Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

Celtic Lore: Cauldrons – The Magical, the Mythical and the Real

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday on 11th February 2021, titled , “Ancient Celtic Cauldrons: The Magical, the Mythical, the Real,” by zteve t evans.

Cauldrons

In the ancient mythologies of the Welsh and Irish Celts, the cauldron played an important role in some of their most enduring stories and myths. In these, they were often attributed with magical properties but in the everyday life of the Celts, they were also very useful and versatile utensils. Here we take a brief look at the everyday usage of cauldrons followed by a look at five mythical cauldrons. To conclude we will discuss one real, very ancient and very special cauldron found in a bog in Denmark.

The Cauldron of Ceridwen

One of their most famous cauldrons was the cauldron of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth. It belonged to a sorceress named Ceridwen. She used her cauldron to brew a potion that would imbue knowledge and wisdom to whoever drank of it, yet she intended it solely for her son. The concoction had to be boiled and stirred for a year and a day. She tasked a blind man named Morda with the job of feeding the fire, and a boy named Gwion Bach with stirring the brew. Many people see the continuous stirring of the cauldron as blending the attributes of divine wisdom and inspiration with the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth to create the perfect brew of existence.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

The Gundestrup cauldron is most spectacular of real ancient Celtic cauldrons so far recovered, dated to the Iron Age. It is made of silver and beautifully and intricately decorated with many fine images.  The silversmiths are unknown, but in those days few craftsmen could produce such craftsmanship in silver. They may not even have been Celts, but the best available craftsmen at the time. However, because of the Celtic iconography, it displays it was thought to have been commissioned by an unknown, high-ranking Celt, probably for purely ceremonial purposes. The imagery was believed to express one or more Celtic myths, and possibly display several deities mixed with other images of a different style.

The Importance of Cauldrons

Many scholars think in Celtic times people came together around a cauldron to engage in the enjoyable, sociable activity of eating. The Gundestrup cauldron, being made of silver, was probably not used for cooking on a fire, but may have held pre-cooked food or drink or was purely ceremonial.

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Five Fabled Birds in Legend and Folklore

This article was first published on 23rd January 2020 titled Top Five Mythical Birds in Legend and Folklore by zteve t evans on #FolkloreThursday.com

Five Fabled Birds

The alkonost, the sirin, the caladrius, the roc and the phoenix are all five mythical birds from legend and folklore. Each were attributed their own magical qualities and roles by various human societies in history and presented here is a brief description of these five fabled creatures.

The Alkonost

In Russian legends, the alkonost was a creature with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. It could sing the most enchanting melodies. Those who heard its song let go of everything they had ever known, desiring nothing more as long as they lived.

Before Christian influence, the alkonost was believed to live on the magical island of Buyan. Similar to a bird of paradise in appearance, it was considered to be a wind spirit, able to summon up storms. The alkonost lays her eggs on the gently sloping seashore and moves them into the sea to hatch. Their hatching causes the sea to become rough while a thunderstorm manifests and they are considered to be wind spirits.In Christian times, the home of the alkonost became the Garden of Eden, while she became God’s messenger to the saints, singing them wonderful songs to inspire and encourage them.

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The Griffin: The Legendary King of All Creatures

Knossos fresco in throne palaceCC BY-SA 3.0
This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 18/04/2019, under the title, Mythical Beasts: The Griffin, the Legendary King of all Creatures, written by zteve t evans.

Griffins

A griffin is a legendary beast believed to be the offspring of a lion and an eagle, depicted in various ways by many different human cultures in different places throughout antiquity. It is usually depicted as having the back legs, tail and body of a lion, with the head of an eagle, sometimes having projecting ears. It is usually shown with eagle wings, but sometimes is wingless and sometimes has eagle talons on its forefeet. The eagle part was sometimes covered in feathers while the lion part had fur.

King of all Creatures

The lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, while an eagle was the king of the birds. The griffin, as a hybrid of these two, inherited the qualities of both, making it very powerful and the king, or ruler, of all creatures. Griffins were also known by a number of other names including ‘griffon,’ ‘griffon,’ or ‘gryphon.’ They were often depicted as having wings, but sometimes found wingless, as in the fine example found in the Palace of Knossos and shown here. The Palace of Knossos was the ancient ceremonial and political centre of the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation on Crete, described as the earliest in Europe, indicating the age and importance of the griffin motif.

Griffins in Mythology

Depictions of griffins are found in the art and mythology of many diverse ancient cultures, including Iranian, Anatolian, Egyptian, European, and Indian. In early Greek art they were shown pulling the chariots of the gods Apollo and Nemesis, and were said to be the hounds of Zeus. By their association with Apollo they became associated with the sun, and through their service to Nemesis became known as protectors and guardians, carrying out retribution for injustice on offenders. One legend tells how Alexander the Great captured two griffins and chained them to his throne. He eventually managed to tame one and rode on its back as it flew him around his realm for seven days.

Guardians of Treasure

Griffins were often seen as the guardians of treasure and priceless objects. They were associated with gold and said to guard gold mines, and often appear on tombs as guardians. According to Pliny the Elder, griffins laid eggs in burrows in nests lined with gold nuggets. Other accounts say griffins built a nest like an eagle’s and lay eggs of agate, which is a semi-precious stone.

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The Legend of Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion

This article was originally posted on #FolkloreThursday.com called British Legends: Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion by zteve t evans on 25 January 2018.

According to British legend, Gogmagog was the last survivor of a mythical race of giants that ruled the island of Albion before the arrival of Brutus of Troy and his Trojan followers. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in The Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) written about 1136, tells the story of how the Trojans came into conflict with Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. 

Although Geoffrey made it clear where Brutus and the Trojans originated, he revealed nothing of the history of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. Later writers promoted several versions of a story of the origin of the giants. One tells more about Gogmagog and how he returned to haunt the descendants of the Trojans, taking over a ruined hilltop fortress in Wales now known as Dinas Brân. 

This article attempts to tie the threads together to reveal more of the story of Gogmagog and the giants of Albion. It begins by briefly recalling the voyage of Brutus of Troy and the prophecy of the goddess Diana, and then the conflict between the Trojans and the giants of Albion. We then move forward in time to later centuries to the time of William the Conqueror, when a Norman knight by the name of Payn Peverel confronts the demonically possessed Gogmagog on Dinas Brân, forcing him to reveal his history and purpose and foretelling the future of Peverel and his descendants. 

Brutus of Troy

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after the fall of Troy some of the survivors of the sack of the city, led by the Trojan hero Aeneas, fled to Italy and settled there. Their descendants began building a new civilization. One of the descendants of Aeneas in Italy was a young man who became known as Brutus of Troy. After killing his father in a hunting accident, Brutus was punished by being exiled. He left Italy and making his way to Greece, where he found many descendants of the survivors of Troy still held in slavery by a Greek king. Leading the Trojans in revolt, he won their release and led them on an epic sea voyage searching for new land to settle and rebuild their lives.

While at sea, Brutus came to an abandoned island named Leogecia and found a temple dedicated to Diana, Jupiter, and Mercury, and after performing the appropriate rites he asked the goddess for guidance. Diana appeared to him in a dream and told him of a rich and fertile island populated only by a few giants. She prophesied that he would be the first of a long line of kings that would rule the island and spread across the world. When Brutus finally arrived on the island it was called Albion, and he found it was as Diana had told him. The giants were few in number, and the tallest and most powerful was named Gogmagog.

Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion

After Brutus and the Trojans, arrived they explored the island and found it very much to their liking. Individually, the giants were much bigger and for the most part stronger than the Trojans. Only Corineus, one of the Trojan captains, could match them. However, there were only twenty-four of them and they could not match the Trojan weaponry, armour, and numbers, and the Trojans battled the giants seeking to claim Albion as their own.

One day, Brutus decided to hold a festival of thanksgiving to the gods. During the festival, with many games and events underway, Gogmagog and the giants launched an attack hoping to take the Trojans by surprise. Although the giants at first had the upper hand killing many, Brutus rallied his men and in the battle all of the giants, except their leader Gogmagog, were killed. He was spared by Brutus specifically to fight Corineus, who defeated him. With Albion now free of giants, Brutus shared out the land among his captains and followers as he saw fit. In legend, Brutus became the founder and first king of Britain and Corineus became the founder and first ruler of Cornwall.

Although Gogmagog was killed, he was to return centuries later during the Norman Conquest of Britain by King William the Conqueror. This story is told in the medieval legends or “ancestral romance” of The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, a mixture of legend, romance, and imagination by an unknown author or compiler in about 1325-40.

Dinas Brân

According to this text, Gogmagog reappeared when William the Conqueror was travelling around Britain surveying his new domain. As he travelled in the wild hills and valleys, he came across a prominent hill that was crowned by a ruined town enclosed in wide stone walls that for a long time had lain desolate and empty. Today, the hill is called Dinas Brân and overlooks Llangollen in Wales, but the ruins that crown its top are those of a later castle and not those that intrigued William which had been built many centuries before his arrival.

As the day was drawing to a close, he decided to pitch his tents on a level plain that lay below the imposing ruins. Curious and not a little awed, he asked about the place from a local Briton and was told the following story:

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From the Mabinogion: The Dream of Macsen Wledig

templars_chess_libro-de-los-juegos_alfons-x

Public Domain Image  – Source

This was article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com 30/11/2017,  titled British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig written by zteve t evans.

British Legends:  The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig

The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the Mabinogion tells the story of how the Emperor of Rome experienced a dream in which he traveled to Wales, then met and became obsessed with a beautiful maiden named Elen. It is a story telling of a mythical past with legendary heroes involved in extraordinary adventures, that many people feel resonates today. The tales were created from traditional and existing works, using both written and oral sources, and were not original works. They were often reworked to reflect current issues, and are seen by many as an interpretation of a mythical past age while also providing an interpretation of the present. Presented here is a retelling of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ from The Mabinogion Vol. 2 by Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and Lady Charlotte Schreiber. 

Macsen Wledig

Macsen Wledig was an emperor of Rome who had thirty-two vassal kings in his retinue. One day, he proposed that they all join him for a day of hunting. The next day, bright and early, he set off leading the party into the countryside to a beautiful valley that a river flowed through on its way to Rome. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the party hunted throughout the valley until midday. With the sun at its height, Macsen Wledig suddenly began to feel very tired and ordered the party to take a break while he slept by the river.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

His servants made a shelter for him out of shields, made a place on the ground for him to rest his head. Then they left him in peace and he lay down, and as he fell asleep a strange dream came to him. He found himself following the river along the valley, and eventually reaching its source at the foot of a mountain that was as high as the sky. He travelled on over the mountain, and on the other side found himself travelling through a fair country which he deemed the most beautiful in the world. Travelling on, he came across the wellspring of a river and followed it towards the sea where it grew into the widest river he had ever seen.

The City by the Sea

Standing majestically at the mouth of the river was a fair city that was enclosed by the walls of a massive castle. Its tower and turrets reached high into the sky, and many flags and banners of all colours and designs fluttered gaily in the breeze. Below the castle wall in the mouth of the river lay a great fleet of ships. The greatest and fairest of these had planks of gold and silver, and a bridge of white whale bone spanned the distance from the harbour side to the ship. Macsen Wledig found himself walking slowly over the bridge to stand on the ship. As soon as he was on board, the bridge of bone raised itself and the ship set sail towards the distant horizon to an unknown destination. After many days, the ship came to a beautiful island and lay at anchor.

The Fairest Island in the World

In his dream, Macsen Wledig went ashore and explored the island; travelling through its forests and valleys and crossing mountains and moors from coast to coast. Never before had he seen its like, and he thought it the fairest and most beautiful island in the world. Eventually, he came to a place in the mouth of a river where a majestic castle looked out over the sea. He went down to the castle and entered through its gates. Inside, he found the fairest hall he had ever seen. The walls were studded with gems of all kinds that glittered and shimmered in the sun, and the roof was of gold and gleamed gloriously.

Inside the Golden Hall

Stepping inside the hall, Macsen Wledig saw many fine pieces of furniture and rich decorations wherever he looked. On the far side of the hall, he saw two young men engaged in a game of chess on a wonderfully ornate chessboard. Sitting in a chair of ivory by a pillar of stone was a man with a rugged face and wild hair. On his head, he wore a diadem of gold and on his fingers were rings of precious metals set with gemstones. Golden bracelets adorned his wrists and arms, and around his throat he wore a torc of gold. Although the man was seated, it was clear he had a powerful physique and bearing, and he was engaged in the task of carving chess pieces.

Sitting before this strange man on a chair of burnished gold was a maiden whose beauty was more dazzling than the sun, and Macsen Wledig was almost blinded by her radiance. In his dream, she rose from her chair and he rose from his and they threw their arms around each other.  Then they sat down together, and their faces drew closer, and they sat together cheek to cheek and were poised to kiss.

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African folklore: The Lightning bird

African folklore: The Lightning bird

The lightning bird is a mythical bird in the folklore and traditions of different peoples of South Africa, such as the Zulu, Pondo, and Xhosa people.  Sometimes it is called the impundulu, thewane, izulu, and also the inyoni yezulu.  It is supposed to have the ability to call up thunder and lightning with its talons and wings.

lightning_noaa

Image by C.Clark – Public Domain

The Lightning bird

The impundulu, which means, lightning bird, is described in various ways.  Some say it is a bird that stands as tall as a human and has a plumage colored black and white but descriptions do vary greatly.  One village girl to whom it appeared claimed the it looked like a black rooster and ran up the shaft of her hoe and across her body where it left its claw marks. It then flew off into the sky to disappear in the clouds.  Others say it has an iridescent plumage like that of a peacock. Still others say it has a red beak, red legs and red tail. Many descriptions say the lightning bird is a winged creature as tall as a man and when it wants to can appear as a man but usually appears as a large black and white bird of prey.

Some African people believe the hammerkop is the lightning bird and if someone destroys its nest it will sit on that person’s roof and call down lightning to destroy the house. Others say the lightning bird will only usually appear through lightning but will sometimes reveal itself to women as a bird.   When this happens it is believed to appear in the mind perhaps as some kind of inner vision and sometimes comes in different forms.

The egg of the Lightning bird

There is also a belief that the lightning bird lays an egg at the exact point where its lightning first makes contact with the earth.  This can be of mixed fortune and can be seen as either being a good omen or a bad one, perhaps making it necessary to dig out the egg and dispose of it.

Vampire bird

lassa_witch_doctors

Witch Doctors – Public Domain

According to African folklore and tradition it is strongly associated with witchcraft. It is said to be a vampire bird that is often a servant, confidant, or a familiar of a witch, or witch doctor. The lightning bird cannot be killed by shooting or stabbing and it cannot be drowned or poisoned.  The only way it can be killed is by burning with fire if it can be caught, otherwise it is said to be immortal and outlives its masters. Legend says that it is inherited from mother to daughter in the family of the witch or witch doctor to whom it belongs and will do the bidding of its current master.

It will visit and cause bad luck or illness to anyone that its master commands it to. It is said to possess an insatiable lust for blood sometimes transforming into a handsome young man who seduces women to drink their blood.  For all these reasons and because it is the servant of witches or witch doctors it is considered to be an evil creature. Witches and witch doctors are believed to be able to transform their shape into that of an hyena and the Lightning bird or Impundulu is often seen riding on the back of a hyena.

Medicinal powers

It is usually the case that the witch doctor of the people is the one who has the most dealings with the Lighting bird.  According to tradition an extract from the flesh of the bird can help the witch doctor find thieves as well as control their minds and also the minds of those who are law abiding.

It is believed that the fat of the bird is the fuel that burns when the bird sends forth lightning.   It is also believed to have important ingredients that are used in traditional medicine and its fat is prized.  It is difficult to obtain the fat of the lightning bird for medicinal use as according to tradition the bird must be captured the instant the lightning it lets loose strikes the ground.  Another way is to dig it from out of a hole underneath the ground at the exact spot where lightning strikes the earth.

A bird of power

To the many Africans the Lightning bird was seen as a bird of power and magic and like thunder and lightning, something to be feared or at least respected.

© 18/05/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright May the 18th, 2016  zteve t evans

Legends of lost worlds and mythical cities

All around the globe legends abound of mythical cities, lands and islands that have been lost for some reason. Some, such as the mythical cities of El Dorado and Shambala are lost in jungles or impenetrable mountains.

Depiction of Thule – Public Domain

Others such as Lyonness, Cantre’r Gwaelod, or Atlantis, were drowned by the seas. Others such as Thule were rumored to exist on the edge of the ancient world their locations disputed, or like the legendary island of Antillia, also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, faded from view when approached by ships. Still others just could not be rediscovered or were located in inaccessible places like Agartha said to be located at the Earth’s core.  Read more

Mythical Beasts: The Salamander

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?

Emblem of salamander that lives in fire – Image Author unknown – Public Domain image due to its age.

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.

A salamander unharmed in the fire – Author Numerisation par Koninklijke Bibliotheek – Public Domain Image

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

File:Salamander in fire.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Unknown – In Public Domain due to its age.

File:A salamander unharmed in the fire.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Numerisation par Koninklijke Bibliotheek – Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

Salamander, from Wikipedia

Monstropedia, Salamander

Sacred Texts, The Salamander