February 01, 2006

Peace, Frog: A Witch's Familiar.

Tomorrow is Candlemas! I'm not sure exactly why, but I adore this holiday. Don't get me wrong, I like Christmas and Easter, but there's something about Candlemas that gets my engines revving. The first hints of spring, even in the coldest hours. More light, longer days, crocuses and candles and a thorough spring cleaning, new beginning--what's not to love? Anyway, I'll write a more formal Candlemas meditation tomorrow in celebration and commemoration. For now, I thought I would enjoy my lightened mood by sharing some thoughts about frogs.

I realize that the idea of "familiars" or "animal totems" is a popular topic among many witches. For some reason, the concept has never called to me or inspired me as particularly important. Perhaps it's because many of us like to romanticize our animal friends. We want sleek or mysterious totems: wise-eyed felines or moon-howling wolves, graceful horses or eerily-voiced crows. Every once in a while, someone will talk about spiders or rats as examples of how animal guides can be common and even, God forbid, "icky." Usually, this warning strikes me mostly as lip-service to the less attractive but still stereotypical witch companions. But last night, while I was dozing off to an episode of X-Files, I suddenly found myself feeling an overwhelming appreciation for an animal familiar which had acted as guide and companion to me long before I'd ever heard of Neopaganism or witchcraft: the glorious little frog.

First of all, take a moment to appreciate the simple, slippery beauty of the frog. As Mitch Hedberg once said, "I have never said, 'Here comes that frog!' in an apprehensive manner. It's always optimistic, like, 'Hey, here comes that frog. All right! Maybe he will settle near me... so I can pet him...'"

All through my childhood, frogs kept popping up everywhere I turned. When I was in sixth grade, I went with my class on a field trip to the Baltimore Aquarium, where I was introduced for the first time to the startling beauty of the many kinds of tree frogs, poisonous and brilliant. My friends and I bought matching tree frog rings and formed a secret-super-hero club, with the frog as our mascot (I can't remember what we named our club, but I'm sure it was something clever). By the time I reached high school, I had been collecting frog figurines and stuffed animals for years, even making a few frog arts & crafts projects myself. A kiosk in the local mall started the Peace Frog trend. You know what I'm talking about: those hip, mellow frogs adorned with all sorts of funky patterns and wardrobes, always casually flashing the peace sign with their webby fingers as if to say, "Hey man, it's all right..." Not only did I end up owning a ridiculous number of these tee-shirts, but for a few years, I even kept a mail-order water frog as a pet (his name was Mr. Tuddles).

Looking back over my fascination with frogs suddenly has me feeling very nostalgic (you have no idea how tempted I am to order a cute, friendly tadpole right this moment). But more than that, it reminds me of just how much I learned through my many-year engagement with the symbolism and lessons of the frog.

First of all, frogs undergo metamorphosis, growing from tiny tadpole into full-blown frog, developing new organs of interaction with their surrounding environments as their needs change. They are symbols not only of rebirth and reincarnation, but also of more gradual transformation, the necessity of change and flexibility. We are all familiar with the story of the frog who turned into a prince when kissed by a beautiful young woman. Some psychologists interpret this story to be about embracing our own subconscious, looking past its superficial shock and ugliness and accepting our own inner beauty. Indeed, frogs are in many ways elusive creatures. They communicate to the depths of the subconscious, disappearing into the dark waters just when we think we've found them for good, and then appearing again out of the grass just when we weren't looking. Though hard to spot in their natural habitats, they are still always making their presence known through the rhythmic pulse of their croaking call. I remember the experience of witnessing a Tibetan Buddhist ritual, the monks chanting prayers as they swept away the sand mandala that they had spent the past week slowly 'painting' grain by grain. The deep-throated chant reminded me so vividly of the songs I'd heard rising from Mr. Tuddles' tank in my bedroom each night, so many years ago. In some ways, the frog's call, like the prayers of the monks, teach us not to hold on too rigidly to the way things are, to accept the dissolution of the past into the ever-changing present, and to embrace seemingly ugly or frightening changes so that we may come to appreciate and embrace their full transformative potential. (Note: another connection to Buddhism--often the frog is pictured as seated on a lily pad, while the lily, or lotus, is a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment, having its roots in the mud below while its blossom floats on the pure surface; you might think of the frog as a slimy, green Buddha squatting in meditation beneath this symbol.)

Perhaps this relationship to the hidden powers of the unconscious, evoked by water symbolism, also speaks to why the frog is associated with the Egyptian goddess Heket, more widely known in European witchcraft as Hecate, a goddess of the moon, magic and fertility. (It may be a stretch, but it is possible that the modern stereotype of the witch with a green, wart-covered face stems from the imagery of this frog-headed Goddess of Witches.) Moon symbolism also often involves the concepts of transformation and life-stages, as represented by the moon's monthly cycles, as well as the mystery of magic and the hidden powers of the mind and spirit. The moon's relationship with the female hormonal cycle also recalls ideas of childbirth and fertility, while frogs evoke these associations because of the myriad eggs they lay when mating, as well as their sheer abundant presence during rainy seasons (frogs are sometimes even thought to call down the rain with their croaking, another similarity to the moon and its influence over the ocean tides). The hallucinogenic secretions from the skins of certain species of frog have been used in ritual magic and shamanic journeying and are, more generally, associated with ideas of alchemical transformation. Such magical workings and fertility concepts are, in many ways, merely specific examples of the broader symbolism of birth and rebirth.

Frogs are also symbols of peaceful, harmonious coexistence and interdependence with nature. They are amphibious creatures, adapted to life both on land and in water. C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters, describes human beings, too, as amphibious creatures, part material and part spiritual (though, like the frog, not evenly divided as this half one, and that half the other). The amphibian nature is, in some ways, a contrapositive to alienation and isolation. Instead of feeling disconnected from one's environment and out of place no matter where one goes, the amphibian fits into both environments, bridging the gap between various ways of life that may seem contradictory. Furthermore, frogs' skins are usually very porous (some species even breathe through their skin almost exclusively, barely using lungs or gills at all). Thus, they are highly sensitive to any toxins in their environments. The X-Files episode reminded me of this when it opened with a scientist gathering up these delicate creatures, mourning that mankind's pollutants were slowly destroying the local frog population. Deformities found in frogs in an area are often the first indications that something is out of balance in the ecosystem, so that the frog is similar to the canary which miners took with them to give advanced warning, through its death, of the presence of dangerous gases. The frog's "thin skin" is not a weakness, however, but a gift, challenging the notion of the individual self as isolated and cut-off from its surroundings. Just as the frog's metamorphosis teaches us to embrace chance and transformation, its sensitivity to the state of the surrounding world serve as a lesson about our own interdependence. Even its physical body can be seen as symbolizing this relationship--its huge eyes, taking in everything around it; its loud croaking and expanding throat that allow it to communicate; its strong hind legs that aid it in swimming and leaping from place to place--all of these are ways in which interaction with its environment is heightened and expanded.

It has been years since I last thought deeply about frogs. For all of my happy obsession as a child, once I got to college, I slowly forgot all about them. I gave my pet frog away to a friend of my father's, whose little daughter wanted her own pet to care for and love. I left most of my frog figurines (and silly frog jewelry) at home, embarrassed to have it about my dorm room where my roommate and her friends could see. Perhaps the thing that shocked me out of my frog-affinity the most was when, in the fall of my freshman year at college, I witnessed the dissection of a frog and saw, up close, how even after it was dead, the heart could still be stimulated into reflexive beating by calcium powder. That image of the poor thing's chest cut open, its heart still twitching, disturbed me, maybe in ways I didn't then realize. It seemed to suggest to me that, for the time being at least, I would need a "thicker skin" if I was going to get through the following years of intense study. I may have idealized the frog's peaceful coexistence with its environment, but often when people want to learn, they take what they are studying and tear it to pieces to figure out how it works. The frog's knowledge of life is intuitive, it drinks in its relationship, breathes it in through its very skin. But our knowledge often comes through dissection, through cold analysis and picking apart something from the inside out. Perhaps this is the final lesson we can learn from the frog--that sometimes, as hard as it may be, sacrifice is necessary, dissection is a necessary teaching tool. But this death is not final--we can return to the living presence, as well. The frog is not merely a symbol of scalpels and latex gloves, but of rebirth and reincarnation, of life itself.

I think the time has come to recall this hope and come back to honoring the frog as my personal guide. Perhaps in the future, I will feel pulled towards a new totem and the lessons it has to teach me, but for now, my green little amphibians--so alien in appearance and yet so perfectly suited to this earth--have lessons that I want to relearn. I think I will write to my mother and ask her to dig through my old jewelry boxes, looking for that emerald-green frog pendant or that sterling silver frog ring. Perhaps she can send them to me along with the Valentine's Day care package she always remembers to send, and I can rededicate them as symbols of my own rebirth and initiation into witchcraft. What do you think?


Post a Comment

<< Home