Editor’s Note: Let the Toads Fall From Your Lips

Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads”[1] is a story of two sisters whose character traits are cleaved along the usual fairy tale lines: one sister is beautiful and preternaturally kind; the other plain and rude. The pretty, sweet sister meets an enchanted woman at a well and the woman gives her a peculiar gift: each time she opens her ruby mouth to speak, flowers and gemstones fall from her lips. The other sister tries to replicate the first one’s success but is cursed, rather than blessed, by the enchanted woman. Toads and snakes escape her mouth when she opens her pencil-thin lips. Although Perrault sends the diamond-mouthed sister to marry a prince and the toad-spewing sister into the woods to die, he didn’t really need this ending to clarify which sister was bad and which was good. It would have been clear to readers of Perrault’s day, for whom diamonds were shiny symbols of wealth and toads were associated with devilry.

The connection between toads, frogs, and evil has deep roots in Western folklore and religious literature. Throughout the brutal and bloody witch trials of 15th-18th century Europe, toads were frequently considered the familiars of black magick practitioners, hopping about villages to carry out the work of warty, spiteful sorceresses. In Roman mythology, rude villagers forbade the goddess Latona from drinking clear pond water, even after she implored, “‘Why do you refuse me water? Water is free to all. Nature allows no one to claim as property the sunshine, the air, or the water.’” As punishment for their refusal, Latona turned them into frogs.[2] And in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, the second plague the God of the Hebrews casts upon the Egyptians is that of frogs: “They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs.”

That sounds like a terrible plague, but when the Ancient Egyptians weren’t beset with frogs they venerated them. The Egyptian goddess of fertility, Heqet, was frequently represented as a woman with an amphibian head. This association between frogs and fertility was related to a natural phenomenon: millions of frogs were birthed when the Nile flooded, a yearly cycle that provided much-needed water for Egyptian crops. Similar associations are found in Aztec and Ancient Greek cosmologies, recognizing amphibians’ crucial ecological roles.

Frogs and toads are still important although, these days, they’re dying off. “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction. The culprit is a deadly fungus called batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). While the origins of Bd are uncertain, one thing seems clear to scientists who study the issue: it was spread by the shipment of Bd-carrying frogs around the world. Two possible vector species, African clawed frogs and North American bullfrogs, are “widely infected with Bd but do not seem to be harmed by it.” The African clawed frogs were transported to other continents for use in pregnancy tests in the 1950s and 60s; North American bullfrogs have both stowed away on ships and been intentionally exported for culinary purposes.

“Extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels,” Kolbert adds, “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”[3]

When I re-read “Diamonds and Toads,” I find myself daydreaming about meeting the enchanted woman at the well. I imagine thousands, maybe millions, of humans–those of us concerned about the mass extinction racking the earth, an extinction caused by our species–lining up to talk to her, saying rude things and getting cursed in return. Perhaps some of us would, like the naughty sister, spill toads from our throats, repopulating amphibians across the earth. [4] Perhaps the fairy woman would tire of that curse and vary her punishments. Corals and mollusks, leopards and lemurs would leap from our mouths; those very same animals consumed by human spears and axes, guns and poison, by the pavement that has been poured over the earth.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry


[1] Heiner, Heidi Anne. “The Annotated Diamonds and Toads.” SurLaLune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/diamondstoads/

[2] Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable. 1859. Dover Thrift Editions, 2000.

[3] Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction. Picador, 2014.

[4] Of course, you could argue that those frogs would come down with chytrid fungi in due time, that they too would be wiped out. But this is a fairy tale. Fairy tales aren’t supposed to make perfect sense.