Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Hellbender Salamanders: Etymology?

Salamander Alchemy
(Image from Wikipedia)

One longstanding, albeit erroneous belief about salamaders is that they can imperviously withstand the flames of even very hot fires, as I learned in my history-of-science days, thereby prompting my speculation yesterday:
I wonder if "hellbender" has some connection to old beliefs about salamanders. They were believed impervious to fire, able to live in flames, and therefore somehow linked to the devil. But I'm just guessing. Anybody know the etymology?
I've tried to find evidence, though the links are only tenuous, but here's some information from an online Medieval Bestiary:
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 86): The salamander is a shaped like a lizard, but is covered with spots. A salamander is so cold that it puts out fire on contact. It vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this liquid touches any part of the human body it causes all the hair to fall off, and the skin to change color and break out in a rash. Salamanders only appear when it rains and disappear in fine weather. (Book 11, 116): It is fatal to drink water or wine when a salamander has died in it, as is drinking from a vessel from which the creature has drunk.

Augustine [5th century CE] (City of God, Book 21, chapter 4): If the salamander lives in fire, as naturalists have recorded, this is a sufficiently convincing example that everything which burns is not consumed, as the souls in hell are not.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:36): The salamander alone of animals puts out fires; it can live in fire without pain and without being burned. Of all the venomous animals its strength is the greatest because it kills many at once. If it crawls into a tree it poisons all of the fruit, and anyone who eats the fruit will die; if it falls in a well it poisons the water so that any who drink it die.
The site then helpfully links to images from bestiaries. One image from the Museum Meermanno (Hague, Netherlands) has a manuscript dating from 1450 that shows what appears to be a serpent in a tree offering an apple to a man:

The text, however, identifies this creature as a salamander: "Een salamandra vergiftigt de appels in een boom; een man eet een vergiftigde appel" (translation: "A salamander poisons the apples in a tree; a man eats a poisoned apple"). The Medieval Bestiary website describes the scene in this way:
Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25 (f. 43r) shows the salamander as a snake spiraling up an apple tree; the snake has an apple in its mouth, making the scene very similar to some manuscript illustrations of the temptation of Eve. A man holding an apple stands near the tree, a hand to his head and looking sick.
The belief that salamanders could live in fire, the remarks by Augustine about salamander-like souls in hell remaining unconsumed by hellfire, and the pictorial connection between salamanders and Satan all suggest that further investigation into the etymology of "hellbender" with respect to bestiary books and alchemical texts could prove fruitful.

Perhaps some Medievalist could supply more information?

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At 10:06 PM, Blogger N.E. Brigand said...

I can't help with the etymology, but as for the connection between salamanders and fire, one suggestion I've seen is that woodland salamanders sometimes live inside rotting logs, and when those were brought in to the hearth, the heat of the fire would cause the salamanders to emerge, to all appearances crawling out of the fire. (As hellbenders are aquatic, that explanation doesn't apply to them.)

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I'd read that explanation, too . . . somewhere. I don't know if there's evidence for that speculation, but it's certainly intriguing.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:49 AM, Blogger N.E. Brigand said...

I only remembered it from some herpetology book or other read years ago, but Wikipedia's entry on salamanders in mythology leads to Bartleby's online copy of Thomas Bulfinch's Age of Fable, in a 1913 printing, quoting the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, who claims to have seen a salamander in the fire. Bulfinch goes on to offer the idea of salamanders hibernating in logs, so by 1913 at least, that explanation for the mythology was established, though who knows if that was the speculation of Bulfinch (or subsequent editors) or based on earlier research. Is it strange that the mythology of salamanders thriving in fire should persist when it would have been quite easy to test the notion by going out into the forest, catching some salamanders, and placing them in a fire? It seems people often overlook what lives even in nearby woodlots -- note that an apparently common species of salamander, the first of its family to be found in Asia, was only discovered in a populous country, South Korea, four years ago.

Returning to hellbenders: I remember now that some herpetology field guides report that fishermen who hook one will cut their lines rather than handle it -- for some reason, perhaps their ugly appearance, they have a hellish reputation.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The hellbender's famous ugliness (about which they are quite sensitive!) might have some connection to the name. After all, no other salamader has this hellacious name -- despite the legend about salamanders being impervious to fire -- so perhaps you're correct about how the name might have arisen.

Jeffery Hodges

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