The Toad in the Moon

Illustration by Joe McLaren, from Treasury of Folklore: Stars and Skies by Willow Winsham, published by Batsford.

Who hasn’t gazed up at the moon and seen patterns and shapes in the patterns of darkness and light upon its face? Perhaps a face or a rabbit or even a fox – for millennia mankind has been finding pictures upon the moon’s surface, and there are many stories explaining just how these creatures or people came to be there.

In reality, the patches of light and shade are the seas and highlands upon the moon’s surface, and this habit of human nature to see images within random shapes and patterns is so common that it has a name – pareidolia.

One of the most common images said to be seen on the moon is that of a toad or frog. Recorded in the I Ching, or Book of Changes from over 2,400 years ago in China, the toad is also one of the earliest creatures said to inhabit the moon’s surface. But just how did a toad come to be there? There are many versions and variations of the tale, but the most common is as follows.

Archer Li, a famous, powerful – and in some versions, ruthless – man, managed to procure the elixir of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West. Before he could take it and become immortal however, his wife, Chang’e, took the elixir herself and then floated up to the moon, where she remains to this day. Where does the toad come into it? Well, according to some versions of the story, on the moon, Chang’e transformed into a toad, and it is that form that she is seen in when we look at the moon.

Is Chang’e a moon goddess, or the spirit of the moon herself? For in earlier versions of the tale, the spirit of the moon was, in fact, a toad. Some say that Chang’e is kept company on the moon by the Jade Rabbit. The rabbit is hard at work, pounding the elixir of life in its pestle and mortar.


For more celestial folklore, check out Treasury of Folklore: Stars and Skies 

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