My fourth book in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales is THE FROG PRINCE. It’s one of the brothers’ most well known tales and children always enjoy it when I read it out to them. Recently, during a writing workshop, a girl asked me, why a frog? Why didn’t the princess kiss a rabbit or a hamster, or even a bird? I think she meant why did the princess not kiss something cute, something a real child would actually want to hug. No one in their right mind would want to kiss a lipless frog.
I thought it was a very perceptive question. I know that one of the themes in the story is rebirth through love. Frogs live in wells or ponds, so at the end it could be said that the adventure started in water, the new being, the prince he becomes is born out of water, just like all of us.
Frogs have always featured strongly in folk culture. The ancient Egyptians associated them with fertility and well-being, mostly because they saw them emerging from the mud after the inundation of the Nile, which fertilised their whole country. Heket, the goddess of fertility was often portrayed as a frog, or a woman with a frog’s head. The god of the flood, called Hapi, was served by frogs. It’s not a coincidence that the second plague visited upon the Egyptians in the Book Of Moses was a plague of frogs that invaded every house in Egypt. The God of Moses was taking a potent symbol of Egyptian wellbeing and turning it into a destructive force. It was meant to prove that Moses’ god was more powerful than the Egyptian gods.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also perceived frogs as symbols of fertility and good fortune. Pliny The Elder invested the frog, and the toad, with quasi-magical properties. Toads, he claimed in his writings, could silence a room full of politicians, prevent water from boiling and stop dogs from attacking children. Ancient Greek literature abounds with frog motifs. Aesop’s The Frogs Who Wanted A King’ portrays them as disaffected creatures who don’t know then they have a good thing going. In Artistophanes’ comedy The Frogs, they are a chorus in Hades.
In Medieval Europe the frog and the toad were more often than not seen as evil beings, perhaps because their preferred habitat was dark and damp. The dramatic transformation from water-bound tadpole to hopping amphibian cemented their reputation as the masters of transformation. They became associated with magic and witches, the toad especially often believed to be the witch and warlock’s familiar. Many believed that the frog held a toad-stone in its head a jewel that, when threaded on to a necklace, would glow when poison was close by, thus protecting its wearer.
Frogs appear as tricksters, or wise beings, in the myths and folktales of many countries, including Japan, Thailand and China. Their slimy appearance often hides internal gifts , as seen in The Frog Prince and other European folktales. The hero of the story must make a leap of faith to reveal the real prince within. In the case of The Frog Prince, the princess must overcome her revulsion and kiss her tormentor before he reveals his true, royal nature.
The belief in the frog’s hidden talents continues to this very day in many places around the world. In Scotland, stone frogs are kept in the garden for good luck and given as house warming presents, a tradition which dates back to Pictish times. People in Lancashire give frog symbols as wedding presents. In China the frog represents the lunar yin. A frog spirit, Ch’ing-Wa Sheng, is associated with healing and good fortune. Frog ch is one of the main reasons why you will see a lot of frog relics around businesses and in homes.
Modern literature abounds with frogs and toads. Perhaps the most famous is Mr Toad in The Wind in The Willows. My personal favourite is Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad are friends, followed by Mark Twain’s The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Have you a literary froggy hero?