of being imposed upon a divine being or a handsome prince. This ambivalence is compounded by the confusion of frogs and toads in stories, and ideas of rebirth and fertility are mixed together with notions of evil, heresy and poison. In Tuscany the diabolical toad is abhorred but it is sacrilege to kill it, and simple folk say that it brings good fortune "inasmuch as it is alleged that toads are either lords or uncomprehending genii; or powerful fairies who have fallen under malediction". Nor will they molest them in any way, lest when offended they should take revenge as if the good fortune they have to offer must be coaxed from them, earned from them, as it were.

 Resting upon the blue lotus of the cosmic sea, the Egyptian goddess Heqet appeared as a frog who connected the water of the other world with the earth of this one. In this way she represented birth and resurrection, the repeated transformation experienced by the soul. The frog or toad goddess was the most ancient of Egyptian deities and one of the chief cosmic powers connected with creation. She participated with Khnoom (the god of the moist principle) in the organization of the world, but was also involved in 'the dogma of resurrection', which asserted that rebirth took place after three thousand years of purification. The earlier Christians of Egypt adopted this symbol and used it for church lamps on which were inscribed in Greek "I am the resurrection." The pre-Christian Egyptians used similar lamps and also depicted the frog goddess on mummies in burial chambers. That the symbol was borrowed by the new religion testifies to its antiquity and depth of meaning. The earliest Christians had not yet assumed the mantle of exclusive dogmatism that would later isolate them from the most powerful symbolically expressed insights of the ancient world.

 The notion that a great frog supports the universe is a very old one which lingers on in the folklore of Central and South Asia. In this aspect the frog represents the dark and undifferentiated prima materia of the evolving world. The Egyptian god Nuu, who existed "when there was no heaven and no earth", corresponds to this, and indeed is called the father of all the gods as well as the world itself. Shown in Nilotic iconography as human with the head of a frog, the primordial substance as well as the power of transition and androgyny are all suggested. One thinks of primitive matter as feminine, but gods and goddesses, as later princes and princesses, show themselves in the amphibian guise. The transition involving the elements of water and earth seems to include an intimate interaction of these archetypal dual forces. Rising from the waters, matter, suffused with moisture, opposes the dryness of death. It promises life and seems to be pervaded with potential eroticism. The moist skin of the frog conveys this powerful idea through the sense of touch, and in the psyche of modern man a profound fascination with the primordial slime is confused with vague erotic inclinations and sometimes a conscious disgust. Such psychological ambiguity may well be seen as the cause of the ambivalence attributed to the symbol of the frog. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw it as an emblem of Venus-Aphrodite and variously associated it with fertility, licentiousness and creative love. But the little frogs that appeared at the banks of the Nile a few days before its flood were regarded as heralds of fertility and bore no taint of the sin or shame heaped upon them in later history. Perhaps the prima materia of birth did not in itself fascinate these ancients but was seen simply as a vehicle capable of expressing cosmic Eros.

 Another reason for the frog's symbolic association with birth and rebirth is its alternating periods of appearance and disappearance, which is characteristic of all lunar animals. Hibernating in the pools of woods in the winter, the frog and the toad emerge fresh and ready to seek courtship in the spring. William Butler Yeats expressed a certain resignation when he wrote: "I am content to live it all again and yet again, if it be life to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch." Not so the frog or toad! With great trumpeting and enormous motivation they literally fling themselves into the business of generation. But when the end of the year approaches, they withdraw into a dormancy and disappear to the world. Like the waning moon they diminish and darken and sink back into oblivion, only to re-emerge once again with raucous croaking and thundering in the spring.

 There is a good deal of confusion as to how and where to draw the line between a frog and a toad. They are both classified as Batrachia, which simply refers to tailless amphibians, but the frog is assigned the family Ranidae and the toad that of Bufonidae. Some of the characteristics which justify this division are behavioural, physiological and morphological. The toad is leisurely where the frog is quick, dignified where the frog is nervous, crawls where the frog hops, is able to protect itself with poison where the frog is much more vulnerable to predators. The toad is a shorter, squatter fellow with fat legs and well-defined fingers and toes. He lives mostly in the woods and meadows rather than in or near ponds, and his skin is usually a shade of brown with puffy warts spotting it in a fashion alarming to some. One of the very interesting traits of the toad is the moulting of its skin every few weeks during the summer. It slips out of its transparent husk with great contortions and scrapings with its fingers and toes and then ingests the whole of it, emerging fresh and clean with not a trace left behind.

 Though characteristic of the toad, many of these traits easily overlap into the realm of the frog. In an effort to strengthen the distinction, herpetologists speak of true frogs and true toads. But the fact remains that the Surinam toad (Pipa pipa), the midwife toad (FrogThe-0881.htmlAlytes obstetricans), and the whole family of tree toads (Hyla) are frogs. Then there is the robber frog (Leptodactylus) which, together with other so-called tree frogs, is really a toad. The ambivalence so evident in the symbol has been bountifully manifested in the historical designation of the batrachians. The word 'frog' comes from the German Frosch, whilst its generic name Rana is a Latinism. Bufo, the term for toads, is also derived from the Latin and refers to the great swelling up engaged in by this autocratic-looking creature. There can be no coincidence that buffo is also the root stem of the word 'buffoon'. Thus in names and associations the frog and the toad bridge the gamut running from the ridiculous to the sublime with many detours in between. Poisonings, curses and spells usually fall into the camp of the toad but they are both lauded as medicinal boons. The toad's breath was believed to carry away sickness, whilst medieval practitioners commanded a fever to enter a frog where it would cool.

 Pliny the Elder spoke of the toad being full of poison, and ditties abound in folk traditions like that of the matron "who mixed Calen wine with poyson of Toads for her Spouse". In fact, the poison contains three elements which have surprising effects. It may have taken quite a few toads to supply the amount of bufotalin necessary to dispatch the matron's spouse, but it is allied to digitalin and in larger doses will act as a virulent heart poison. The ingredient bufotenine is a hallucinogenic drug resembling L.S.D. in its effects, whilst serotonin causes a constriction of the blood vessels and can be used to relieve migraine. Together these represent an impressive range of powers possessed by what is often referred to as the lowly toad. Perhaps because of knowledge of such potential, the toad was valued as an apotropaic emblem by the ancients. Its presence upon bronze seal boxes and around doors was believed to turn away evil.

 In his writings as a humour-blessed naturalist, Gerald Durrell gives high marks to the toad and manifests a wonderful affection for the creatures. In one of his works he describes the African brow-leaf toad as being the size of the circumference of a saucer and having enormous liquid eyes, short fat legs and heavy body. He discovered that having seen one toad you have not seen them all, as they had very individual personalities. Their individuality is further marked by a weighty sort of pomposity in their appearance. In the case of two brow-leafs he added to his menagerie, he noted that their "immensely wide mouth adds to this impression of aristocratic conceit by drooping gently at the corners, thus giving the toad a faintly sneering expression that can be achieved by only one other animal that I know of, the camel. Add to this the slow, swaggering walk, and the fact that the creature squats down every two or three steps and gazes at you with a sort of withering disdain, and you begin to feel that the person who christened it Bufo superciliarus was exercising grim restraint."

 This enormous dignity, however, was lost in a flash when the toads were held upside down in order to examine their rear ends. When put back on the floor again, they each seemed shrunken and lost. They almost appeared as though they were about to burst into tears. On the brighter side, they were permitted to take a walk in the garden each day under the supervision of a patas monkey named Pavlova who delighted in stroking them gently, reducing them to a semi-hypnotized condition wherein they sported the most ridiculous self-satisfied expressions on their faces. In their expression and manner of walking, toads do look very wrinkled and old. They have been known to live for thirty-six years and probably a good deal longer. Their age undoubtedly exceeds that of the frog who, whilst sharing so much in common with its cousin, lives a far more dangerous life.

 The dangers of the frog reached legendary proportions in the famous Batrachomyomachta (The War Between the Frogs and Mice) attributed to Homer. However, though Zeus initially favoured the mice, in the end he came down on the side of the frogs who crossed back over the sea victorious, leaving the mice to be swallowed by a great snake. Whether the early French kings had something of this victory in mind or whether they were inspired by other powers associated with the frog, they bore as a standard three toads in a yellow field before Clodoveus changed them to fleur de lis in a field of azure. The great battle of the frogs is a satire on the Trojan War and each frog is made to hold forth in a long and high-flown speech before entering into combat. That they prevail over the mice suggests more than just an echo of the Mycenean triumph, and whilst genuinely satirical, the poet alludes to the stronger link that exists between the frogs and the gods.

 The Greek word amphibios literally means 'a double life' and amphibians embarked upon this duomorphic career in the Devonian period of the palaeozoic era, or about four hundred million years ago. It is accurate to say that during the first three months of its life, the frog (and toad) climbs up its own genealogical tree from the fertilized egg, through the fish stage, to a condition very close to that of a mammal, its pentadactyl legs anticipating even the highest primate. Originally, the amphibians evolved from 'double-breather' fish and were the first vertebrates to live on land. In their infancy and youth they recapitulate evolution by requiring an externally watery cradle where respiration takes place through gills, involving a two-chambered heart. Frogs' eggs are fertilized by the male as they emerge by the thousands from the mother and float in bouyant masses of albuminous jelly, attaching themselves in strings to water plants and such. Many will be eaten or die of drought or cold, but others will swell in the jelly until, after sixty-two hours, the neural folds are formed. The tailbud forms after eighty-four hours and in six days the external gills are functioning. After two months the hind limbs appear, followed by the forelimbs at three months, when the process of complete metamorphosis begins. The frog matures rapidly after this, the toad reaching adulthood in three years, but the species of both families are nurtured variously by both parents, being sometimes carried as eggs over the whole ventral surface of the father, only to eventually clamber out of his mouth!

 The fascinating thing about this process of metamorphosis is that it takes place externally. The development of the egg is not hidden within a shell, nor is the watery cradle within a maternal womb. The magic of transformation is not hidden inside a pupa but the gills are replaced by lungs, the tail is absorbed into the body, the intestines shorten to adapt to a carnivorous diet, the beak is replaced by the bony jaw and mouth, right before the eyes, as it were. Now our batrachian has wonderful grasping and feeling fingers and toes, a movable tongue of enormous flexibility and a voice of remarkable strength and consequence. Even more mysterious, perhaps, is the development of a wonderful 'stone' in its head which was believed by ancients to be a 'solar pearl' come out of the animal of 'the dark moon'. It was believed that a toad placed on a scarlet cloth would spit this precious stone out but it must be quickly caught before the creature sucks it up again! Shakespeare wrote that "sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, bears yet a precious jewel in his head". Believed to effect marvellous cures, this 'stone' corresponds to the pineal gland which projects through the parietal foramen and lies immediately under the epidermis. So close to the surface is this 'eye' in the batrachian that it is easy to observe and is frequently marked by a light brow spot in the upper head in front of the eyes. In certain reptiles this rudimentary median eye is quite well developed, but in the frog the fact that it is connected with the surface development and the persistence of the brow spot is of considerable significance in relation to the evolution of this form. It has been noticed that pineal tumours in batrachians are frequently associated with the precocious development of sex organs whilst the destruction of the gland accentuates this even further. Such an interaction between the 'eye' which is homologous to the Third Eye in man and the erotic nature of the frog reinforced the ambivalent reputation possessed by all his kind.

 Frogs are said to look cleverer than they are, unlike pigs who are cleverer than they look. We do know, however, that they can learn to distinguish between different people as well as learn to avoid unpleasant experiences. But the outstanding trait they share is their homing instinct. Batrachians always come back to the same pool to spawn and will often make a long and difficult journey to accomplish this. A large number of tree toads used to assemble at a particular pond which one spring was levelled and filled in with a plow. After a heavy June rain, dozens of the creatures were to be seen, croaking away between the plough furrows on the very site of the former pond. All the landmarks had been removed and yet they were on the spot. Some say they are attracted to a place by hearing the sounds of other frogs, but this presupposes that some are already in close proximity to the pond and it does not explain how they can locate a geophysical spot when it has been stripped of every one of its former characteristics. The batrachian sense of hearing is, however, very sensitive to vibrations, many of which pass indirectly through their body by means of the lymphatic sacs to the internal ear. Because of this, the softest step of the observer, as they approach the edge of a busy pond, will result in immediate silence so complete as to cause one to wonder if they had merely imagined the raucous chorus that had been in full throat but a second earlier.

 There is a conductor at every pond who gives the keynote to the choir. This first note is repeated, sometimes with a provocative trill, until a second answers with another note. The two batrachians can go on indefinitely in an alternating pattern until they are joined by a third or fourth. Whilst some frogs can breathe nicely under water, taking oxygen in through their skins, they are more at home breathing on land where their buccal cavity acts as a pump. As the floor of the mouth rises, the nares close, the glottis opens up and the air in the buccal cavity is subjected to pressure and forced through the glottis into the lungs. The rising of the floor takes place almost at the same time that air is expelled from the lungs, most of which does not escape the mouth but is forced back into the lungs. The air is driven back and forth over the vocal chords between the mouth and the lungs and the whole animal vibrates a sound whose production is enormously magnified in the distended throat. Females find this incantation irresistible and present themselves like the waxing moon which is then dominated by the chorus that called it forth. Thus the frogs croak incessantly before the pluvial god satisfies their thirst with the soma juice of the moon. More lofty and cosmic than the "brekekekex, koax, koax" of Aristophanes' satirical frog chorus, theirs is a cry of joy, much like what the old Greeks described as a ululation or cry of thanks to the gods raised up by the devout.

 Their connection with the moon is beautifully suggested in the Rig Veda, where Indu the moon is implored to beg Indra (Releaser of the Rain) to satisfy the desire of the frogs. This results in Indu announcing the soma, which precipitates as rain with the help of the lunar frogs. The moon replaces the frog in the winter, which is under its special silent domain, whilst the frogs herald the quickening and waxing of new growth. In Kabbalistic symbolism, when Sephira is the active potential within the latent Deity, she is female. But when she assumes the positive role of Creator, she is the male frog in the moon. She is the equivalent of Father and Mother Aditi in Hindu cosmogony, androgynous but potentially male within the female and female within the male, active and passive, fused and alternating.

 The one hundred and third hymn of the Rig Veda is really a panegyric to the frogs. It is a hymn on the tempest, in honour of Indra, the Releaser of the Cows. Attributed to the sage Vasishtha, it is sung by the frogs of heaven who herald their release and who cry in joy at the coming deluge. The Cloud-Cows are very closely related to Cloud-Frogs (the Sanskrit word bhakas is used interchangeably for clouds and frogs) and the trumpeting of the latter assists to make possible the release and sings forth a thanksgiving in the thunderous chorus which always accompanies the rain. In this beautiful hymn the great sage clothed a profoundly occult teaching in the language of symbols and the amphibian singers are like magicians responding on cue.

They who lay quiet for a year,
The Brahmans who fulfil their vows,
The Frogs have lifted up their voice,
The voice Parjanya hath inspired.

What time on these, as on a dry skin lying in the pool's bed,
The floods of heaven descended,
The music of the Frogs comes forth in concert
Like the cows lowing with their calves beside them.

When at the coming of the Rains
The water has poured upon them as they yearned and thirsted,
One seeks another as he talks and greets him
With cries of pleasure as a son his father.

Each of these twain receives the other kindly,
Whilst they are revelling in the flow of waters,
When the Frog moistened by the rain springs forward,
The Green and Spotty both combine their voice.

When one of these repeats the other's language,
As he who learns the lesson of the teacher,
Your every limb seems to be growing larger
As ye converse with eloquence on the waters.

One is Cow-belled and Goat-bleat the other,
One Frog is Green and one of them is Spotty.
They bear one common name, and yet they vary, and,
Talking, modulate the voice diversely.

As Brahmans, sitting round the brimful vessel,
Talk at the soma-rite of Atirata,
So, Frogs, ye gather round the pool to honour
This day of all the year, the first of Rain-time.

These Brahmans with the soma Juice,
Performing their year-long rite, have lifted up their voices;
And these Adhvaryus, sweating with their kettles,
Come forth and show themselves, and none are hidden.

They keep the twelve months' God-appointed order,
And never do the men neglect the season.
Soon as the Rain-time hi the year returneth,
These who were heated kettles gain their freedom.

Cow-bellow and Goat-bleat have granted riches,
And Green and Spotty have vouchsafed us treasure.
The Frogs who give us cows in hundreds
Lengthen our lives in this most fertilizing season.

 The key to the hymn lies in the seventh stanza where the vessel and the pool, the soma and the rain, are shown to be analogues of one another. The vessel is also referred to as the 'kettle' and the 'sweating' has to do with the heat of tapas inspired by the long and assiduous performance of the ritual. Frogs, like the priests, can enjoy the benefit of the deluge, the soma juice, only after the scorching of the long dry season which corresponds to tapas and sacrifice. It is also significant that a reciprocity or alternating movement is suggested in several lines. The frogs yearn and the rain comes, they receive and greet one another and combine their voices as teacher and student. The cow-bellow voice accompanies sacrifice down in the form of rain, the goat-bleat voice accompanies sacrifice upwards to release the cows. One is spotty and one is green. The frog falls with the rain, the toad evokes the deluge and, talking together, they "modulate the voice diversely".

 Through a constant upheaval, a motion breathed in and out within the parameters of potential manifestation, the world originated. Like the breath pressured back and forth within the cavity of the frog's mouth, the life-giving Word vibrated over and over again until there were echoes resounding on every level of being. The first sound ever produced by vocal chords was made by an ancestral frog and their raucous croaking and thundering has issued in the annual cycle of rebirth ever since. Sitting with eyes, mouths and nostrils closed, on the edge of the waters of potential being, they are like ancient yogis breathing with the great pulse of the universe and resounding with the keynote of life. Their homing instinct carries them back to a much more remote place of birth than last year's spawning pond. They travel back to the very beginnings of the emergence of intelligent life out of the sea of chaos. In every detail they recapitulate the long journey that has involved the preparation of a vehicle capable of enveloping the Divine Soul. Their life-cycle displays openly the reaching upward of the prima materia towards the sun of self-conscious intelligence. Their powerful affinity with the moon stirs this movement within them, whilst their five-digited hands and feet establish them firmly on the road leading to man.

 The cry of the frog heralds life like the little toads clambering out of their father's mouth. But before the rains come, the scorching sun of summer must be endured. This is the time when the toads moult their old skins as though they were aspects of the lower self to be left behind in Shiva's burning ground. A layer of skin covering the inner eye is removed, tapas is engaged in willingly, sacrificially, before Heqet can assist in the resurrection of the androgynous god. One is green and one is spotty and, talking together, they modulate the cosmic Word into a chorus of sounds capable of freeing Indra's cows from the captivity of the demon serpent's spell that surrounds them. The frog prince and princess, combining the magical powers of the androgynous god, can kill the demon. But they can do so only if their human spouse has faith in them and trusts in their hidden inner wisdom. When this wonderful magic takes place, the old skin is sloughed away and the inner god emerges like a radiant sun. He or she is the frog in the moon who bears the precious solar jewel and only such a one is capable of releasing the fires of heaven that will fall like cooling rain upon yearning humanity below.

Listen, Waters, to the cry below!
Come hither, Mighty Ones, by the way I am conducting you.
See here at the point where the stream is to be tapped,
Here I place the green striped frog,
And water pour over it until it cries with joy!
Transform me thus, that I may live!