Thursday, December 27, 2012

Creature of the Month - The Berkeley Toad by Dr. Bob Curran

In many folklore traditions, the toad is something of an ambivalent creature. On the one hand, it is considered to be repellent and often becomes a symbol of foulness and evil – perhaps its very appearance hints at it being malignant and poisonous. And yet on the other hand <and in many Eastern cultures> it is associated with wisdom and “knowing”. Toads are thought to have lived for many centuries and in that time have acquired much knowledge. It was therefore considered to be the wisest of creatures and parts of its body could be used for special purposes. For example, a dried toad’s tongue might be used to incite either love or lust in a woman whilst a bone from its leg might be used to “calm fevers” of various sorts.  To this end several local Toad Fairs, were held in parts of Dorset in England at which parts of toads or tiny statues of toads were sold as a protection against or cure for various ailments. |Live toads were also sold and it was said that such a creature, worn in a muslin bag about the neck was an infallible cure for scrofula or King’s Evil. Sometimes the head of a toad would be put into a bag and placed against the patient’s bare chest which they would then have to carry under their clothing for a specified time. No illness or fever could then cause them harm. Furthermore, when cut open, toads supposedly contained a small object known as a Toadstone. When ground down and mixed into a drink, this substance was an infallible antidote for all known poisons <including the bite of another toad>. Materials purporting to be Toadstones were readily on sale in places such as Stalbridge in Dorset. Somewhere in remote England or in some distant part of Continental Europe, it was believed, there was a toad with a massive jewel in its skull. If an individual could acquire that jewel, he or she would also hold all the knowledge of the world including the words that God had used to fashion reality. Ancient European alchemists were supposed to hunt for that jewel during medieval times as it would also confer immortality on whoever found it.

It was also believed that carrying the bones of a toad would give the individual power over other animals. In Cambridgeshire in England a secret society of Toadmen was formed and it was said that its members had power over any horse and could make it do whatever they wished. The mystery of how they acquired this power remains a secret but it was thought to involve the bones of a toad sewn into their clothing. 

However, the toad was also associated with evil and many witch cases, both in England and in Europe, cited witches and wizards keeping the creature as a ‘familiar’.  This meant that in Black Magic circles, the toad was actually the embodiment of the Devil. The bones of the creature it was believed, could be used in spells to summon up thunderstorms – this was a particular feature of Scottish witchcraft. It was thought too that, under diabolic influence, certain toads could grow until they became monsters. This was probably a result of seeing the creature in a bloated condition at the end of the summer and allowing rural imaginations to work. The toad then, was a complex creature, combining elements of both good and absolute evil. 

Perhaps one of the most famous of these “monsters” comes once again from England. It is the famous Berkeley Toad and its legend was widely known in the Middle Ages. Berkeley is a rural market town in Gloucestershire, standing on the banks of the River Severn. It is a very old settlement and it has a curious history particularly relating to witchcraft. In the time after the Norman Conquest of England, there was a famous “witch” living there who was widely known and feared across the countryside. She may have been no more than an augur or soothsayer <prophetess> but her reputation was such that is said that when she died, the Devil himself came from hell for her and dragged her away with him. A good place then to have a story concerning a monstrous Toad connected to it. 

There seems to be little doubt that the Toad actually existed. In the chancel of St. Mary’s Church in Berkeley, there is the curious carving of a large toad adorning the tomb of the important Berkeley family, the local landowners of the area. Beneath it are the carvings of the heads of two small children. According to a local legend, a monstrous toad-like creature emerged from a local “mire” <swamp> in the Middle Ages and rampaged through the country. It devoured two small children belonging to the Berkeley family who were caught up in its path.  The toad was eventually killed but the deaths of the two infants are commemorated on the tomb.

The Church, however, is not the only place where a carving of the Toad may be found. In the Morning Room of nearby Berkeley Castle <which was the seat of the family> there is a similar carving, said to be of a creature which once lived in the Castle dungeons. A collection of notes and stories, collected by a former land steward, James Herbert Cooke, writing in the early 1600s also alludes to that tale. His notes were transcribed by one of his successors, John Smyth of Nibley in the 19thcentury. Citing Smyth’s words in the original English, he states:

Out of a dungeon in the likeness of a deep, broad well, going steeply down in the middle of the Dungeon Chamber in the said Keep, was <so tradition tells> drawn forth a Toad, in the time of King Henry the Seventh, of incredible Bignes. Which in the deep, dry dust in the bottom thereof had doubtless lived there divers hundreds of years, whose portraiture in just dimension as it was then to me affirmed by divers aged persons. I saw, about 48 years agone, drawn in colors upon the Door of the Great Hall and upon the utter side of the stone porch leading into that Hall, since by the pargettors or pointers of that wallwashed out or outworn with time which in breadth was more than a foot, nere 16 inches and in length more. Of which monstrous and outgrown beast, the inhabitants of the town and in the neighbor villages round about, fable many strange and incredible wonders; making the greatness of this toad more than would fill a peck. Yea, I have heard some who looked to have belief , say from the report of their Fathers and Grandfathers that would have filled a bushel or strike, and to have been many years fed with flesh and garbage from the butchers; but this is all the truth I know or dare believe”

Whether or not Smyth’s words are true and there was some sort of monstrous toad-thing kept in the dark dungeons of Berkeley Castle during the reign of Henry VII, over the years the central story has become greatly embellished and there are many variations of it. Some accounts state that the Toad was simply “a wonder” and that some nobles traveled many miles to see it. Other variants say that at some point, the creature broke free and “went on the rampage” through the area, creating mayhem and destruction – even devouring several individuals in its path. It was finally killed by men-at-arms from the Castle itself and its monstrous body burned. Another variant of this tale states that it was driven into a nearby swamp and simply disappeared. And, of course, yet another version says that it was raised by Black Magic and simply returned to the Devil from whom it came. The potent legend, in all its variations, has continued right down until the present day and it is now possible to buy representations of the creature, both in glass and metal as ornaments and as jewelry boxes and as bedside containers or decorative pieces.

And if it is not true, then where has such a legend come from?  The story, as with the idea of the Toad, is certainly an old one and may even predate the time of King Henry VII. It may go back into pagan times in England and signal some form of race memory <as perhaps many such legends do> of a prehistoric time when the toad – or something like it – was worshiped as a god. There have been hints and whispers of such worship down the centuries, some of which have found their way into the works of such horror and fantasy writers as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

There is an old legend – no more than an unsubstantiated folktale – that during Roman times, an unnamed General serving with the Legions in Eastern Europe came across a strangely carved door at the end of a ravine, somewhere in the lands of the Dacians far beyond the River Danube. He had been leading an expedition against the Gitae <Dacians> and had driven them back to a mountain tract <possibly the foothills of the Carpathians> where they entered a shallow valley and found the door in the wall of a cliff. It seemed, according to the legend, to be made out of some unknown metallic material which could not be penetrated and was carved with the face of a monstrous toad-like entity which stared out at them with blank eyes. The superstitious soldiers drew back but the General went up and struck the door with the hilt of his sword. It rang hollow inside. Local tradition later told him that this was supposedly the entrance to some underground pagan temple where a being, the face of which was represented on the door itself, was worshiped with human sacrifice. The location of the valley where the door was found has never been disclosed so perhaps it is still there, waiting.

A similar type of story comes from Ireland and also has to do with prehistoric gods. In northern County Cavan, in the district of Tullyhaw, it is said was once a great open area with a ring of stones at its center. This was known as Mag Sleacht <the Plain of Adoration> where the ancient god Crom Cruach <or Cruicah> - the Bowed God of the Mounds – was worshipped. The circle was very ancient and according to some traditions was so old that it had partly sunk into the earth by the time St. Patrick came to view it in the 5th century. In the centre of the circle <twelve stones placed at varying significant points> was a large stone or “idol”<perhaps a stone sheathes in gold> pertaining to the Cruach. Sometimes a representation of the ancient god was supposed to appear there – sometimes as a bloody head but also sometimes as a kind of toad-like entity, sitting on top of <or slightly above> the stone. When Patrick saw the ancient thing, he was appalled at its pagan aspect and banged his crozier on the ground, causing the twelve stones to sink into the ground, but not the “idol” It remained above ground and was later smuggled, minus its golden covering, across Lough McNean and into south-west County Fermanagh where it still stands today in the corner of a field. Whether or not the ancient god still appears on its crest is another matter but could this legend have inspired Robert E. Howard’s famous Cthulhu Mythos story “The Black Stone”?  And perhaps the legend of the Berkeley Toad disguises some far older truth and more ancient gods.

So what are we to make of the tale of the Toad?  Was there indeed some form of ancient monster dwelling under Berkeley Castle in the early 1500s?  Or does the fable mask some older belief dating back to the early days of Mankind? Perhaps the Berkeley Toad is a much more complex monster than we might initially think.                    

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