I can’t tell whether it’s the advent of Halloween or these particular midterm elections, but witches have been on everyone’s mind lately. Until I was about 9 years old, I grew up near Salem, Massachusetts, the ground zero of American witchcraft, so I happen to know a few things about brides of Satan. I remember poring through an old book about the origins of Halloween around that time and staring at an illustration of the source of the myth about flying broomsticks. I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing, but I got the sense that I was somehow less innocent for seeing it.
Have you ever watched a neighborhood game of Quidditch and wondered, Ow, doesn’t that totally hurt their nards? If you’ve ever ridden a professional racing bike, imagine the seat of that bicycle in your crotch as you swoop and dive at several thousand feet; the average witch’s nightly commute would feel like a series of hits to the junk with a whiffle bat. It turns out, there’s a reason witches fly bareback instead of saddled. The “flying” practiced by real witches was closer to what we call “tripping.” During coven rituals, women would apply hallucinogenic ointments which numbed the flesh and produced the sensation of flying. An anesthetic rubbed on bare feet created the illusion of lift-off, and a mash of mandrake root, full of psychoactive alkaloids, gave the women visions of delivering packages around Japan on a sunny afternoon (good trip) or flying through a tornado and having a house dropped on them (bad trip). But the drug couldn’t be ingested orally; that would be nauseating as well as slow-working. The most effective way to absorb the alkaloids was through the mucous membrane of the labia, applied to a wooden shaft of some kind. This is how a 9-year old boy in a public library found a picture of a bunch of naked ladies galloping around the room with broomsticks rubbing their hoo-has, high off their asses, and how I discovered the true meaning of Halloween.
But “flying ointment” was not always pure mandrake. Other varieties of hallucinogens were added to the recipe, including ergot, that psychoactive fungus which got the witches of Salem in such hot water. And I have heard tell that some recipes included the poison of the common toad, that eternal emblem of Halloween. Those rumors are at least mostly false. But the truth about psychoactive toads, as always with truth, is stranger than fiction.
It is true that toads and witches have a long history together. Toads produce a toxin called bufagin from glands atop their head; it is extremely noxious to most animals and particularly irritating on the eyes. Practitioners of “magic” presumed that the toxin had many uses, and so it was added to various potions, philtres and poultices. They also inferred that toads must be immune to poisons, so the “toadstone” — a mythical gem said to live in the head of a toad — was sought to protect its wearer from intoxication. They were a popular familiar, a witch’s pet and spiritual avatar, and were used in all manners of spells and rituals.
Bufagin — a steroid, not an alkaloid — is an effective anesthetic, but not a hallucinogen. It’s possible it was used during flying rituals, but probably not to induce visions. However, bufotenin, another toad toxin and an alkaloid, seems at first glance to be a good ingredient for witch’s brew. It is a tryptamine closely related in structure to DMT and psilocin (the close cousin of psilocybin). It’s the main psychoactive agent in Amanita mushrooms. And strangest of all, it can be produced by humans — when we go crazy. A recent study affirmed a controversial finding from an experiment in the 1960’s: there are abnormally high concentrations of bufotenin in the urine of asylum patients with schizophrenia and autism. Some people are naturally psychedelic.
The only problem is that Bufo bufo, the European common toad, produces noxious bufagin, but not bufotenin, so it couldn’t have been used practically in psychoactive flying ointments. There are two American toads which produce the toxin in quantity: Bufo maritimus, the cane toad, and Bufo alvarius, the Colorado River toad. The only other problem is that it’s supposedly nearly impossible to get high from orally ingesting bufotenin (while it’s very possible to kill yourself). The only proven psychoactive agent in toads is 5-MeO-DMT, a tryptamine compound only produced in the skin of Bufo alvarius. So we come to a ritual as shrouded in superstition and legend as those naked witch orgies of old: the 1970’s culture of toad-licking.
The Colorado River toad is a nocturnal toad that lives in the ditches of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Its high-pitched call has been compared to that of a screaming woman. While the toxin produced by its parotoid glands were never used by European witches, it was certainly used in the rituals of Mesoamerican shamans. The drug gained adherents in the 1960’s after the founding of the psychedelic Southwestern cult called the Neo-American Church, and again in the 1980’s when acolyte Albert Most created a spin-off sect called Church of the Toad of Light. It never gained a huge congregation. The effects of a 5-MeO-DMT trip are reportedly nasty, brutish and short. “You think you’re going to die,” said Leo Mercado, President of the Peyote Foundation. “Any garbage in your life, like if you feel bad for kicking the dog or doing someone wrong, it brings it right out and rubs your face in it.” Even people who enjoy its trip don’t make it sound particularly appealing. “It tasted like model glue,” described one anonymous woman. “I took a few really deep breaths and got it into my lungs. You feel it immediately creeping down your spine. Within in a minute, I was on the ground thrashing around. I had no control of my coordination and a total loss of muscle control. I couldn’t speak or anything. It was great.”
But rumors of toad-licking were completely unfounded — you have to smoke it. Toad poison can’t be ingested orally. That didn’t stop the media from running with the story of hippies chasing toads through the desert for a fix, tongues a-lolling. Like the “banana smoking” hoax, “toad-licking” seemed to be a irresistible illustration of the depravity of the drug counterculture. In 1967, the FDA put bufotenin — not even the right compound, you’ll notice — on the controlled substances list. Los Angeles passed a ban on toad-licking, and other cities and states followed suit. Of course, all this caught the attention of thrill-seeking druggies worldwide, who had never heard of this trend before and now knew they needed to lick a toad. B. alvarius, however, is limited to the Sonora Desert, so these idiots just licked whatever toads were around, including B. maritimus, the cane toad. (Some white Australians even got it in their heads that toad-licking was an old Aborigine shamanic practice, even though cane toads were introduced from North America in the 1960’s.) As I’ve repeatedly mentioned, you can’t get high from licking toads, especially cane toads — you can only get headaches, nosebleeds, and the dry heaves. Instead of saving people, the FDA and local governments ended up accidentally sending people to the hospital — and the morgue — chasing a high that simply did not exist.
For extra surrealism, this Simpsons clip is dubbed in German.
The myth of toad-licking persists today in popular culture: Family Guy devoted an entire episode to the dangers of “doing toad,” and the fad has shown up in L.A. Law and a few medical dramas. And as long as the myth continues, you still find the occasional news item about morons getting arrested with suitcases full of toads. But trying to get high by licking toads is about as effective, and safe, as trying to get “high” by straddling a broomstick and jumping off the roof. Attempting flight, you end up thrashing around on the floor. Like witches themselves, the “magical” powers of toads are both based in science and wildly misinterpreted. What’s more, the story of toad-licking and toad-smoking illustrates how mysticism (“Toads have magic powers”) can become scientifically rationalized (“Nevermind, it’s just a psychoactive compound in their skin”) and then mysticized again (“The psychoactive compound in their skin will help you see the Great Toad God!”). You just cannot keep humanity from trying to see the superstition rather than the science. The Colorado River toad produces its poison not as a gift to humanity, but as a powerful warning to coyotes to never eat one of us again. But that won’t stop people from hopping on that proverbial broomstick.