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Salamanders

The name salamander is applied to both a mythical and a real creature, the one inspired by the other. The name comes from the Greek for "fire lizard" (although the real salamander is an amphibian not a lizard). This page is about the mythical one - there is also a page on the real salamander.

A Salamander, 1st Half 16th Century
A Salamander, 1st Half 16th Century
French School
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Salamander Myth

One word sums up the legend of the salamander: fire.

The salamander was believed to be a creature of fire. The level of its elemental association varied. Sometimes it was simply fire resistant or would put out fire, at other times it was said to live in fire, sometimes it was even said to be born in fire. It has been said that salamanders were created when glass-blowers stoked their furnaces continually for seven days and nights.

Pliny in his Natural History said of salamanders:

"This animal is so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, in the same way that ice does."
Paracelsus declared the salamander to be the elemental creature of fire and this attribuion was adopted by the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Even Shakespeare referred to the salamander. In Henry IV part 1 Falstaff compares Bardolph's nose to a salamander that has been fed with the fire of sack:
"I have maintained that salamander of yours with fire any time this two and thirty years"
More recently Ray Bradbury used the salamander (along with the phoenix) as one of the symbols of the book-burning firemen in Fahrenheit 451.

Origin

The origin of the salamander myth is probably the real creature known as the "fire salamander" (Salamandra salamandra). This likes to hibernate on logs. When these were thrown onto a fire the salamander would wake up and - apparently - "appear" in the fire.

It has also been said that early visitors to China were presented with cloth made from asbestos and told that it was made from "salamander wool".