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Toads and Frogs in Myth, Mythology, and Folklore

Frogs and toads have always seemed to be close to the mythic origin of life. When relaxed, they have almost the form of a ball, the most primeval of shapes. They are found mostly in ponds or in moist areas that suggest the chaos out of which living things were created.

People have long believed that frogs were generated spontaneously out of earth and water and that they could survive for centuries in stone. Frogs also seemed to embody fertility when people observed their copulation, which can last for several days. The female frog will often lay tens of thousands of eggs every year. The Egyptian hieroglyphic sign for “one hundred thousand” was a tadpole (Houlihan, p. 122). The transformation of a tadpole into a frog has been a model for all of the myriad metamorphoses in myth and legend. That is why traditional stories so often contain frogs that are transformed into men or women. Evolutionary theory partially confirms the intuition of early mythologists about the primal origin of frogs, since fossils of frogs have been found going back at least 37 million years. The popular distinction between frogs and toads is not fully recognized by professional biologists. Both groups of amphibians are members of the order Anura, and they are almost interchangeable in myth and legend. The word toad is generally, though not always, used for creatures of the family Bufonidae, which have short legs, rough skin, and spend much of their time on land. Toads are generally associated with cultivated places such as gardens, as well as with dark magic. But frog and toad, as the terms are often used, seem almost like words for different aspects of a single creature.

The economy of ancient Egypt was centered on the Nile River, which teemed with frogs. The frog was particularly identified with Heket, a deity of fertility and childbirth. When the waters of the Nile receded, innumerable frogs would be heard croaking in the mud, the sort of event that may have influenced many myths. In one Egyptian creation myth, Heket and her ram-headed husband, Khnum, made both gods and human beings. According to another Egyptian creation myth, the original eight creatures were frogs and snakes that carried the cosmic egg.

The Hebrews, who reacted violently against their Egyptian captors, found the frog unclean. The Bible tells us that when the pharaoh refused to let the people of Israel leave Egypt, Yahweh sent Moses to him with the following threat, which he later carried out: “Know that I will plague the whole of your country with frogs. The river will swarm with them; they will make their way into your palace, into your bedroom, onto your bed, into the houses of your courtiers and of your subjects, into your ovens, into your kneading bowls. The frogs will even climb all over you, over your courtiers, and over all your subjects” (Exod. 7:27-29).

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