Toads and the History of Essex Witchcraft

In Essex Countryside Magazine,

Issue 320, Page 31. 1983

Written by Dr. John Leo Grange

In 1609 an Essex witch called Redcap confessed under torture that she and her coven collected toads for the sabbath, and when they presented these animals to the Devil he blessed them with his left hand, after which they were killed and cooked with fat in a stewpot to make “an unguent which is of virtue to help us in our arts and pleasures and our trasportations”.

More than 300 years later, in the Sunday Chronical for September 9, 1928, a Horseheath resident told how a dark stranger had called on a woman nearby called Redcap (a traditional and sometimes hereditary witch name in Essex) and asked her to sign her name in a book, where-upon he promised her she would have five creatures to obey her. Shortly afterwards she was seen with a rat, a cat, a ferret, a mouse, and a toad, which were assumed to have been her familiars. She boiled up the toad with fat to make an ointment with which she smeared herself all over before, supposedly, shape-shifting and flying away on nocturnal broomstick flights.

Essex has always been one of the most witch-haunted counties in England – Francis Bacon estimated that there were some 1,500 witches in Essex in the reign of James I – and Essex witches have almost invariably had toads as their familiars and smeared themselves with ointments made from toads before flying away on broomstick flights, following the advice given in Macbeth by Shakespeare, who knew a great deal about the everyday practice of witchcraft in Elizabethan England:

But why were the witches' potions and unguents always made from from toads? Why was there always a toad in the charmed pot? The answer to these questions can be found in a recent research into the strange biochemistry of the toad's skin.

The warty skin of the common toad Bufo bufo is a marvellous miniaturised factory producing 31 different irritants, poisons, and deliriants which protect the animal against its enemies: rats, dogs, foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, grass snakes, and the like. When the toad is attacked by a dog, let us suppose, muscles contract around the warts contract, squeezing an acrid, milky, and quite deadly venom out over its body. The dog takes a bite, retreats foaming at the mouth and howling with anguish, and, if it has any sense at all, learns its lesson: this animal is taboo! If the dog is silly, ignores the searing pain and delirium, and swallows the toad it will drop dead, just like that.

One of the poisons in the toad venom is bufadeniolide, a cardiac glycoside – heart poison – called bufotalin. Chemically, it resembles the lethal digitalins of foxglove and the Malayan upas tree. It makes the heart seize up and stop. Which is why the dog drops dead.

Another component of the toad's venom bufotenin – 5-OH-Dimethyl tryptamine – resembles mescalin, the Mexican drug from the Peyotl cactus, in its chemical structure. Like mescalin, it mimics a neurotransmitter inside the human brain. And like mescalin, it is a potent deliriant and hallucinogen (mongoose in the West Indies sometimes become addicted to the skin of the local giant toad Bufo marinus).

Neurotransmitters are little chemical molecules which transmit messages from the brain cell to the next. Brain cells send out electrical signals that travel along thin, long fibres called axons to other, remote, parts of the brain; when these electrical messages reach their target at the end of the axon they trigger the release of minute quantities of excitatory or inhibitory chemicals – neurotransmitters which produce further electric changes in the target brain cells, altering their state. When someone smears themselves with an ointment made from toad venom, bufotenin molecules enter the blood-stream, travel all round the body, and flood the brain with false messages, producing strange illusions and hallucinations, and one hallucination in particular: the hallucination of flying through the air.

When Essex witches smeared themselves with a fatty ointment made from a toads swelter'd venom, and absorbed bufotenin through the skin (but not, let me hastel to add, the cardiac poison bufotalin, which is insoluble in fat) they really did find themselves soaring away on strange, exhilarating broomstick flights. But while the witches' mind soared away to join the Wild Hunt, “hovering through the fog and filthy air”, in Shakespeare's words, her feet stayed firmly on the kitchen floor.

The witch was taken in, of course, and really and truly believed she could “ambol and gallop through the air on a broomstick, when and what manner she listed”. How was she to know that her marvelous psychedelic flights through a magic landscape were not corporeal? How was she to know that a little chemical molecule was playing games with the biochemistry of the mind and the biochemistry of reality and illusion? She had no way of knowing – mos: witches were ignorant and superstitious – and many ignorant and superstitious people who heard her tales were taken-in too, but as early as the 16th and 17th centuries a number of sceptical churchmen and scientists began to suspect the truth.

In 1609, for example, Francis Bacon investigated the case, and the superstition-laden trial, of the Essex witch Redcap, and commented: “The great wonder witches tell of, carrying in the air, transporting themselves into other bodies etc, are still reported to be wrought, not by incantations or ceremonies, but by ointments made from toads, and anointing themselves all over. This may justly move a man to think that these fables are the effects of a disordered imagination.”

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