Jessica Maya Jones delves into the history of Salamanca’s notorious frogs.
An ancient city of golden stones, brimming with eager students, tells a curious legend beknown to all who pass through its cobbled streets.
The city of Salamanca is iconic within the history of Spanish academia as the small north-western town is home to the oldest university in the Hispanic world. Founded in 1218 by King Alfonso IX, it holds the title of being the third oldest university still in operation, set behind The University of Bologna and the University of Oxford.
Prior to my arrival in Salamanca, I was aware that the university town was in celebration due to its 800-year anniversary (1218-2018). I therefore expected a bombardment of university merchandise and Salamancan memorabilia relevant to its monumental birthday. Quite bizarrely, in its place I witnessed a town littered with frogs.
Much like many other European Old Towns, dozens of tourist-trap souvenir shops sprawl themselves along the main walkways, tempting the new and ignorant passersby (like myself). If you were ever in need of some charming frog-themed castanets or any frog paraphernalia for that matter, Salamanca is the place to be.
This town’s seemingly relentless patriotism towards the frog led me to discover the well-known legend of la Ranita. If, as a student of the university, you can find the image of the frog amidst the richly carved stone on the university’s entrance (without any prior knowledge of its location), you are set to pass all your exams with flying colours. As a new student to the university, I naively accepted the challenge and wandered towards the infamous façade, La Puerta de Salamanca. The intricately decorative stone hosts well over a hundred symbolic carvings including Venus, Hercules and Carlos V. Yet rather comically, these immense medieval doors are populated today by large collections of frantic tourists desperately searching, just as I was, for the infamous frog.
La Puerta de Salamanca was built in the 16th century and was commissioned in 1529 by the Catholic Kings. Any tourist vendor will tell you with confidence that the legend of the frog has lasted for centuries. However, in recent years, different variations of the tale have begun to surface. The frog is positioned above a skull – an obvious symbol of death. Historian Benjamín García-Hernández argues that the skull represents the death of one of the Catholic Kings’ children, and that the frog (sometimes argued to be a toad), is representative of the doctor that could not save him.
A more scandalous interpretation recalls the symbol of the frog as a common motif in Spanish history, representing sexual deviance and often prostitution. The University of Salamanca, as one of the most prolific and prestigious academic institutions in Spain’s Renaissance and Golden Age, was home to a great number of young and well-educated men. As a result, it was a very popular hub for prostitution, particularly in the 16th century. These prostitutes were not only berated for their carnal distractions, but more severely for the deadly diseases they often carried. Thus, we return to the image of the frog, a symbol of lust, which is placed on the skull; a deadly reminder of the consequences of sexual sin.
However, this sordid interpretation is comfortably concealed in a town quite noticeably paused in time (despite the newly-opened Starbucks). Although the curious frogs throughout the city’s kiosks and shops add a childlike mysticism to the town, the city consistently capitalises on its light-hearted legend instead of revealing its more disconcerting alternative. Understandably so, as to sell a child a small porcelain frog alongside a story of sex, death and disease may do more harm than good.
Whether true or false, the popularised legend of the frog is an integral part of the Salamancan identity and mythos. It is charming and whimsical – something the city (and now I too) happily embrace.
Who would’ve thought that a good luck charm would sell better than sex?