Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Toadman by Nigel Pennick

Society of Esoteric Endeavour  2012.  130 pages.  Illustrated (some full-color).
Duodecimo (Twelvemo) square/landscape (6.5" x 7.5").

Copies No. 1-33: Half-leather, coloured endpapers and a doublure panel of hand marbled paper.

Copies No. 34-150: Quarter-leather, standard marbled paper endpapers.

As of this writing all copies are SOLD OUT.

I've had numerous requests to review this title, so here it is, dear readers -- The Toadman.  Since its release The Toadman has garnered a fair amount of buzz among certain circles, all of it warranted.  The Toadman's author, Nigel Pennick, is no stranger to folk magic traditions.  He has written a impressive number of books with topics ranging from geomancy to runic languages, and from sacred geometry to animal guising.  The subject matter of The Toadman is a controversial one, particularly in modern times.  Pennick is quick to point out in the book's introduction that he is apposed to animal cruelty stating, "The author and publisher totally disapprove of any and all cruelty to animals and respectfully request the reader not perform any of the cruel activities described in this book."  He continues to add that that tile is for historical exploration only.

No, that's not a cigar...

On this point Mr. Pennick and I are in complete agreement.  Poor treatment of animals may have been an accepted norm in earlier times, but it is totally unacceptable now.  While it certainly makes for a fascinating study, it is nonetheless an outmoded practice that has no place in contemporary society.  Considering the wide variety of alternative practices available to folk magic practitioners today (not to mention virtually endless proxy devices) such practices are unjustifiable.  Animal cruelty is the tell-tale sign of dysfunctional children, not magicians.

This brings up the larger subject: sacrifice.  Please allow me a slight digression:  As a meat-eater, I would be a hypocrite were I to state opposition to the slaughter of animals for human use.  However, I believe this must be done in a humane way and one where the entire animal is used (as apposed to killing an animal solely for its dorsal fin or gallbladder).  Recently a conjure man in the American south became the subject of intense controversy after he burned a rooster alive as part of a Palo ceremony (or so he claimed) and cited religious freedom as a defense.  Other  traditions dealing with spirit veneration, like Santeria, Vodou, and Hmong ancestor worship are known to sacrifice chickens too.  However, it is done quickly and humanely (likely better and more respectfully than most chicken slaughterhouses).  After the ceremony the chicken is usually eaten.    This is entirely different than intentionally causing severe pain and suffering, as in the aforementioned conjure man's case.

This kind of thinking, that is, the ritualistic use of intense pain, is similar in many ways to the beliefs of the Kanaima witch-doctors of the Amazon.  For the Kanaima, pain and suffering is inflicted as an offering.  Those unfortunate people who become victims of the Kanaima experience an unimaginably painful death.  Their rites make the Toad Bone rite look like child's play.  My response is this: does the world really need more pain?  For more on this subject I would highly recommend the books Dark Shaman: Kanaima and the Poetics of Violent Death and In Darkness and Sorcery: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia, both by Neil L. Whitehead.  Sadly, Professor Whitehead passed away just last month.  He will be missed.

Back to the book...

The Toadman mentions various folkloric and medicinal uses for the toad bone and toad stone in Toadmanry.  The author also explains how Toadmanry had much in common with other rural fraternities, like the Society of the Horseman's Word.  However, the book deals with far more than just physical uses for toads; it also explains in-depth how toads were used symbolically, particularly in alchemy.  The toad was believed to symbolize the First Matter.  Toads were also meant to represent the black phase of purification, also know as Caput Corvi (Crow's Head).

Pennick also touches upon how toads played a part in shape-shifting lore. Witches were sometimes believed to have the ability to turn into toads or have toads that served as their 'familiars'.  The author examines a general belief associating toads with diabolical powers or representing sickness (warts) and impurity.

The book concludes with a number of appendices.  These include a discussion of the potential origin of the Toad Bone rite and the exploration of other toad rites from around the world including Obeah, Gypsy magic, and Hoodoo.  The Toadman is heavily footnoted throughout.  Pennick, ever the scholar, also provides an extensive bibliography.

The sections are as follows:

Frog and Toad Symbolism in Alchemy
Shape-Shifting as a Toad, Toad as a Familiar
Traditional Medicine and Toadmanry
The Bone
Secret Uses of the Bone
Rural Fraternities: Toadmen and Horsemen
Horse Stopping
The Word, The Whisper and the Devil
"Have you seen the Devil"
The Travails of Toadmanry
Putting the Toad on Someone

1. Bones in the Shoemakers Legendarium
2. The Miller's Word
3. Some Toadmanry in Obeah, Hoodoo and Conjur
4. Other Bone magic and English Horse Skull Performances
5. Speculation upon some Roots of Toadmanry
6. The Examination of John Walsh


The copy reviewed here is one of the 33 half-leather editions.  The publisher offered an optional slipcase or slipcase and chemise combo.  The latter is exhibited here.  The book is bound in half-toadskin.  Australian Cane toad was used, as it is a destructive and invasive species on that continent.  For those wondering what toad-leather feels like:  It is very pliant, soft, and far thinner and delicate than standard leather.  Its characteristic warty texture begs to be touched and understood, like some kind of witch-Braille.  It is relatively odorless -- just a hint of a leathery scent. Boards are covered in rich hunter green linen.  A burgundy goatskin label with title and author blocked in gold adorns the cover.  The spine has a similar goatskin label.  The goatskin provides a smoother surface for the title, as the toadskin is highly textured with warts.  Each book is blind blocked with a little toad device somewhere on the book (each copy is different).  This copy happens to have two (note one right above cover title in photo).

The book opens to fuchia endpapers and a doublure panel of hand marbled paper made by Anne Muir Marbling Ltd.  Incredible stuff.  The marbled coloring has an appropriately batrachian color scheme consisting of three shades of green, fuschia, and umber beautifully brought together in a pattern resembling pond scum or clusters of frog's eggs.  The paper is an ivory color with evident texture not unlike some watercolor paper.  The texture is nice; however, I feel the paper may be a bit too absorbent to handle heavy full-color images.  The ink tends to give these pages a slight ripple.  There is no bleeding evident, though the image resolution appears somewhat soft.  Still, the use of full-color is appreciated.  Ivory head and tail bands blend seamlessly with the pages and thus do not distract from the man attraction, the toadskin binding.

The slipcase (optional) is wrapped with matching hunter green linen and matching hand marbled paper.  The interior is fully lined with soft burgundy felt to lessen surface abrasion as the book is slid in and out.  The chemise (also optional) is an unusual but very welcome additional feature.  It is shaped somewhat like a clam shell.  Its construction is the inverse of the book.  Instead of sporting a toadskin binding and goatskin label, it has just the opposite, a goatskin binding and toadskin label.  The title is blind blocked upon the toadskin.  It's a bit hard to read due to the warty texture of the leather, but still a nice touch.  The chemise also includes a blind blocked toad device randomly stamped on its surface.  The inside of the chemise is lined with matching marbled paper and burgundy felt along the seam to protect the toadskin binding of the book.  When held inside the protective chemise and slipcase, The Toadman is completely protected from all sides.

The Toadman is an absolute treasure.  It is perhaps one of the most uniquely bound contemporary books I've had the pleasure to hold.  It is no wonder it has been met with such enthusiasm.  It is the most unusual presentation of Toadmanry lore since the extremely limited Grimoire of the Golden Toad by Andrew D. Chumbley.  The Toadman is both a stunning object d'art and the last word on toad magic.  Thanks to Nigel Pennick and Ben Furnee at The Society of Esoteric Endeavour for creating such a delightful oddity, a book fit for a cabinet of curiosities.

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