Our croaky Gods: frogs across creational myths

Frogs and toads, the Anurans. When Homo sapiens took their first steps across Eastern Africa, and later spread across the globe, anurans were already present in almost every corner of the world. Currently, the relation between humans and anurans is complicated. While we know more about them than we have ever known, our presence and activities represent a threat that they had never had to face before. The ecological and taxonomical value of these species is without question, but not many people are aware that anurans have a not-well known additional value: they are part of the history of our own species. For hundreds of thousands of years, anurans inspired us. Their unique morphology, strong dependency of water, and full-body metamorphosis inspired many different myths across different cultures, resulting in stunning cases of cultural convergence that drew parallels between them and some of our most primeval fears, ideas and necessities. In this article, we take a cultural tour around the globe, finding instances in which frogs became myths, and even gods.*

* This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully I achieved a fairly-good global representation of these myths. Folktales and minor traditions are not considered, only gods, creational myths and some additional curiosities. Most of these myths were orally transmitted and prone to change. If you know about one of these myths, and have a different version, feel free to add it in the comment section!

The first evidence of human-frog contact

It’s the end of the Palaeolithic and the Magdalenian cultures (ca. 17000-12000 BC) of Western Europe are exploring new forms of art, beautifully depicted in Lascaux (France) or Altamira (Spain). Further north, in Gönnerdorf (Germany) the late Magdalenian cultures (ca. 12000 BC) leave us, engraved in shale, the first known depiction of a frog. 

The frog of Gönnersdorf, possibly Rana arvales or Rana temporaria, portrayed as jumping to catch a prey. Bosinsky & Bosinsky 2005 (right-depiction in the shape of a frog).

Since then, frogs have appeared in countless oral, written an artistic traditions across the globe, still present to this day, sometimes taking major roles in the cosmogony of multiples cultures: from symbols of the whole universe by the Chinese Nakhi, to representations of the Milky Way by the Brazilian Kóbeua. Although many of such myths exist, frogs seem to have been portrayed mainly under three categories: frogs as primordial humans, frogs as omens of fertility and frogs as controllers of rain and water. Why did this striking cultural convergence occur?

Map of the world, with the locations of all the myths referred to in this article. Spelling of some cultures’ names may change depending on their adaptation into English phonemes. Global representation may be biased based on number of researchers (…)

Frogs as the origin of humans

San Rock art. This may be depicting a transformational series from frog to human (although this is contested). See Watelson, 2018

A lack of a tale, the absence of fur, visible fingers… It is not difficult to understand why many human cultures have myths in which frogs and humans are intertwined. Neolithic rock art, ranging from North America to Europe and Asia, already shows “frog-men”, silhouettes which may represent people, frogs or both. Frog-transforming people show up across widely different cultures. For example, European “witches” were commonly accused of transforming people into frogs, a conception that is still present in our media. The Taino of the Dominican Republic explain the similarity between the word “teat” and “frog” in taino-creole through a transformational myth. When people left the cave of creation, men and women were separated,  and the children were left with the men. Those children started to cry, calling for the teat in a loud “toa, toa!”. As they chanted “toa!”, the children transformed into frogs, which were later known as “tona”. 

In some cases, frogs represent a previous ancestral state of mankind. The South African |Xam traditions tell us of the god !Kwah, who supervises women in menarcheal seclusion. To those women that defied god and left that seclusion, he would transform them and their family into frogs. As this transformation occurred, all their possessions also transformed, becoming twigs and grasses, returning to an ancestral state.

Other cultures see frogs as the direct ancestors of their culture or humanity as a whole. The Taiwanese Saisiat believe that centuries ago, a fisherman found a frog in its net. The fisherman discarded the frog as undesired, but while he was doing that, the frog transformed into a kid. This kid eventually grew up, becoming the founder of one of the main Saisiat familes, the Taputaberasu. The Va people form Myanmar believe that their ancestors were two tadpoles living on the top of a hill.  The tadpoles became frogs, and the frogs later became ogres. These ogre-ancestors used to eat deer, goats, and other medium-sized animals. But one day, they ate humans, and brought their skulls back to their cave. This triggered a change in the ogres, who, for the first time were able to have children, human-like, the ancestors of the Va, and inaugurated their tradition of headhunting.

Sometimes, the creator of humanity, god, is a frog. The vietnamese Bahnar, believe that one of their ancestors became a frog and ascended into heaven, becoming the god of agriculture. In traditional Chinese Mythology, the goddess Nüwa was the one who created humanity using clay. While Nüwa is not normally depicted as a frog, both her name (wa in Chinese can be translated as frog) and her association with water, may hint to a certain deeper origin related to frogs. Further croaky gods are, for example, Selampandai, who is sometimes depicted by the Iban of Borneo as a frog. For some Iban,  frogs are thus sacred, and if they enter your house, a sacrifice must be offered. 

If one myth does not picture frogs in a good light, is Christianism. Frogs are not precisely recognized in the Bible, only appearing twice: as a plague, and coming out from the mouths of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. The XVII century Dutch biologist Jan Swammerdam had been studying frogs for his research on muscles and as a Christian, was terrified by this fact. How could his God put less effort in frogs than in other animals? Swammerdam thought that the Christian God maybe did not create animals into bad (frogs) and good (sheep, for example). Rather, animals were created in a gradient, closing into the image of the ‘highest animals’. This gradient would go from animals that had first stages completely different from the final ones (butterflies), to stages of certain similarity, but experiencing change (frogs) to the stage of the ‘higher animals’ (sheep), in which the body does not change. Metamorphosis, then, reflected the different phases towards becoming ‘higher animals’. Frogs, then, were not malicious, but rather still close, although not totally, to the ‘higher animals’.

Frogs: goddesses of fertility

The Egyptian goddess Heqet. Image from here

Frog eggs are conspicuous: abundant, easy to identify and easy to encounter. Many frogs even perform acts of brood care, transporting their eggs or their tadpoles on their backs or inside their mouth. These two factors could have possibly inspired cultures around the globe, who ended up revering frogs as symbols of fertility. In some parts of Eastern Europe, some couples performed ritual dances called Žapci, which imitated the jumping of frogs, while touching each other’s genitals, a fertility dance. Some cultures drew parallels between frogs and women: in Coptic art (Egypt, 300 AD), frogs sometimes appear depicted with human female genitalia on their bellies, the North American Klamath believed frogs were medicine-bringing women and in some regions of the Austrian Tyrol, it was believe that frogs were portents of pregnancy, and that women could carry frogs in their womb, beliefs that lasted until the XXth Century. In some villages across the South Slavs (Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria…), children were not allowed to call frogs by their usual name (žaba), and had to use a nickname (baba). If children would call frogs by their actual name, it was believed to bring bad luck to their mother (or even kill her), hinting a certain connection between frogs and motherhood.

In Ancient Egypt, the relationship between frogs and fertility was carried even further, through the goddess Heqet. Heqet is a frog-headed goddess of fertility, who appears in the last moments of birth to aid, and was similarly present in Horus’ birth and Osiris’ rebirth. Given her relation with birth and rebirth, Heqet, and the image of a frog, was even used by early Christians to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Frogs: goddesses of rain

Amphibian literally translates as two lifestyles or “double bioma”. Water is intrinsically related to the life of most frogs, but is also intrinsically related to us. Water constitutes our source of food, drinking, cleaning… The same way frogs depend on water, so do we, drawing parallels between both species, leading different cultures to elevate frogs as creators or rulers of the rain and water.

Some Mongolian myths explain the origin of not only water, but all the elements, through frogs. According to these myths, Buddha was once trying to create Earth. In a pond, he spotted a golden frog. Buddha shot an arrow with the two first elements (metal and wood) to the frog. In contact, the frog spit fire from its mouth, water from its back, and transformed into a pile of golden sand. Buddha applied this sand on his back, creating earth. With that, all elements were finally created: metal, wood, fire, water and earth.

Frogs are, in some cases, the enemies of thunder-rain gods. In Chinese Zhuang mythology, the god of thunder had once a son, a frog. The god of thunder was constantly threatening humanity with thunderstorms, ruling with an iron fist, but the frog took pity on them. Together with humanity, the frog created a bronze drum with six other frogs, that when played, was louder than the drum of the god of thunder, preventing the formation of storms. Bronze drums figuring frogs were common through ancient China, symbolizing storms, thunder and lightning. In the Vietnamese tale “The Toad who brought the rain”, frogs actually started a war against the god of lightning. Facing a cruel drought, frogs railed up all the other animals, and started a revolution. The animals won the war, and since then, every time a frog croaks, it is actually a frog demanding the god of lightning rain.

Frogs on a bronze drum. Heger Type III bronze drum, from the Karen of Yunnan (China). Image, and know more about it here

In some cultures, frogs are the goddesses of water. In ancient Egypt, the Ogdoads were 8 snake and frog headed deities (4 of each). The frog ones, named Kek, Nu, Hehu and Qerth, represented not only the waters, but also the “vital force”, darkness and inactivity. Similarly, according to the North American Chumash, the frog is actually the Queen of the Water, that who controls all the streams in the world. For the Chumash, frogs were also shamanistic helpers, who helped them transcend into the spirit world. As frogs go from water to land, so does the shaman go from this world to the spirit world.

In some myths, frogs are related to drought, either as its antithesis or as hoarders of water. The Chinese Tuija believe that the Earth was originally flooded and god had to create 24 suns to dry it up. The frogs rebelled against this global drought, and ate 22 of those suns, leaving only two lights in the sky: the Sun and the Moon. The North American Penobscot believe that an ancient giant toad (Agalibému) once swallowed all the water in the world, resulting in a massive drought. The first man, Gluskage, hunted and killed Agalibému (he also killed a giant grasshopper who was hoarding all tobacco of the world, but that is a different story), liberating the waters, and creating the first rivers.

THE END. Frogs have inspired humans throughout their history. Currently, frogs are some of the most widely used and recognizable animals in popular media, continuing, in some sense, this tradition. Frogs are not only unique and amazing animals, but also part of our cultural heritage, and thus, a treasure worth protecting. Image: frog Pokémon (C) The Pokémon Company

References

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm, by Eda Green (c. 1909) (anglicanhistory.org)

Beeker, C. D., Conrad, G. W., & Foster, J. W. (2002). Taíno use of flooded caverns in the East National Park region, Dominican Republic. Journal of Caribbean Archaeology3, 1-26.

Coptic art in the Coptic museum – Coptic Wiki (coptic-wiki.org)

A Dictionary of Creation Myths – David Adams Leeming, David Adams (Professor of English and Comparative Literature Leeming, University of Connecticut) – Google Llibres

Gupta, A. (2013). Altruism in Indian religions: Embracing the biosphere. In Altruism in Cross-Cultural Perspective (pp. 101-112). Springer, New York, NY.

Magiman, M. M., Chelum, A., Durin, A., Nie, C. L. K., & Mohd Yusoff, A. N. (2018). The Iban’s Belief towards the Meaning of Pua Kumbu’s Motif. Scholars Journal of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences6(8), 1490-1496.

Mongol mythology – Wikipedia

Pallua, J. V. (2019). What Can the Mythical Frog Tell Us? The Symbolism and Role of the Frog in History and Modernity. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, (77), 63-90.

Schipper, M., Ye, S., & Yin, H. (Eds.). (2011). China’s Creation and Origin Myths: Cross-cultural Explorations in Oral and Written Traditions (Vol. 2). Brill.

Sleigh, C. (2012). Jan Swammerdam’s frogs. Notes and Records of the Royal Society66(4), 373-392.

Speck, F. G. (1935). Penobscot tales and religious beliefs. The Journal of American Folklore48(187), 1-107.

Solomon, A. (1997). The myth of ritual origins? Ethnography, mythology and interpretation of San rock art. The South African Archaeological Bulletin, 3-13.

Obayashi, T. (1966). Anthropogonic Myths of the Wa in Northern Indo-China. Hitotsubashi journal of social studies3(1 (3), 43-66.

Vietnamese Fables of Frogs and Toads (creighton.edu)

Wassén, H. (1934). The frog in Indian mythology and imaginative world. Anthropos, (H. 5./6), 613-658.

Whitley, D. S. (1992). Shamanism and rock art in far western North America. Cambridge Archaeological Journal2(1), 89-113.

Witelson, D. (2018). Frogs or people: Dorothea Bleek and a genealogy of ideas in rock art research. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa53(2), 185-208.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. carlessavall says:

    Don’t forget Tsathoggua, the toad god from the Chtulhu Myths.

    As you can find on Wikipedia:
    “Tsathoggua (the Sleeper of N’kai, also known as Zhothaqquah) is a supernatural entity in the Cthulhu Mythos shared fictional universe. He is the creation of American writer Clark Ashton Smith and is part of his Hyperborean cycle.

    Tsathoggua/Zhothaqquah is described as an Old One, a god-like being from the pantheon. He was introduced in Smith’s short story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, written in 1929 and published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales. His first appearance in print, however, was in H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Whisperer in Darkness”, written in 1930 and published in the August 1931 issue of Weird Tales”.

    Like

    1. Way better than Chtulhu!

      Liked by 1 person

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