The Salamander

Many writers have essayed this fabled creature, but almost all have

approached the subject with diffidence, as if not quite sure of the

absolute entity of the animal. Thus, Aristotle does not speak of it

authoritatively:--"And the Salamander shews that it is possible for some

animal substances to exist in the fire, for they say that fire is

extinguished when this animal walks over it." Pliny, on Salamanders,

e find it stated by many authors, that a serpent is produced

from the spinal marrow of a man. Many creatures, in fact, among the

quadrupeds even, have a secret, and mysterious origin.

"Thus, for instance, the salamander, an animal like a lizard in shape,

and with a body starred all over, never comes out except during heavy

showers, and disappears the moment it becomes fine. This animal is so

intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, in the same way

that ice doth. It spits forth a milky matter from its mouth; and

whatever part of the human body is touched with this, all the hair falls

off, and the part assumes the appearance of leprosy.... The wild boar of

Pamphylia, and the mountainous parts of Cilicia, after having devoured

a Salamander, will become poisonous to those who eat its flesh; and yet

the danger is quite imperceptible by reason of any peculiarity in the

smell and taste. The Salamander, too, will poison either water or wine

in which it happens to be drowned; and, what is more, if it has only

drunk thereof, the liquid becomes poisonous."

This idea of an animal supporting life in the fire is not confined to

the Salamander alone, for both Aristotle and Pliny aver that there is a

fly which possesses this accomplishment. Says the former:--"In Cyprus,

when the manufacturers of the stone called chalcitis burn it for many

days in the fire, a winged creature something larger than a great fly is

seen walking and leaping in the fire: these creatures perish when taken

from the fire." And the latter:--"That element, also, which is so

destructive to matter, produces certain animals; for in the

copper-smelting furnaces of Cyprus, in the very midst of the fire, there

is to be seen, flying about, a four-footed animal with wings, the size

of a large fly: this creature, called the 'pyrallis,' and by some the

'pyrausta.' So long as it remains in the fire it will live, but if it

comes out, and flies a little distance from it, it will instantly die."

Ser Marco Polo thoroughly pooh-poohs the idea of the Salamander, and

says it is Asbestos. Speaking of the Province of Chingintalas, he

says:--"And you must know that in the same mountain there is a vein of

the substance of which Salamander is made. For the real truth is that

the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but

is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it.

"Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal's nature to live in

fire, seeing that every animal is composed of all the four elements.

Now, I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar,

and he was a very clever fellow, and this Turk related to Messer Marco

Polo how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great

Kaan, in order to procure those Salamanders for him. He said that the

way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a

certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed,

and, when so treated, it divides, as it were, into fibres of wool, which

they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great

copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth, and to

leave only the fibres, like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and

made into napkins. When first made, these napkins are not very white,

but by putting them in the fire for a while they come out as white as

snow. And so again, whenever they become dirty they are bleached by

being put in the fire.

"Now this, and nought else, is the truth about the Salamander, and the

people of the country all say the same. Any other account of the matter

is fabulous nonsense. And I may add that they have, at Rome, a napkin

out of this stuff, which the Grand Kaan sent to the Pope, to make a

wrapper, for the Holy Sudarium of Jesus Christ."

That extremely truthful person, Benvenuto Cellini, in his thoroughly

veracious autobiography, tells us the following Snake Story:--"When I

was about five years old, my father happened to be in a basement-chamber

of our house, where they had been washing, and where a good fire of

oak-logs was still burning; he had a viol in his hand, and was playing

and singing alone beside the fire.

"The weather was very cold. Happening to look into the fire, he spied in

the middle of those most burning flames a little creature like a lizard,

which was sporting in the core of the intensest coals. Becoming

instantly aware of what the thing was, he had my sister and me called,

and, pointing it out to us children, gave me a great box on the ears,

which caused me to howl and weep with all my might. Then he pacified me

good-humouredly, and spoke as follows: 'My dear little boy, I am not

striking you for any wrong that you have done, but only to make you

remember that that lizard which you see in the fire is a salamander, a

creature which has never been seen before, by any one of whom we have

credible information.' So saying, he kissed me, and gave me some pieces

of money."

Even Topsell is half-hearted about its fire-resisting qualities, giving

no modern instances, and only, for it, quoting old authors. According to

his account, and to the picture which I have taken from him, the

Salamander is not a prepossessing-looking animal:--"The Salamander is

also foure-footed like a Lyzard, and all the body over it is set with

spots of blacke and yellow, yet is the sight of it abhominable, and

fearefull to man. The head of it is great, and sometimes they have

yellowish bellyes and tayles, and sometimes earthy."

He also says its bite is not only poisonous, but incurable, and that it

poisons all it touches.