I’m currently working on a sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors, which is provisionally called The Extraordinary Salamander Door. The title refers to the mythical beast, not the actual amphibian of the order Urodela, and represents both the symbol of Francis I of France (who splashed his symbol all over the place in real life and commissioned the magical Books of Doors in my fictional world), and also a sanctuary of mythical creatures. So today seems a good day to share some of the lore of the legendary salamander.
The mythical salamander looks much like the real one, though usually rather more reptilian than amphibian. (In fact, sometimes all manner of creatures, from avian to semi-human, apparently got called salamanders on occasion, but let’s rein in the more far-fetched nonsense.) The chief difference between pictures of real and mythical salamanders, though, is that the mythical beast has a special affinity for fire and is always shown in the midst of flames.
Some species of real salamanders excrete toxins from their skin when threatened; legendary salamanders are so poisonous that simply by climbing a tree one can poison all its fruit. But the fire traits are the most important. A salamander is so cold that it can put out fires. It is produced by fire, especially fires that burn in the same place for seven years. It needs no food but the fire, which renews it. If you smear yourself with salamander blood, you, too, will be fire-proof. You can also make yourself fireproof clothing from salamander wool, which is a little harder to figure out. Have you ever actually looked at a salamander?
Alas for real salamanders, which ignorant people often confused for the mythical variety, there was a fair amount of animosity towards the poisonous legendary monsters leading people to kill the harmless amphibians. I hate to think of the innocent salamanders being
murdered by superstitious people. But in the unlikely event that you need to kill the mythical salamander, the only way to do so is to lock it up in an enclosed space where it will have to breathe its own poison. But please don’t. Mythical creatures are endangered enough as it is, and we need to preserve their habitat of fantasy so that we don’t lose them forever! I’m trying to do my part with The Extraordinary Salamander Door. What are you doing?
[Pictures: Salamander (the device of Francis I), woodcut perhaps by Christopher Plantin, from Devises Heroïques by Claude Paradin, 1557 (Image from Glasgow University);
Printer’s device of Damiano Zenaro, 16th century (Image from Lambeth Palace Library);
Salamander, Emblem X from Musaeum Hermeticum, 1679 (Image from Wikimedia Commons.).]