Weird Norfolk: Do you need a spell to bring home your adulterous husband? Call the Norfolk Toad Witches
- Credit: Wellcome Collection
A pact with the Devil, a midnight ritual and the sacrifice of a toad – it sounds like medieval witchcraft, but in fact it's a ritual which took place in Norfolk within living memory. Weird Norfolk examine Norfolk's amphibian witchcraft.
If you need a magic spell to make adulterous husbands walk home backwards from their mistress's house or (somewhat less impressively) stop milk turning into butter, many Norfolk folk used to reach for their nearest toad.
In a practice which is not to be encouraged, the Eastern Counties Magazine of 1901 recounted the wisdom of Tilly Baldry, a wisewoman with a sideline in witchcraft whose advice involved carrying a rotting toad in your cleavage, waiting for the Devil at midnight and asking him to bestow great power on you.
Toad Witches, Toadmen or Toadwomen were believed to have power over animals and people thanks to a magical toad bone which they had extracted in a magical manner from a toad which had been sacrificed in order to make a diabolic pact with the Devil.
The bone was used in a wide range of ways – powdered, it could be mixed with other ingredients to make a 'jading oil' to bewitch horses, held or worn its invisible influence could make a person powerful, nailed to a door it would show that a person had been 'overlooked' by a witch.
An elaborate ritual was involved in toad magic and the person who performed it would become a Toadman or Toadwoman – the ritual was, we should warn anyone of a sensitive nature, rather unpleasant, particularly for toads.
As Tilly Baldry put it: 'You ketch a hopping toad and carry that in your bosom till that's rotted right away to the back-boon. Then you take and hold that over running water at midnight till the Devil he come to you and pull you over the water… and then you be a witch and you kin dew all mander of badness to people and her power over 'em.'
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Bones from toads and frogs played a vital role in country magic with a belief that toads held special powers stretching back to Pliny the Elder in the first century who believed that a toadstone could be found in the head of the creature which was the antidote to poison, that a bone in the toad's left side could be boiled and used to find love or cure madness in dogs while boiling a bone from the right side of a toad's skeleton would lead to it becoming ice-cold forever.
Wise folk gathered toads for the ritual and had preferred toads from special places - neither of which I will document in case someone is deadly keen to force their wayward spouse to walk backwards – and the ritual involved in procuring the bone was less than savoury even if it didn't include clutching the amphibian to one's bosom.
More commonly, the poor toad would be placed in a box pierced with pins, crucified on a thorn bush or injured and left on an ant heap to be picked dry by insects: kinder magicians would use a toad which had already died, suggesting that sacrifice wasn't integral to the ritual.
Once the toad's skeleton had been exposed, it would be taken to a river at night, wrapped in cloth.
The best night of the year to perform the ritual was shortly after Midsummer's night on St John's Eve, thought to be one of the most powerful and supernatural nights of the year, and at midnight, would-be Toad Witches would place the toad bones into a river or stream.
Another popular night for the ritual was on St Mark's Eve on April 24, another hugely significant night in supernatural circles: from the 17th to 19th century, it was custom to sit in church porches in silence between the hours of 11pm and 1am when one would see the ghosts of those to die during the year passing into the building.
The ritual was given primetime prominence in the late 1970s when a British children's TV show, Moonstallion, included scenes where the Toad Ritual was enacted in a fairly accurate manner (although at the wrong time of day). Set in the late Victorian era, the story includes a character called Todman who is a 'horse warlock', or horse whisperer, and whose powers come from his magical toad amulet.
The Toad Bone ritual was described by Albert Love, born in 1886, in work published in 1966: 'Well, the toads that we use for this are actually in the Yarmouth area in and around Fritton. We get these toads alive and bring them home. We bring them home, kill them, and put them on a whitethorn bush.
'They are there for twenty four hours till they dry. Then we bury the toad in an ant-hill; and it's there for a full month, till the moon is at the full. Then you get it out; and it's only a skeleton. You take it down to a running stream when the moon is at the full. You watch it carefully, particular not to take your eyes off it. There's a certain bone, a little crotch-bone it is, it leaves the rest of the skeleton and floats uphill against the stream. Well, you take that out of the stream, take it home, bake it, powder it and put it in a box; and you use oils with it...
'While you are watching these bones in the water, you must on no consideration take your eyes off it. Do [if you do] you will lose all power. That's where you get your power from for messing about with horses, just keeping your eyes on that particular bone.
'But when you are watching it and these bones are parting, you'll hear all the trees and all the noises that you can imagine, even as if buildings were falling down or a traction engine is running over you. But you still mustn't take your eyes off, because that's where you lose your power. Of course, the noises must be something to do with the Devil's work in the middle of the night...'
Some accounts claim the bones would scream or that the rattling of chains could be heard – if either happened, they had to be ignored because the bones had to be carefully watched until the moment when one separated itself from the skeleton and floated away: this was the toad bone, the magical bone filled with power.
In some stories, this is the point when the Devil appears and brokers a deal with the Toad Witch before sending them away with the magical amulet.
Toad Witches would have incredible power – they would be fearless and be able to control animals and humans, they could see in the dark, but most importantly in agricultural Norfolk, they would have supreme power over horses and would be able to calm them, tame them, stop them in their tracks or make a tame beast wild.
But, as with all things, the magic came at a price: author Nigel Pennick who has written extensively about magic in East Anglia (including The Toadman, a book which was bound in toadskin leather and cloth) points out that the power of the toad bone was dangerous to those who held it who might be '…driven to insanity by exercise of these powers…a violent death is to be expected.'
An old Toadman, when asked what a person would need to do in order to gain the same powers he enjoyed, gave a sobering warning: 'Don't. If you do, you will never rest.'
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