“This has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin. The salamander, which renews its scaly skin in the fire, for virtue.” -Leonardo Da Vinci
Nearly everyone who has read a fantasy book is familiar with the salamander. They’ve been featured in Harry Potter, Narnia, and Discworld and can even be found and fought in games like Final Fantasy or World of Warcraft. Members of my generation will recognize Charmander, the Pokemon, as their introduction to this fantasy creature.
But the animal these myths are based upon is a definitively aquatic creature. I mean, come on, it’s an amphibian. Certainly somebody should have pointed this out at some point?
Well, we can start by blaming Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). Working off natural observations and reports from Aristotle, Pliny wrote that the animal would only appear during exceptionally wet weather, a trait which is true for most amphibians. However, he also included reports that they were so cold of body that they could extinguish any fire with a touch and were so poisonous that, should one curl around a tree, the fruit of that tree would kill any who ate it. While salamanders can produce a milky poisonous sap as a defense mechanism, these abilities are obviously exaggerated. A salamander cannot put out a flame.
However later, in reports from the medieval era, we can see how the connection with fire evolved. People during that time believed that these creatures could be spontaneously generated from flames and that they would die without them. This myth is attributed to the fact that salamanders often hibernate under rotten wood. People would gather and burn fallen logs for fuel; the flames would warm and startle the amphibians, which would rush out of the wood, only to die in the fire. To any onlooker it would seem like many small creatures were appearing and disappearing amongst the coals.
As the belief in alchemy gained a fevered pitch, people abandoned the real world animal for a more idealized creature of elemental fire. Their name was given over to the spirit of popular culture. For instance, fireproof asbestos was once called ‘salamander wool’ and many bestiaries list them alongside dragons as supernatural creatures. It is here where the animal diverges from the legend. And while salamanders continue to confuse historians with their skeletons, inspire science fiction stories, and tempt modern geneticists with the secret to regenerative medicine, we can definitely say they are not the fiery lizards they were once thought to be.
At least until they learn Ember at level 7.