In the 1930s, an intriguing object was found in a pit filled with the rubble of a late Bronze Age house at Maissau, Lower Austria. At first, it did not seem to differ much from the daub fragments of a wall discarded in the pit. Upon closer inspection, however, the object turned out to be a figurine with two sides: the upper, ventral side, being shaped like a toad, the other, dorsal side, shaped like a woman. The dimensions – 75 mm long, 35 mm wide, 95 g – are close to toads as they occur in nature (bufo bufo); particularly the head with the eyes and the buttocks of the toad had been formed naturalistically.
Ventral and dorsal view of the woman-toad figurine from Maissau, Lower Austria © Photos: Wolfgang Andraschek, Höbarth Museum Horn
The dorsal side representing a woman, however, is less easy to read. The face is rudimentary shaped, with incisions indicating the eyes and the mouth. The secondary and primary sexual characteristics, however, are well shaped: much attention has been given to rendering the breasts and the vulva, including labia majora, labia minora and clitoris, in detail. Today, the woman-toad figurine can be visited in the Höbarth Museum Horn.
We do not know what this curious object was used for, what it meant, or what prompted the artist to create such a figurine. Its symbolism can no longer be read, as it was found in a context dating to 1200-1100 BC, well before written records existed in Central Europe.
An association between the toad and the womb and/or the embryo/foetus, however, can be traced through European folklore history. Perhaps the shape of the womb had something to do with it, or the knowledge that babies, in their development, share certain similarities with tadpoles. Perhaps the mating of toads had been observed and connections to sexuality and fertility were drawn.
Common toads mating (Photo: Bernie via Wikimedia Commons)
Medical knowledge in prehistory was certainly limited, and until anatomical knowledge became more widespread after the Enlightenment, many people believed that the womb wandered freely through the woman’s body, causing all sorts of troubles, including pregnancies and illnesses. At times, it was believed that the womb was able to leave the body, and re-enter the woman, causing pregnancy.
Toad-shaped amulets at the Museum of Tyrolean Regional Heritage in Innsbruck (Photo: K. Rebay-Salisbury)
Amulets and charms in the shape of toads were used to help with pregnancies, births and female illnesses. They were even found as votive offerings in southern German and Austrian churches well into the 19th century. Perhaps the woman-toad figurine from Maissau was just a toy, a joke, a curious accident. But perhaps it had a deeper meaning, perhaps it is the material manifestation of how people thought about their bodies, about reproduction and about developing life.
Gulder, A. 1960. Die urnenfelderzeitliche “Frauenkröte” von Maissau in Niederösterreich und ihr geistesgeschichtlicher Hintergrund. Mitteilungen der Prähistorischen Kommission 10. Wien: Österreichische Akadamie der Wissenschaften.