Research Letter 22

SALAMANDERS as SYMBOLS

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim seems to have been a bit of a firebrand but Jacobi (1969) says “to classify him under any label is well nigh impossible”. He was a ‘character’. Calling himself ‘Paracelcus’, rather than Phil., the work of this man has endured the 5 centuries since his birth in Switzerland in 1493 (Jacobi 1969). Best known for his medical ideas, his name has also endured because he appointed the Salamander as the symbol of fire (Websters New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language , Second Edition 1967).

A Salamander is one of a species-rich assemblage of amphibians which the Websters Dictionary refers to as “any of a group of scaleless, lizard-like animals related to the frogs and toads, with soft moist skins and a tail”. Ecologically, there are land salamanders and water salamanders (Lanza et al. 1998). They are distributed largely in the northern Hemisphere and absent from Australia (Lanza et al. 1998).

Giles, the famous Australian explorer, adopted the Salamander as symbol in his famous quotation referring to the burning of landscapes by Aboriginal people:

Nevertheless, the natives were about, burning, burning, ever burning; one would think they were of the fabled salamander race and lived on fire instead of water” (Giles 1889, p.81).

So, how on earth could such an animal as the Salamander become the symbol of fire? That the word “salamander” is derived from an Arab-Persian word which means “lives in fire” (Lanza et al. 1998) is interesting but one step removed from an explanation. Perhaps the real origin of the word, and the symbolism, is that the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) hides in cracks in logs which, when put on the fire in the fireplace, unsurprisingly, emerge (see http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/salamandra/s._salamadra.htm ) – hence it appears to ‘live in fire’.

Symbols have power. They tell a story. They send messages. They evoke emotion. They encapsulate meaning. Think of the Australian flag, the Olympic torch, the Christian cross, the dove and the Nazi swastika. Today these symbols need no explanation because we have been taught what these symbols mean or have attached to them a meaning in the light of history.

The Salamander’s ability to ‘live in fire’ is mythical yet Salamanders have been used as symbols of fire for around 500 years. In this era of exponentially increasing knowledge we have the opportunity to choose our symbols with more insight than that available to our forbears. If an animal is chosen to represent a fire-related organization, a fire message, a mascot, let’s make sure that its symbolism is ecologically accurate.

References

Giles, E. (1889). Australia Twice Traversed: The Romance of Exploration. Volume 1. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, London.

Jacobi, J. (1969). Paracelcus. Selected Writings. Second Edition 1958; Second Printing 1969. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

Lanza, B., Vanni, S. and Nistri, A. (1998). Salamanders and newts. In: H.G. Cogger and R.G. Zweiful (eds) Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Pp. 60-75. University of NSW Press, Sydney.

Malcolm Gill

10 August 2000


[Michelle Hearn, CSIRO Black Mountain library helped me with the literature on Paracelcus. Peter Moore, as always, has provided technical support. The opinions expressed in this letter are those of the author unless otherwise noted.]