Small, quiet, shy, perhaps even cute, a herpetologist might call them.
But some have considered the salamander very dangerous. For example, Pliny says that “the milky mucus flowing from its mouth, whatever part of the human body it may touch, causes all hair to fall off; and the spot thus touched assumes the appearance of tetter” (Laufer 1915).
While they may not make your hair fall off, or give you the appearance of “tetter,” which dictionary.com informs me means “any of various eruptive skin diseases, such as herpes, eczema, and impetigo”, some salamanders do possess toxic skin secretions. The fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra, has even been shown to spray its neurotoxins as a defense mechanism. Far from being aggressive, however, the salamander resorts to such tactics only as a defense. (Brodie et al 1990)
Several authors ascribe to the salamander other terrifying traits besides poison, the foremost among them being its affinity for fire. Aristotle claims that “the salamander is a clear case in point, to show us that animals do actually exist that fire cannot destroy; for this creature, so the story goes, not only walks through fire, but puts it out in doing so.” He and other writers from Antiquity had some thoughts about the salamander’s amazing ability to withstand flames.
[Aristotle’s] Generation of Animals adds the theoretical framework for this assertion: Because some animals belong to earth, air, and water, there must exist creatures that belong to the element of fire. The salamander is used as an example of such an animal. Pliny provides a second explanation for the origin of this belief. Although he clearly states that this belief is unfounded, he reveals that its origin can be found with the Magi. In an earlier book of his Natural History, he argues that the salamander is able to extinguish fire by means of its “coldness.” Other authors are divided on the reliability of this notion. Galen asserts that “The salamander, up to a point, is not injured by fire, but burns if it is placed in the flame for an extended period of time.” For Nicander, the fact that the salamander can escape from fire does not contribute to our understanding of its poisonous effects; instead, like Pliny, he uses this observation to make for more interesting reading – sensationalizing an encounter with a creature that has mythical qualities. Nicander uses well-known legends to “spice up” his epic poems that are more than just technical treatises.
In the paper quoted above, the author goes on to speculate what species of salamander Nicandor had in mind, and whether it was likely poisonous to people, as Nicandor said. “Dioscorides describes the poisonous salamander as sluggish and spotted. We also know from the same text that the salamander contained “ulcerative” and “corrosive” properties.” Hillman decides that the fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra, best fits the description. He mentions that the species “prefers to live in moist forested areas, and is particularly fond of shaded areas such as holes or crevices. It is indeed likely that one would encounter the Fire Salamander when gathering wood for a fire. If the creature were hiding in the wood, it is entirely possible that it would escape the notice of the cook and end up in the stew. And any salamander escaping altogether reinforced the myth of the creature’s invulnerability to fire.”
We find further mention of the salamander’s “coldness” beyond that of Pliny. This should probably not surprise us much, given that the salamander is an ectothermic animal, meaning it gets all of its body heat from its environment. Since salamanders often hide from the sun in cool places, unlike many reptiles species that bask in the sun, their bodies frequently feel cold to us endothermic (“warm-blooded”) mammals. Why more animals do not have the reputation for putting out fires with their cold natures, I do not know. In addition to their cold nature, Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.E.) connects salamanders with rain, a sensible connection considering that as amphibians, they rely heavily on water. While he merely claims that their “appearance prognosticates rain,” Pliny goes so far as to say that “It never comes out except during heavy rains, and disappears when the sky becomes serene.” These comments show us that despite the far-fetched or even fabulous nature of many early natural history observations, the early natural historians were in some ways quite in touch with the animals and plants around them.
We should be careful, however, of some early natural histories of salamanders, for the name may apply to more animals than just our lizard-like amphibians of the order Caudata. The word or similar words can be used to refer variously to amphibians, birds, and small mammals. Marco Polo, after his journey to China, used the word for “salamander” to refer to asbestos. What then, could be the connection between all these things? Fire, of course. The Chinese harvested asbestos to make it into a fire-proof cloth. Although it is a mineral, stories existed that it was really the fine fur of some type of animal. Not surprising, given its fibrous appearance.
As regards the supposed animal origin of asbestos, the gist of the Chinese accounts in general is that there is a fiery mountain (volcano) on which lives an animal lustrous with fire, about the size of a rodent, covered with hair of unusual length and as fine as silk. Ordinarily it dwells in the midst of the fire, when its hair is of a deep-red color; but sometimes it comes out, and its hair is then white. On a dark night the forest is visible from the reflection of the animal’s lustre. It is put to death by being sprinkled with water, whereupon its hair is spun and woven into cloth, which makes what is called fire-proof cloth. If the cloth becomes soiled, it is purified by fire. The solution of this riddle may be betrayed in advance: the Chinese animal yielding asbestos is a disguise of the classical salamander, whose hair or wool was believed by the Arabs and mediaeval Europe to furnish the material for asbestos textiles.
The above story combines the idea of asbestos with the idea of small mammals. We again come upon the idea of a volcano-dwelling animal, this time a bird, in early Middle-Eastern lore. One translator of Ibn Battuta’s travels records in the footnotes of his translation the following reference:
El Harawī writes this name اطرابلس as above ; and, in mentioning this place, stops to give an account of Etna as it was in his day, i.e. early in the thirteenth century. He says “In the island of Sicily is there a fiery mountain, which hangs over the sea. It is very high in the air, and during the daytime smoke is seen arising out of it, and in the night fire. One of the learned men of the country told me, that he saw an animal like a quail of a leaden colour fly out of the middle of this fire and again return to it. This he said was a samandal (salamandar). For my part, I saw nothing but black perforated stones, like the stone of the pes columbinus, falling from this mountain on the part near the sea. They say, that there is a similar mountain in Fargāna which burns stones, the ashes of which are sold three ounces for the dirhem, and with this they whiten their clothes.” From this it should seem, that salamandar is a corruption of samandal, an Arabic compound signifying quail-like.
(Lee, in Ibn Battuta)
Regardless of the original type of animal meant by the word “salamander” (and its equivalent in the many different languages used for telling stories about it), Europe eventually settled on the amphibian meaning and retained the association between the animal and fire. While Classical writers tended to focus on the salamander’s ability to extinguish fire, Medieval writers exaggerated the characteristic such that works from that time describe the salamander as loving fire, or being happiest when in fire. Poets from the time period often used salamanders as similes or metaphors for the burning fire of love or lust. (I think this is appropriate given that in some places, hundreds of amorous salamanders emerge at once during the spring for what we call “explosive breeding.” For more information on this exciting phenomenon, you can check out a post that I wrote some time ago for the Cornell Herpetological Society, link).
Due to the amphibian’s supposed love of fire, philosophers and scientists of old speculated whether, if organisms could inhabit the sun, the salamander might be one of them. Some philosophers contended that the sun was far too hot for even these supposedly cold-natured amphibians, but in a 1748 book the English scientist Gowin Knight asserts that they were wrong, and that the sun and stars “are no longer frightful Gulphs of Fire, but inhabitable Worlds.” (Crowe 2011). If one day humans finally make it to the sun, the perhaps we can flip some solar rocks to see if there might be salamanders hiding underneath them.
Aristotle. The History of Animals. Written 350 B.C.E. and translated in 1910 by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Kindle file. Link
Brodie, Edmund D. Jr. and Neal J. Smatresk. 1990. The antipredator arsenal of fire salamanders: spraying of secretions from highly pressurized dorsal skin glands. Herpetologica 46(1): 1-7. Link
Crowe, Michael J. 2011. The surprising history of claims for life on the sun. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 14(3): 169-179. Link
Hillman, D.C.A. 2001. The salamander as a drug in Nicander’s writings. Pharmacy in History 43(2/3): 93-96.
Ibn Battuta. The Travels of Ibn Battuta: in the Near East, Asia, and Africa, 1325-1354. Translated by Lee, Samuel. Dover Publications. Kindle file. Link
Tingle, Jessica. Salamander Migration. Adventures of the Cornell Herpetological Society. March 10, 2012. Blog post. Link