Salamanders have long held a significant place in the folklore and mythology of many different countries around the world. Fantastic powers and attributes have been bestowed upon them giving them a place in mythology, alchemy, heraldry and popular culture that is perhaps surprising, for what in reality is a rather small, humble creature.
The real salamander is a very different creature to the one of legend so how did it come to be given attributes that makes it a popular emblem on the Coat of Arms for Royalty, nobility, insurers, local authorities and many other organisations?
The Real Salamander
Salamanders can be found in many parts of the world and there are known to be around five hundred species. They are found in Europe, Asia, some parts of Africa, and North and South America. The largest are found in China and Japan and can grow to five feet long though most are much smaller. Salamanders are not reptiles and although they look like lizards they are not related to them and neither are they related to mammals or birds. They are amphibians and their nearest relatives are frogs and toads.
Fire And The Mythical Salamander
Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC), and Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) associate them with fire and it is with fire that most of the fantastic powers are connected. People thought that salamanders were born or created from fire.
Most of the popular myths are believed to originate from the European species, the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), which hibernates in hollow, decaying logs of wood during the winter months. With wood being the main fuel in ancient times this may explain their sudden appearance amid flames when a fire is lit or replenished with a salamander inside. Woken abruptly from hibernation, or sleep, the natural reaction would be to make a quick escape giving the mistaken appearance that they were born, or generated from fire and flame.
Pliny the Elder believed the salamander to have such a cold body that it could extinguish any fire. There was also a belief that the skin and other parts and extracts of the salamander gave protection against fire.
Early travellers to China claimed they had had been shown clothing reputedly woven from salamander hair that had been deliberately placed in a fire and came out unscathed. Today many people think that they were shown clothing made from asbestos fibres. In fact though its skin is different from reptiles, salamanders are no more fire proof than any other creature.
The Poisonous Salamander Of Myth
The salamander was also reputed to be so toxic that if it entwined itself around a fruit tree then the fruits become poisonous to all who would eat them. The saliva was thought to cause the hair of a person to fall from the body if it made contact with human skin.
If a salamander got into a well then the well water would be poisoned and undrinkable. Many species of salamanders do secrete a toxic substance from their bodies when threatened but the toxicity of the substance was greatly exaggerated.
The Mystical Salamander Of Alchemy
In 16th century alchemy Paracelsus (1493 -1541) is generally credited with the first mentioning of the concept of elementals. These were Air (Sylph), Earth (Gnome), Fire (Salamander) and Water (Undine). His association of fire to the salamander also helped to perpetuate and exaggerate the myths about the creature. Elementals were creatures, or spirits, in harmony with, or made from the elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The Salamander In Heraldry
Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished. They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality. They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.
A salamander was the icon that King Francis I of France chose for his own sign and the motto, ‘Nutrisco et exstinguo (I nourish and I extinguish). The good fire – the passion and belief in Jesus is nourished – the bad fire, temptation and evil are overcome.
The salamander appears on the Coat of Arms of many Royal and noble families in Europe and also that of many towns, local authorities and institutions. Their exaggerated fire protective attributes encouraged many insurance companies and organisations of the past and present to include a salamander as an emblem on their Coat of Arms.
The Salamander In Popular Culture
Today the salamander myth is perpetuated in popular culture. Allusions to its legendary powers can be found in books such as ‘War with the Salamanders (or War with the Newts)’, by Karel Capek, ‘The Silver Chair,’ by C.S Lewis, the Harry Potter series of stories by J.K. Rowling and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.
They also have roles in many video and computer games today which often make greater exaggeration and distortion of the legends, making the mythical salamander into a very different creature to the real salamander today.
© November 9, 2010 zteve t evans
References and Attributions
A version of this was first published on Helium.com November 9, 2010 by zteve t evans titled Origins of the mythical salamander- © November 9, 2010 zteve t evans