The Salamander

The word ‘salamander’ today often brings to mind something slimy and wet with very little concern for its own limbs.  After all, it can regrow limbs and other body parts at need.  So an individual arm or leg or even liver would not have the same value to it as these irreplaceable parts do to us.  For quite some time, this ability has been under investigation by the medical community.  After all, what person whose lost a hand wouldn’t give the world to get it back?  There have even been studies (which I know of only from hearsay – I haven’t read the research myself) that the human body originally has this regrowth ability.  Children under the age of five have been known to regrow pinkies – at least those that are cut above the second knuckle.

It seems somewhat realistic then that current medicine hopes to encourage our own stem cells to regrow body parts at least partially today.  While I am a little hesitant to endorse anything named ‘pixie dust’ and made from pig products, it’s still an interesting idea.  I would like to be able to encourage my cells to grow wings so I can fly.  Or at least a useful third arm.

Pixie dust and extra limbs aside, there are other connotations for salamanders that have grown up from misconceptions about the animal that I find intriguing.  Salamanders are named to be fire creature, created from flame, animals that live in intense heat and have the ability to cool fires.  Modern science calls them amphibians, living at least part of their lives in the water, and suspects that the whole fire idea came from rotting logs put on the flames that sent the creatures who lived there skittering out.  According to modern science, they secrete a milky substance when in danger, which may have kept them from being baked crispy by the flames.  But is this really the truth behind their legend?

We may all disparage people in the past, but I find it hard to believe that even the Greeks were without basic concepts of fire building.  A damply rotting log does not burn well.  An amphibian doesn’t usually try to live in a drying-out piece of rot, where its food source has probably already died out.  Be that as it may, there’s a certain attraction regarding any animal said to be born of fire.  Other associations of the word regard soldiers and chaste women.  The soldiers are exemplified for exposing themselves to the heat of the most intense combat; the women, for remaining pure when surrounded by the fires of temptation.  There’s even a verb form in the OED – ‘to live amist fire, like the salamander’.  It reminds me of the proverb about ‘interesting times’ – to live, surrounded by rage and pain and all the other downfalls of society and peril, and still to be a green and glowing thing.  Whether born of fire or pond, the salamander is still a form of renewal and growth and life.