Salamander (legendary creature)
A 16th-century image of a salamander from
The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry
|Sub grouping||Fire spirit
The salamander is an amphibian of the order Urodela which, as with many real creatures, often has been ascribed fantastic qualities by pre-modern authors (as in the allegorical descriptions of animals in medieval bestiaries), and in recent times, some[who?] have come to identify a legendary salamander as a distinct concept from the real organism. This idea is most highly developed in the occult. Where the two concepts can be distinguished, the legendary salamander is most often depicted much like a typical salamander in shape, with a lizard-like form, but it is usually ascribed an affinity with fire (sometimes specifically elemental fire).
Classical, medieval, and renaissance lore
This legendary creature embodies the fantastic qualities that ancient and medieval commentators ascribed to the natural salamander. Many of these qualities are rooted in verifiable traits of the natural creature but often exaggerated to a significant degree, as was common in ancient works on natural history and philosophy. A large body of legend, mythology, and symbolism has developed around this creature over the centuries.
The most widely known deviation from a realistic depiction is from an influential 20th-century occult work by Manly P. Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages. Since this illustration appears to originate in a 1527 anti-papal tract by Andreas Osiander and Hans Sachs, where it is identified as "the Pope as a monster," Hall's identification of the illustration is doubtful. Descriptions of the legendary form are more likely to use stylized depictions. In Medieval European bestiaries, fanciful depictions of salamanders include "a satyr-like creature in a circular wooden tub" (8th century), "a worm penetrating flames" (12th century), "a winged dog" (13th century), and "a small bird in flames" (13th century). Renaissance depictions are characteristically more realistic, adhering more closely to the Classical description.
In one of the earliest surviving descriptions of a salamander, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) noted that the creature is "an animal like a lizard in shape and with a body starred all over; it never comes out except during heavy showers and disappears the moment the weather becomes clear." All of these traits, even down to the star-like markings, are consistent with the golden Alpine salamander (Salamandra atra aurorae) of Europe that has golden or yellow spots or blotches on its back and some similarly marked subspecies of the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra). Pliny even made the important distinction between salamanders and lizards, which are similar in shape but very different in other respects, which was not systematized until recent times, when biologists classified lizards as reptiles and salamanders as amphibians.
Pliny recounts several other traits which are less credible, such as the ability to extinguish fire with the frigidity of their bodies, a quality which is also reported by Aristotle. While Pliny notes this in Book 10, Chapter 86 of the Natural History, in Book 29, Chapter 23 of the same work he views this idea with skepticism, pointing out that if such an idea were true, it should be easy to demonstrate. It was never proven that these amphibians could accomplish such myths. He also notes medicinal and poisonous properties, which are founded in fact on some level, since many species of salamander, including fire salamanders and Alpine salamanders, excrete toxic, physiologically active substances. These substances are often excreted when the animal is threatened, which has the effect of deterring predators. The extent of these properties is greatly exaggerated though, with a single salamander being regarded as so toxic that by twining around a tree it could poison the fruit and so kill any who ate them and by falling into a well could slay all who drank from it.
Of all the traits ascribed to salamanders, the ones relating to fire have stood out most prominently in salamander lore. This connection probably originates from a behavior common to many species of salamander: hibernating in and under rotting logs. When wood was brought indoors and put on the fire, the creatures "mysteriously" appeared from the flames. The 16th-century Italian artist Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) famously recalled witnessing just such an appearance as a child in his autobiography. According to some writers, the milky substance that a salamander exudes when frightened and which makes its skin very moist gave rise to the idea that the salamander could withstand any heat and even put out fires.
Early commentators in Europe often grouped "crawling things" (reptiles or reptilia in Latin) together, and thus creatures in this group, which typically included salamanders (Latin salamandrae), dragons (Latin dracones or serpentes), and basilisks (Latin basilisci), were often associated together, as in Conrad Lycosthenes' Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon of 1557.
The salamander is mentioned in the Talmud (Hagiga 27a) as a creature that is a product of fire, and anyone who is smeared with its blood will be immune to harm from fire. Rashi (1040–1105), the primary commentator on the Talmud, describes the salamander as one which is produced by burning a fire in the same place for seven years. According to Sahih Bukhari (810–870), Muhammad said that salamanders are "mischief-doers" and "should be killed".
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) wrote the following on the salamander: "This has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin. The salamander, which renews its scaly skin in the fire,—for virtue." Later, Paracelsus (1493–1541) suggested that the salamander was the elemental of fire, which has had substantial influence on the role of salamanders in the occult.
Early travelers to China were shown garments supposedly woven from salamander hair or wool; the cloth was completely unharmed by fire. The garments had actually been woven from asbestos. According to T. H. White, Prester John had a robe made from it; the "Emperor of India" possessed a suit made from a thousand skins; and Pope Alexander III had a tunic which he valued highly. William Caxton (1481) wrote: "This Salemandre berithe wulle, of which is made cloth and gyrdles that may not brenne in the fyre." Holme (1688) wrote: "...I have several times put [salamander hair] in the Fire and made it red hot and after taken it out, which being cold, yet remained perfect wool."
An alternative interpretation was that this material was a kind of silk: A 12th-century letter supposedly from Prester John says, "Our realm yields the worm known as the salamander. Salamanders live in fire and make cocoons, which our court ladies spin and use to weave cloth and garments. To wash and clean these fabrics, they throw them into flames." Friar also notes that Marco Polo believed that the "true" salamander was an incombustible substance found in the earth.
References to the legendary salamander in popular culture — in fiction (especially fantasy fiction), games, animation, and so on — can be categorized in three ways: as a fantastic (sometimes magical) beast with an affinity with fire; as a true fire elemental; and allusions to the salamander's fiery nature.
- Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, (original publisher unclear-see  for on-line text), (1928).
- Renate Freitag-Stadler and Erhard Schön, Die Welt von Hans Sachs, City History Museum of Nuremberg, 1976, p. 24 (Kat. 25/15)
- Florence McCulloch, Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962, pp.161-162
- Conrad Lycosthenes, Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, 1557
- "sicut salamandrae, animal lacertae figura, stellatum, numquam nisi magnis imbribus proveniens et serenitate desinens"
- Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, eds., London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. Translation slightly modified.
- *Arie van der Meijden (1999-12-30). "AmphibiaWeb: Salamandra atra".
- *Sergius L. Kuzmin (1999-10-06). "AmphibiaWeb: Salamandra salamandra".
- White, T. H. (1992 (1954)). The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation From a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. Stroud: Alan Sutton. pp. 183–184. ISBN 0-7509-0206-X.
- Thomas Bulfinch (1913). Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes: XXXVI. e. The Salamander
- Friar, Stephen (1987). A New Dictionary of Heraldry. London: Alphabooks/A & C Black. p. 300. ISBN 0-906670-44-6.
- "Salamandra and the Flames of Hell" by Reb Chaim HaQoton
- Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:54:525-526
- Book XX: Humorous Writings, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880. (online) (unconfirmed)
- Theophrast von Hohenheim a.k.a. Paracelsus, Sämtliche Werke: Abt. 1, v. 14, sec. 7, Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus. Karl Sudhoff and Wilh. Matthießen, eds. Munich:Oldenbourg, 1933.
- Clare Browne, "Salamander's Wool: The Historical Evidence for Textiles Woven with Asbestos Fibre", Textile History, Volume 34, Number 1, May 2003, pp. 64-73(10) (abstract)
- Borges, Jorge Luis (1967; English language edition 1969). El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings). : The Salamander
- Langford, David (1997). "Elementals". In Grant, John, and Clute, John. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit/Little, Brown and Company. pp. 313–314. ISBN 1857233689.