Friday, January 2, 2009

Salamanders, Part 2 (Michelle)

Happy New Year!

For those of you who were intrigued by the Renaissance idea that salamanders live in fire, I finally found that Thomas Browne reference. I'm on a mild pre-modern science kick, as that quote from Plutarch's Moralia also indicates.

Anyway, Browne, writing in 1646 or thereabouts, is actually debunking this idea with his "new science," but in so doing he describes the previous belief. Here we go, from the fantastically named Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

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...Pliny assigns the cause of this effect: an animal (saith he) so cold that it extinguisheth the fire like ice.
It hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible and napkins...which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of salamander's wool [how cool is that?!]; which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part, or tegument of the salamander. [Browne goes on to explain how in antiquity the bodies of kings were burned in "salamander's wool" to keep their ashes pure. Goodness knows if this is true.]

There you go. A particularly arcane piece of whimsy to start off 2009. With the holidays behind, I hope to start posting a few more substantial things soon. But meanwhile, enjoy some eggnog!


  1. Ah, Michelle! I do love this historical tidbits from yester-century! Thanks for sharing the hilarities of ages past!

  2. I heard that smoke detectors contain tiny salamanders that operate the alarm. Are you saying this isn't true? (By the way, now I understand why the trucks that START fires in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are called "salamanders".)

  3. I need to read Farenheit 451.

    And MY smoke detector contains a salamander. Yours might be lamer, I daren't comment. :)



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