As I continued to read my book The First Eden, I learned the term for something I am sure we have all seen before:
Page of Bestiary
A bestiary was a manuscript containing collections of stories (such as the one with Alexander the Great and the salamanders) and descriptions about animals. Usually illustrated, they were comprised of more than one author and included dimly remembered classical writers, from local folk tales, but least of all, from first-hand observations.
Friday night I was browsing at a used book store and came across David Attenborough’s book The First Eden. As I was flipping through I landed on a page that contained illustrations of mythical creatures of the midieval world, such as this:
...and the salamander passed unscathed through fire
While I am familiar with the myths of the Phoenix, Griffon, and Mandrake root – I knew nothing of the mythology of the fire salamander and naturally I wanted to learn.
I now share with you the mythology of this little guy:
The salamander, an innocuous amphibian like a big newt, was also regarded with a mixture of horror and awe. It is certainly one of the most dramatically colored animals in the European countryside, being black blotched with a brilliant golden yellow. As it is an amphibian, its skin must remain wet if it is not to die, so it spends most of its time concealed beneath stones or under leaves and moss, and normally merges at night. Only after a heavy storm is it likely to appear during daylight and seen by casual observers. For this reason, it seems to have become associated with wetness and cold, and thus came to be credited with the ability to quench fire. This reputation certainly goes back to ancient times. Pliny , the Roman naturalist in the first century AD, heard of it and in the down-to-earth, practical manner typical of the romans, tested the proposition experimentally. He took a salamander and put the unfortunate creature into a fire. It was, of course, burnt to a cinder, and Pliny duly recorded the fact in his great natural history.
(from The First Eden by David Attenborough)
Of course, a finding as logical as Pliny’s, did not stick. People believed that the fire salamander possessed a venom of stupendous power. In fact…
A thirteenth-century manuscript stated as sober historical fact that four thousand horse of the army of Alexander the great were all killed because they drank from a stream through which a salamander had recently passed.
(still from The First Eden by David Attenborough)
To those ideas of yore, I use the words of the great Balki Bartokomous, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
(and yes, I did buy the book)