Of the Salamander.

THAT a Salamander is able to live in flames, to endure and put out fire, is an assertion, not only of great antiquity, but confirmed by frequent, and not contemptible testimony. The Egyptians have drawn it into their Hieroglyphicks, Aristotle seemeth to embrace it; more plainly Nicander, Sarenus Sammonicus, Ælian and Pliny, who assigns the cause of this effect: An Animal (saith he) so cold that it extinguisheth the fire like Ice. All which notwithstanding, there is on the negative, Authority and Experience: Sextius a Physitian, as Pliny delivereth, denied this effect; Dioscorides affirmed it a point of folly to believe it; Galen that it endureth the fire a while, but in continuance is consumed therein. For experimental conviction, Mathiolus affirmeth, he saw a Salamander burnt in a very short time:[1] and of the like assertion is Amatus Lusitanus;[2] and most plainly Pierius, whose words in his Hieroglyphicks are these;[3] Whereas it is commonly said that a Salamander extinguisheth the fire, we have found by experience, that it is so far from quenching hot coals, that it dieth immediately therein. As for the contrary assertion of Aristotle, it is but by hear-say, as common opinion believeth, Hæc enim (ut aiunt) ignem ingrediens, eum extinguit; and therefore there was no absurdity in Galen, when as a Septical medicine4 he commended the ashes of a Salamander; and Magicians in vain from the power of this Tradition, at the burning of Towns or Houses expect a relief from Salamanders.[5]

The ground of this opinion, might be some sensible resistance of fire observed in the Salamander: which being, as Galen determineth, cold in the fourth, and moist in the third degree, and having also a mucous humidity above and under the skin, by vertue thereof it may a while endure the flame; which being consumed, it can resist no more. Such an humidity there is observed in Newtes, or Water-Lizards, especially if their skins be perforated or pricked. Thus will Frogs and Snails endure the flame: thus will whites of Eggs, vitreous or glassie flegm extinguish a coal: thus are unguents made which protect a while from the fire: and thus beside the Hirpini[6] there are later stories of men that have passed untoucht through the fire. And therefore some truth we allow in the tradition: truth according unto Galen, that it may for a time resist a flame, or as Scaliger avers, extinguish or put out a coal: for thus much will many humid bodies perform: but that it perseveres and lives in that destructive element, is a fallacious enlargement. Nor do we reasonably conclude, because for a time it endureth fire, it subdueth and extinguisheth the same, because by a cold and aluminous[7] moisture, it is able a while to resist it: from a peculiarity of Nature it subsisteth and liveth in it.

It hath been much promoted by Stories of incombustible napkins and textures which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of Salamanders wool. Which many too literally apprehending,[8] conceive some investing part, or tegument of the Salamander: wherein beside that they mistake the condition of this Animal (which is a kind of Lizard, a quadruped corticated and depilous, that is, without wool, fur or hair) they observe not the method and general rule of nature: whereby all Quadrupeds oviparous, as Lizards, Frogs, Tortois, Chamelions, Crocodiles, are without hair, and have no covering part or hairy investment at all.[9] And if they conceive that from the skin of the Salamander, these incremable pieces are composed; beside the experiments made upon the living, that of Brassavolus will step in, who in the search of this truth, did burn the skin of one dead.[10]

Nor is this Salamanders wooll desumed from any Animal, but a Mineral substance Metaphorically so called from this received opinion. For beside Germanicus his heart,11 and Pyrrhus his great Toe,12 which would not burn with the rest of their bodies, there are in the number of Minerals some bodies incombustible; more remarkably that which the Ancients named Asbeston, and Pancirollus treats of in the Chapter of Linum vivum.[13] Whereof by Art were weaved Napkins, Shirts, and Coats, inconsumable by fire;[14] and wherein in ancient times to preserve their ashes pure, and without commixture, they burnt the bodies of Kings. A Napkin hereof Pliny reports that Nero had,[15] and the like saith Paulus Venetus the Emperour of Tartary sent unto Pope Alexander; and also affirms that in some part of Tartary there were Mines of Iron whose filaments were weaved into incombustible cloth.[16] Which rare Manufacture, although delivered for lost by Pancirollus, yet Salmuth his Commentator affirmeth, that one Podocaterus a Cyprian, had shewed the same at Venice; and his materials were from Cyprus, where indeed Dioscorides placeth them; the same is also ocularly confirmed by Vives upon Austin, and Maiolus in his Colloquies.[17] And thus in our days do men practise to make long-lasting Snasts[18] for Lamps out of Alumen plumosum;[19] and by the same we read in Pausanius, that there always burnt a Lamp before the Image of Minerva.[20]


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross defends what he takes to be the ancient opinions in the first chapter of his attack on Browne, Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chap. 1, "Divers ways to resist burning".

1 [On the salamander in "Hieroglyphics", see Pierius, lib. xvi, pp. 162-164 "De salamandra" (ed. 1602; now available on line at Gallica in Latin and in PDF form), bearing in mind Wilkin's admonishing "but without authority", which should serve as the preface to Pierius in any case; Horapollo, lib. ii, 62 (from the 1940 edition of Francesco Sbordone, pp. 175-176; which editor points out that, aside from the imperfect and problematic text, the hieroglyph itself is "strano": why signify a man who is burnt with an animal who can't be? But the legend seems to be somewhat different here):

62. Πῶς ἄνθρωπον ὑπος (οὐ) καιόμενον.

Ἄνθρωπον ὑπὸ πυρὸς (οὐ) καιόμενον Βοθλόμενοι σημῆναι, σαλαμάνδραν ζωγραφοῦσιν· αὕτη γὰρ (πᾶσαν φλόγα σβεννύει).

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
.  .  ἑκατέρᾳ τῇ κεφαλῇ ἀναιρεῖ.

(This is not on line in HTML, because the Italian Venice edition of 1547 leaves it out. It is, however, on line in Latin and in French at Gallica in PDF format: unnumbered page 141 of the French edition of 1543). The alleged hieroglyph and its meaning are probably drawn ultimately from Aristotle, History of Animals 5, Part 19, in a passage upon animals "engendered" in substances that do not, strictly speaking, putrefy:

Now the salamander is a clear case in point, to show us that animals do actually exist that fire cannot destroy; for this creature, so the story goes, not only walks through the fire but puts it out in doing so.

Nicander, in his Alexipharmaca, 539 ff; in the 1607 Latin translation of Goræus:

Sin quis viscosi tritísque venena lacerti
Mortifera ebiberit, vero Salamandra vocatur
Nomine, damnosus quam non violaverit ignis
Extemplo ardentem vexant incendia linguam:
Torpescunt, proprióque trementia pondere membra
Solvuntur, non firmi errant, pedibusque quaternis
Ut pueri incedunt: nam mens obtus vacillat.

Q. Serenus Sammonicus, Liber Medicina 104-106:

Seu salamandra potens nullisque obnoxia flammis
Eximium capitis tactu deiecit honorem
Non nunquam variant macule: etc.

Aelian, Nat. Animal. lib. II cap. XXXI; in Latin translation based on Gesner, from the 1832 edition of Jacobs, pp. 29-30:

XXXI. De salamandra. Ex animalibus tametsi salamandra non est quae ex igni nascuntur, quales sunt pyrigoni; contra tamen huinc ire audet, contraque illius flammam veniens, tanquam adversus hostem quendam, sic eam expugnare aggreditur. Cujus rei testimonium opifices, quorum opera atque artificium igne nititur, adferunt. Nam quamdiu ex flammae splendore ignis flagrare, et artem fabrilem adjuvare videtur, hujusmodi animal ipsi negligunt. Cum autem ignis evanescit, ac restinguitur, frustraque folles flant, hoc sibi tum animal adversari praeclare intelligunt; quare hoc ipsum pervestigant, atque investigatum ulciscuntur; ignis autem postes iterum succensus fabrile opus, modo ut ante erat solitus alatur, juvare perseverat.

Pliny, on salamanders cold as ice, x(188) (englished) , where he also says that their spit will remove hair from a man's hand (as Topsell said that the "spettle" of toads causes hair to fall off the head); on Sextius and salamanders, HN xxix(76); in this section, beginning with 74, Pliny pretty much says that the salamander stories are mostly poppycock (any reference to the Magi in Pliny is tantamount in Pliny-sprach to saying "this is a lie"), even without the testimony of Sextius. Dioscorides, in his Materia Medica, and Galen, in his De Temperamentis, both mentioned in Mattioli, Comment. Dioscorid. in Lib. ii, cap. 56:

Veruntamen in medium magni ignis, ubi flamma valentius agit, vel in fornacem proiecta, statim comburitur. Vanum est ergo credere (ut etiam Dioscorides inquit) igne eam minimè absumi posse, eoque victitare, ut chamæleon aere: quando quidem facto periculo, igne exustam brevi salamandram vidimus. Quo fit, ut scripserit Galenus libro III. de temperamentis, Salamandram ad certum usque temporis spatium ab igne nihil pati: uri tamen, si ea longius igni sit admota. Quod postea effecit, ut explicare nesciam, quo argumento, quave ratine prodiderit Aristoteles libro v. cap. xix. de historia animalium, Salamandram igne minimè comburi, sed per eum inambulantem flammas, & prunas extinguere: cum contrarium experientia facilè probari possit.]

2 [Amatus Lusitanus (1558), In Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica II:LV, pp 287-288:

Salamandra in aquis hodie potissimum reperitur, animal venenosum, lacertæ magnitudine, subnigrum, de quo falsum fertur, in igne non cremari, ut Dioscorides in præsenti adnotat, & Galenus libris de Temperamentis illi subscribit, dicens: In igne aliquandiu incolumen vivere posse, sed si diutius in eo manserit, non secus ac alias res comburi, id quod nos verum esse comprobavimus, Salamandram in ignem iniicientes.]

3 [Pierius, loc. cit., p. 163.]

4 A corruptive Medicine destroying the parts like Arsenike.

5 [Pliny, xxix(76) (as above; Magicians = Pliny's Magi. "Surely", says Pliny, "it had been put into effect in Rome had their words been proved true."]

6 [Sc. the Hirpi, mentioned by Pierius, who compares them to glassworkers (and tricksters) who dip their hands into molten lead or into fire; see Pliny HN vii(19) (in Holland's English, VII, chap. II); Solinus, 2(26); in Golding's translation (1587, chap.VII, unnumbered pages 44-45 ):

Among other thinges worthy of remembraunce, this is famous and notably talked of in every mans mouth, that there are certaine housholds in the Countryes of the Phalisks, (which they call Hirpes.) These make yeerely sacrifice to Apollo at the Mountaine Soractee, and in performing thereof, do in honor of the divine service friske and dawnce uppe and downe upon the burning wood without harme, the fire sparking them. Which religious and devout kinde of ministration the Senate rewarding honourably, priviledged the Hirpes from all taxes, and from all kind of service for ever.]

7 [Having the nature or properties of alum, used in fire-proofing materials.]

8 [The name was usually taken as referring to legend; e.g., Bacon in his Sylva, sect. 774: "Salamanders Wooll; Being a Kinde of Minerall, which whiteneth also in the Burning, and consumeth not". Sometimes it is difficult to tell, or perhaps the author was riding the fence; but often the author seems to believe in the literal nature of the name; e.g., Caxton, in his 1481 translation of Vincent de Beauvais Speculi Maioralis, on the beasts of Ind ( "Another beeste ther is that men calle Salemandre whiche is fedde & nourished in the fyre. This Salemandre berith wulle of whiche is made cloth and gyrdles that may not brenne in the fyre", but perhaps one should not take this very seriously, as it occurs after a description of unicorns and talking trees. Randall Holme (1688) The Academy of Armory and Blazon, (II.X.ix, p. 205) certainly takes the name quite literally as referring to hair of a salamander:

The Salamander, is a Creature with four short feet like the Lizard, without Ears, with a pale white belly, one part of their skin exceeding black, the other yellowish green, both very splendent and glittering; with a black line going all along the back, having upon it little spots like Eyes; (and from hence it cometh to be called a Stellion, a Creature full of Stars,) the skin is tough and bald; they are said to be so cold, that they can go through Fire, nay, abide in it, and extinguish it, rather then burn. I have some of the hair, or down of the Salamander, which I have several times put in the Fire, and made it red hot, and after taken it out, which being cold, yet remained perfect wool, or fine downy hair.]

9 [Except of course for the ornithorhyncus, or platypus, of whose existence Browne was (sadly) unaware. It is a creature that would have delighted his heart, had he seen it.]

10 [As reported in his Examen ... (1537), p 160:

Non desuere tamen, qui ex Salamandræ cortice similes mappas, quæ comburi non possunt, factas putarent, sed falso, quaniam salamandram comburi magno meo periculo vidi: fere enim eius sanies in os profiliit, quanquam non putamus adeo venenosum animal esse, ut vulgu, & recentes mult arbitrantur.]

11 Suetonius [Caligula 1:1; because he was poisoned, and a heart drenched in poison could not be destroyed. See also Pliny HN xi(187) (englished)]

12 Plutarch [Life of Pyrrhus; in the translation of North, "They say also, that the great toe of his right foot had some secret vertue in it. For when he was dead, and that they burnt his body, all the rest being consumed to ashes, his great toe was whole, and had no hurt at all: but of that, we will write more hereafter." (He doesn't.) The story is a favorite of Browne's. Pliny mentions it as well, HN vii(20) (englished).]

13 [In his Rerum memorabilium sive deperditarum, (a "surreptitious translation" of his 1612 Raccolta di alcune cose etc. with commentary by Heinrich Salmuth), I.iv; also "collected" (and simplified) by Peacham in his (1638) Valley of Variety, Chap. XIV.]

14 [Wren: "Sir Henry Wooton (embassador att Venice almost twenty yeares) among many other choyce rarittyes had one of these napkins, which hee told mee hee could never gaine for money, till the Duke sent him that one for a new yeare's gift."]

15 [Such napery is described in Pliny, HN xix(19), but without reference to Nero.]

16 [Marco Polo; in the translation of John Frampton (1579), Chapter 39, pp. 35-36 ("vernacle" = Veronica):

Hingnitala is a province set between the North and the East, and is a long province of sixeteene dayes journey, and is subject ot the great Cane, and there is manye Cities and Townes. There is also in that province, three linages of people, to saye, Idolators that be Christians, Nestorians and Jacobites, and the other Mahomets. At the ende of this province towardes the North is a great hill, on the whiche there is neither beastes nor Serpent, and from thence they doe gather that whiche is called Salamandra, which is a threede they doe make cloth of: They gather it after this manner, they digge a certaine vayne that they doe there finde, and afterwardes beate it in a morter of a lofer, and afterwarde washe it, and there remaineth small fine threedes faire and cleane, and after they have caste out that which they doe washe it withall, they spinne it, and weave it, and make table clothes and napkins of it, then they cast them into the fire for a certaine time, whereas it wareth as white as snowe: and the great Cane once in three yeres doth send for some of them that be made of Salamandra. And they wer wont for to send of these napkins, for to hang before the vernacle of oure Lord Jesus Christ, whome the people of Levant do take for a great prophet.]

17 [Ludovicus Vives, on Augustine's City of God, XXI.6 (pages 845-846 in the translation of 1610, commenting on eternal lamps in pagan temples):

"Placing of some Asbest": Or of a kinde of flaxe that will never bee consumed, for such there is. Plin. lib. 19. Piedro Garsiaand I saw many lampes of it at Paris, where wee saw also a napkin of it throwne into the middest of a fire, and taken out againe after a while more white and cleane then all the sope in Europe would have made it. Such did Plinyalso see, as hee saith himselfe.

Simone Maioli (1597) Dies caniculares, hoc est colloquia tria et viginta.]

18 {1646: "Snasts or Elynchinous parts" (actually it has "Elynchinons"} [Snast, or snaste: wicks (according to Ray (1691) North Country Words, burnt wicks); Wilkin says it is a "Norfolk provincialism", referring us to Forby's (1830) The vocabulary of East Anglia.]

19 [Fibrous asbestos (not that that note leaves us much enlightened, as it may mean one of several different things; probably Sullvan's "Fibrous asbestos, alumen plumosum, is mild magnesia, combined with silex, calcareous earth, and a small proportion of argill, and iron." (From A View of Nature (1794), quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary).]

20 [Pausanias 1.26.6-7: "Carpasian flax".]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

Valid XHTML 1.0 TransitionalValid CSS