Paracelsus, a Medieval alchemist, identified four magical creatures that symbolized the elements that make up our world: air, fire, water, and earth. Today’s DotW brings you one of them.
When is a salamander not a salamander?
Some of us know salamanders as crawly amphibians that look sort of like geckos, but are actually more related to frogs than reptiles.
Salamander, the amphibious kind
But if you watch the Food Network, as much as I do, you know that sometimes chefs refer to a type of broiler often used to melt cheese as a ‘salamander.’
Salamander, the cooking kind
So how did a cold-blooded amphibian get to be associated with something so hot? The answer lies in some interesting history.
Let’s say you’re a medieval farmer. Remember that you don’t have any education at all, no training in logic. You can’t even read. On your way home after a hard day in the field, you grab a log off the pile for the fire. When you throw it in, it looks perfectly normal. The next time you turn around, there are a pair of beady eyes looking back at you from the flames. There’s a little creature sitting on the log, completely unburned.
The sight is terrifying. It wasn’t there before–where did it come from? Why isn’t it burned? It must be a kind of tiny dragon, with the ability to withstand fire!
Well, today, armed with our logic, living in a world where we jump to magic as a last resort, we might figure out that the creature lived in the log. It hid when we picked up the log, and came out only because it was getting too hot in its hiding place.
But the study of natural history wasn’t a strong point for your peasant back then, so stories of the magic of these creatures grew. In fact, it grew to the point where the salamander took on mythical proportions, with the ability not just to withstand fire, but to cause it.
Salamander, the magical kind
Famous alchemists and magicians, like Paracelsus, began to think of the salamander as an elemental creature of fire. In Jewish folklore, it was said that smearing yourself with the blood of one would give you immunity to flames. But the mythical salamander seemed to diverge from the natural one, to the point where it was said you could make a salamander by burning a fire in the same place for seven years.
The Book of Faeries: A Guide to the World of Elves, Pixies, Goblins, and Other Magic Spirits
by Francis Melville