A Toad on the Moon: Or a Brief Speculation on Chinese Psychoactive Toad Venoms

A Toad on the Moon: Or a Brief Speculation on Chinese Psychoactive Toad Venoms

by Frederick R. Dannaway

Aquila volans per aerem et Bufo gradiens per terram est Magisterium  (The eagle flying in the air and the toad crawling on the ground is the Magistery) ~ M. Maier Symbola Aureae Mensae duodecim Natiounum, Frankfort, 1617. 

 





Anthropologists speculate that a species of toad, Bufo marinus or related species, was used as ritual entheogen based mostly on iconographic and mythological representations (Kennedy 1982;Weil 1994) though some reject this (Thompson 1970). There is no concrete proof of the use in ancient South America though the circumstantial evidence  is compelling of some type of ingestion of toad venom in Mesoamerica (Davis and Weil 1992). Modern psychonauts smoke the dried venom of Bufo alvarius which produces a powerful high as it contains 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin. This fact somehow got seriously confounded in pop cultural imagination with "licking" the skin of the toad with a series of ill-informed toad-lickers causing episodes of hysteria. But beyond the smoking and licking there are known medical and aphrodisiac/tonic properties to toad venoms. These were known to have been exploited in ancient times in China and throughout Asia. In 1995 there was a minor bevy of illnesses and overdoses, prompting the DEA to take action, associated with the illicit use of Chinese toad venom extracts sold under such names as "Chinese Stone," "LoveStone," "Black Stone.” While said to be intended for topical use, one finds a continued folk use of poison creatures for psychoactive and aphrodisiac purposes throughout Asia, especially such creatures as toads, scorpions and snakes. Ethnobotanist Christian Ratsch reports of sadhus or agnihotra tantrikas adding cobra venom to their chillam pipes of hashish to make them more potent.

            In China, the toad venom or Chan Su or senso in Japanese, has a long folk use as an anesthetic, for heart aliments and as a reputed aphrodisiac. The venom is “milked” from glands of the Bufo bufo gargarizans Gantor or Bufo melanostictus though, again, one hears anecdotal evidence of other species with different effects. Though toxic, it is in traditional formulas, Liu Shen Wan (Six Miracle Pill) for example, to remove blood toxicity and modern research links it with anti-cancer effects (Ko et. al. 2005). It is uncertain as to what extent toad venoms were used in Chinese history as all manner of toxic substances were employed by Chinese Daoists, alchemists, shamans and necromancers. As Needham’s nearly exhaustive research on substances exploited in alchemy (and industry and medicine) it seemed the more exotic or potentially toxic the better. This paper presents some “iconographic and mythological representations” of an entheogenic use in China and Japan, perhaps especially associated with Chinese mystics and “Sennin” hermit/immortal cults of Japan. Needham (1983) writes of the toad that it "was vital for making the enchymoma. The flesh of the toad, moreover was valued as an aid to prolengevity and immortality by some ancient Taoists."

            Toads and mushrooms, such as in toadstools, have had a long association with the more wild, darker elements of reality. The toad is a creature of the night, is slimy and covered in warts and lives in wet, foreboding marshes and swamps. In Europe, the toad has a long relationship with witchcraft and the dark potions and brews usually call for one, with other reptiles, as ingredients. In China, the toad was associated with powerful drugs and elixirs and mushrooms in particular. As Wasson and Needham theorize, the lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), reishi of China, may have been chosen as a code for the Amanita muscaria mushroom to protect its profane use and for exclusive use by an elite. There are many images of the lingzhi mushroom depicted as growing out of the head of a toad linking toads, toadstool mushrooms and the possibly substituted lingzhi. Wasson informs us in China that the Amanita muscaria is known as hama jun (ha ma chun Needham 1974), the "toad-mushroom.”


One wonders what Wasson would have made of this picture, if he ever saw it. It is a fairly common motiff. Here the lingzhi, the toad and perhaps the Amanita all converge.

There is an interesting complex of potentially toxic, “chaos-substances” that can simultaneously be medicine, aphrodisiac and poison that also somehow link to immortality cults as well. Wasson wrote of cults that “survived in China until the 12th century, and in that century an unfriendly official of the Chinese government reporting on their activities complained that in their religious rites they consumed too many red mushrooms and performed ablutions with urine, apparently human urine.” Wasson writes that the toad and soma must have been associated together from “earliest times”(Wasson 1992).  As frogs and toads are often categorized and generalized together its interesting to not that O’Flaherty’s discussion of the sexual associations of uniting with a female frog in the context of a fire rite of Agni as well as the Hymns of the Frogs in the Rig Veda. Here the texture of the frogs, or toads perhaps, was likened to the Brahmins sweating around the soma bowl. The frogs are associated with the rains, which bring on the mushroom, as well as “prolonging of life” (O’Flaherty 1981; Morgan 1995) in a very interesting hymn of which I hope to treat at length in yet another paper. Ball (2004) informs that the Hindus “claim that the regent of the moon—known as Chandra or Soma—is symbolized by a toad.”

          

Immortals dance with the toad, note the various bottle gourds of medicine on belts and slung on the back.


             China, truly a land of legends, has many of the toad or frog, which nearly always associates with drugs of some kind. The confusion over toad and frog, as translated by scholars, has Ball (2004) clarifying that in Han dynasty portrayals are definitely toads. A myth, dating back to at least the Han dynasty, has the Lord of Archery’s wife stealing his reward for shooting the moon with an arrow given by the Queen of Heaven. This prize was a cup of jade filled with the “dew of immortality” (Ball 2004) (or in some version it is a pill). His wife steals it and flees to the moon and is transformed into a toad, and she is known as Ch’an Ch’u, the sacred toad of longevity (Ball 2004). There may well be an Indian origin for the association of the toad and moon:

            “The famous astronomer Chang Heng was avowedly a disciple of Indian teachers. The statement given by Chang Heng is to the effect that ‘How I, the fabled inventor of arrows in the days of Yao and Shu, obtained the drug of immortality from Si Wang Mu (the Royal Mother’ of the West); and Chang Ngo (his wife) having stolen it, fled to the moon, and became a frog –Chang-chu—”whose image is still seen on the moon (Harley 2004).




Another tradition is of the Daoist adept Hou Hsien-hsing who is known in Japan as Gama Sennin or Kosensei, and is  a mysterious drug seller. He is in tattered clothing, and is always accompanied by a toad who “exhales unusual vapors enclosing some form of mirage” and the immortal  was sometimes spotted shapeshifting in the toad (Ball 2004). Liu Hai, a 10th century AD Minister of the State, is popularly depicted riding a top of a three-legged toad, who flies him into the heavens and who knows the “secret of eternal life.” The itinerant medicine peddler was a common site in Japan and India, and one principle medicine was the toad-grease, which seemed to be something of a folk panacea. Many texts treat of the toad and immortality/moon legends but the precise origins remain obscure. None mention the link between creatures that exhale toxic vapors (or ‘shoots’ them when under attack like various bufo species) as constantly associated with drugs, immortality and the phenomena of “flight.” Many mention the medicinal action of toad-grease (toad secrete) but there are indications from alchemical texts that there were some very potent varieties. There must have been quite a systematic study, as some type of toad-grease was said to “soften jade” (Yoke 1968) though it was likely the abrasive in the grease as well. But if it was matter purely of a carrier for abrasives, as Needham suggests, surely though would be a more plentiful and easily obtainable lubricant than toad secretions, such as animal fat.


a toad on the shoulder rests...at the belt, a gourd of elixir drugs exhaling a miniture "self" to heaven

The evidence is circumstantial and the theory speculative but here is a culture with taxonomic study of mushrooms and toad venoms born of very ancient times. There is archaic use of toad venom for medicinal reasons. If there was “secret” use of mushroom, plant or alchemical substances for psychoactive/entheogenic purposes than the possibility of some ritual use of toad venom must be considered. There is far more evidence as context for use in China than Mesoamerica, the use of which is largely accepted, at least tentatively, by most scholars. Alchemical treatise such as those written by the Luminous Toad Master are discussed in Needham’s larger discussion of alchemy as related to quest for immortality. The mythological associations persist into several stories of immortals with toad companions. These adepts fly about, have magical powers and are “crazy” immortals with celestial drug recipes. A psychoactive toad venom practice, as secret as the Amanita muscaria in the Daoist Cannon, would shed light on some obscure associations beyond just that the toad was said to eat the moon during eclipses. Some legends have the toad, not the hare, as the one at the pestle pounding out the drug of deathlessness. Another explanation could be that the toad was itself a symbol for the Amanita mushroom as toad-stool.

 One can not help but think Needham knew something about all this:

 his comments are left intact with the scans from his masterpiece Science and Civilization in China Vol. 5, Pt. 5.  (my scanner is low-budget and these are the best I could get without damaging the books.)

The alchemical furnace alters were often to have the usual Taoist sword, and "Yin and Yang in the shapes of toad and phoenix" writes Needham.




 







Did this knowledge come from China into Japan via Daoism?


toad vapors and flying?

 

below, Liu Hai with his toad and gourd bottle of elixir

 


After a close scrutiny of the surviving poems of the Immortal and zen lunatic Han Shan, one is struck by some slight contradiction in his constant referral to immortals, magic mushrooms and his condemnation of the Yellow Turban type magicians. Many representations in China and Japan show Han Shan with the obligatory bottle gourd  holding the drug of immortality. But he is also depicted quite often in the company of large toads. Reading his surviving poems again I find the strange utterances and honest verse sprinkled with the above associations of immortality but scarce references to toads. He uses the term one time in the bilingual edition presented by “Red Pine” as a term for the moon. The poetic narrative of practical advice on the “way” with descriptions of hermit life are interrupted with “moon” verses and “magic mushroom songs” and talks of a magic pearl. Since he found the “magic pearl” “images leave no trace when they vanish, I roam the whole universe from here, lights and shadows flash across my mind…” Han Shan writes of visits with his friend Pickup, “we talk about the mind the moon or wide-open space, reality has no limit, so anything real includes it all.”

The poems are littered with botanical and mystical animal allusions (crane immortals) and magic fungi that grow under pines (it could be lingzhi but they mostly grow on decaying wood and that imagery is not suggested in his poems). Han Shan’s “madness” and allusions may just possibly refer to the flashing and dissipating nature of mind and “mind-manifesting” psychedelic experiences that ultimately confirm the hallucinatory and illusory nature of reality. Modern “wise ones” of Buddhism will not want to admit a dimension of entheogens in their cherished histories but they conflate, like Robert Aitken, ecstasy with that of the often frighteningly introspective visionary experience. The sudden, fleeting visions of a toad (always sitting in meditation) based substance is an apt metaphor for the brief, illusory nature of reality, or  as Han Shan wrote “lights and shadows flash across my mind.” There moxibustion and other medical texts associated with various "Toad Cannons" such as the Huangdi Hama jima or the Yellow Emperor's Toad Cannon with moon cycles. The Toad was already associated with a type of sexual position as early as the 2nd Century BCE in the Mawangdui as well as in later Daoyin texts (Lo 2009).

            Perhaps its merely the association of toads and the moon that figure into the frequent depictions of Han Shan with toads, but maybe there is more to it. There may even be an intuitive aspect to this explaining the  Beat generation's affinity with Han Shan in particular. If anyone can suggest an alternative suggestion I  would certainly appreciate any suggestions as it may just be some artistic devise for which I am unaware or a simple allusion to Han Shan's immortal status. The exagerated toads suggest they are not your "garden variety" though. Suggestions to deteasoc@gmail.com


That is fierce looking toad on Xiamo's shoulder.


Suggested Reading and References:


Link selling toad venom and ceiling tile and lingzhi mushrooms: http://www.qd-kangtai.com/sdp/81271/4/cp-1068626/Toad_Venom_Introduction.html
 

Ball, K.2004. Animal motifs in Asian art: an illustrated guide to their meanings and aesthetics.  New York: Courier Dover Publications.

Davis, Wade & Weil, Andrew 1992. Identity of a New World Psychoactive Toad. Ancient Mesoamerica. 3: 51-59.

Harley, T. 2004. Moon Lore. Kessinger Publishing.

Kennedy, Alison Bailey.1982  Ecce Bufo: The Toad in Nature and in Olmec Iconography. Current Anthropology. 23: 273-290.

Ko, w. et al. Induction of apoptosis by Chan Su, a traditional Chinese medicine, in human bladder carcinoma T24 cells.  Oncol Rep. 2005 Aug;14(2):475-80.

Lo, V. 2009 Huangdi Hama jing (Yellow Emperor’s Toad Canon) Retrieved from http://www.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/~medicine/ashm/lectures/Lo.pdf

Morgan, A. 1995. Toad and Toadstools. Berkeley: Celestial Arts Publishing.

Needham, J. 1983. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, pt. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J.1974. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, pt. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


O'Flaherty, W.D. 1981. The Rig Veda: An Anthology. London: Penguin.

Ping Zhang, Zheng Cui, Yashu Liu, Dong Wang, Na Liu and Masayuki Yoshikawa, 2005 “Quality Evaluation of Traditional Chinese Drug Toad Venom from Different Origins through a Simultaneous Determination of Bufogenins and Indole Alkaloids by HPLC”, Chem. Pharm. Bull., Vol. 53, 1582-1586.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1970 Maya History and Religion. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wasson, G.; Kramrisch, S.; Ruck, C. & Ott, J. 1992. Persephone’s Quest. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Werner, E.T.C. 1976. Myths and Legends of China. New York: Arno Press Inc., 1976.

Yoke, Ho Peng. 1968. Alchemy on Stone and Minerals in Chinese Pharmacopoeias. University of Hong Kong, January 22-27, 1968.

Yoshiaki, K. 2006. Pharmacology and Chemistry of Toad's Grease. Chemistry and Chemical Industry. VOL.59;NO.12;









Toad and hare on the moon in this representation.



This article was casually brewed up in a rain storm, tea-drunk on some antique puerh in clouds of fragrant incense

5-02-09

Bottle Gourd Studio

 

 

 

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