General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.17.18 - 1799 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Mexicolore contributor Renee McGarry

Frogs and toads

We are most grateful to Renee McGarry, doctoral candidate in art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, for writing this sixth in a series of short introductory pieces on key creatures and wildlife in the Aztec world. Renee’s dissertation, Exotic Contact: Flora and Fauna in Mexica (Aztec) Visual Culture, considers how plants and animals are represented in Aztec sculpture and painted books.

Pic 1: Mexica ceramic vase with amphibian motif, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 1: Mexica ceramic vase with amphibian motif, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Frogs and toads lived in the Basin of Mexico alongside the Mexicas. Though they are similar in appearance, the amphibians are taxonomically different, and the simplest way to tell them apart is how they look. Toads are covered in warts and bumps while frogs have smooth skin. Their habitats also provide an easy way to distinguish between the two: frogs live in wet, marshy places while toads can live in dry environments.

Pic 2: Toads, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 2: Toads, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

The bumps and warts on toads’ skins served an important purpose in Mexica religion as they secreted poisons that could cause hallucinogenic states used in ritual practice. The poison, called bufotenin, impacted the cardiovascular system and could be deadly when ingested in large amount. Therefore, to transport themselves to mind-altering states priests only consumed tiny quantities. According to Spanish chroniclers, the Mexicas boiled, ground, and licked toads to obtain the substance.

Pic 3: Aztec stone sculpture of a toad, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 3: Aztec stone sculpture of a toad, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Excavations of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City reveal that toads were the only amphibians the Mexicas left in ritual caches (offerings to the gods) at the site, often as offerings to the god of rain and water, Tlaloc. Mexica sculptors also carved toads into large and small stone sculptures. One particularly large and robust sculpture (Pic 3) emphasizes the hallucinogenic properties of the toad, as the sculptor carved circular, wide eyes and glands atop the head that also secreted bufotenin.

Pic 4: Replica Mexica frog shaped ocarina, bearing offspring; Roberto Velázquez collection
Pic 4: Replica Mexica frog shaped ocarina, bearing offspring; Roberto Velázquez collection (Click on image to enlarge)

While toads primarily served a ritual purpose, frogs were more down to earth amphibians, thriving in the silty waters of Lake Texcoco. During the day, the animals retreated into the marshiest areas, where they kept their skin hydrated and hid from predators. Breeding peaked during the wet season (summer) and at night the amphibians emerged from their hiding places for feeding and breeding, croaking irregularly but loudly to attract the opposite sex, and the female amphibians laid thousands of eggs at a time.

Pic 5: Tadpoles, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 5: Tadpoles, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Within three days, the eggs hatched and tadpoles filled the lake water. The tadpoles were easily trapped, and the Mexicas ate them along with adult frogs. In fact, Mexicas sold and traded tadpoles in marketplaces, preferring to eat them rather than one of their animal domesticates, the turkey. Spanish surgeon general Francisco Hernández evidently taste-tested the amphibians and reported in his writings that they were quite delicious.

Pic 6: The frog could bring bad luck to the Mexica, if found inside a house (learn more from the link below); Florentine Codex Book V
Pic 6: The frog could bring bad luck to the Mexica, if found inside a house (learn more from the link below); Florentine Codex Book V (Click on image to enlarge)

Hernández also spoke of the medicinal uses of frogs. Though the indigenous use of frogs as pharmaceuticals was limited, he does describe how some remedies appeared in and were adapted by Spanish pharmacies. Apothecaries began to use dried frog intestines to treat kidney stones, and the use of toads became common as they could function as diuretics and blood purifiers.

Pic 7: Aztec stone frog sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: Aztec stone frog sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Toads and frogs provided life-giving sustenance on two planes. Frogs were a protein source, and in a society without many animal domesticates, they were necessary for the survival of the Mexicas as a people. But toads sustained Mexica ritual practice by providing states necessary to access their gods. The act of ingesting toad poison and hallucinating literally fed Mexica religion and reinforced the social hierarchy, allowing the elite priests and rulers to reach the realm of the gods when the ordinary man could not.

Pic 8: Frog, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 8: Frog, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 3: Photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pix 2, 5, 6 & 8: Images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 4 & 7: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 31st 2012

Aztec Artefacts: Toad

‘Ants, frogs and mice and the bad luck they brought Aztec households’

Feedback button

Here's what others have said: