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With reference to the elemental symbolism of the alchemists, the historian of art and the occult, Fred Gettings, says in Secret Symbolism in Occult Art (1987, also published as Visions of the Occult) that:

The symbol for Fire was more often than not the salamander, sometimes with six legs, sometimes with only four.

Salamander sporting in the flames, from a 14th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Salamander sporting in the flames, from a 14th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Emblems of the four elements, humours and temperaments on the title page of Septem Planetæ

Emblems of the four elements, humours and temperaments on the title page of Septem Planetæ

Salamander detail from the title page of Septem Planetæ

Salamander detail from the title page of Septem Planetæ

Although a six-legged variant is mentioned, it is the four-legged salamander which is most frequently encountered throughout the literature. In his delightful hardcover quarto Gettings includes three images of four-legged fire lizards, including one from a 14th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library, another from the title page of Septem Planetæ (or The Seven Planets, 1581), and a third from Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (or Atalanta fleeing) of 1618, the famous emblems therein engraved by the masterful Johann Theodor de Bry. Emblem XXIX from the latter text shows the salamander amid flames and smoke accompanied by the words:

Ut Salamandra vivit igne sic lapis

which translates into English as:

As the Salamander lives in the Fire so does the Stone.

Emblem XXIX from Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens

Emblem XXIX from Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens

In The Golden Game (1988) that erudite scholar of the living tradition of alchemy, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, offers insights into the emblem as follows:

The hieroglyph of Fire, the Salamander is the symbol, at once, of Sulphur and of the Secret Fire. The Secret Fire, hidden under a saline aspect, is indispensible so that the prepared Matter, or Subject of the Philosophers, may fulfill its calling as a mother. Each form of generation seeks the aid of the proper agent. As animals are born of a fecundated egg, and vegetables from a seed that has been made prolific, so minerals and metals have their origin in a Seed, a metallic liquor, fertilised by the mineral Fire. The spiritual Secret Fire, corporified as a Salt, is the hidden Sulphur which, as Maier points out, is the Philosophick Tincture, and which fixes all flying Spirits.

Notably, in Gettings’ volume, rich with images and overflowing with valuable information, this 29th emblem from Atalanta fugiens is subtitled as:

The salamander or fire newt bathing in the flames. Detail from a plate in Lambsprinck’s De Lapide Philosophico (1695 edition).

Evidently the labyrinthine alchemical literature can confuse and entrap even life-long students of Hermetism (or, at the very least, their editors / publishers). The only salamander depicted in De Lapide Philosophico (or The little book of the noble old German philosopher Lambsprinck) of 1625 is found in Figure X. Above this emblem the text:

A salamander lives in the fire, which imparts to it a most glorious hue.

And below the emblem this text:

This is the reiteration, gradation, and amelioration of the Tincture, or Philosopher’s Stone; and the whole is called its Augmentation.

Figure X from Lambsprinck’s De Lapide Philosophico

Figure X from Lambsprinck’s De Lapide Philosophico

Figure X from Lambsprinck’s De Lapide Philosophico is accompanied by a poetic composition of 27 lines:

In all fables we are told
That the Salamander is born in the fire;
In the fire it has that food and life
Which Nature herself has assigned to it.
It dwells in a great mountain
Which is encompassed by many flames,
And one of these is ever smaller than another –
Herein the Salamander bathes.
The third is greater, the fourth brighter than the rest –
In all these the Salamander washes, and is purified.
Then he hies him to his cave,
But on the way is caught and pierced
So that it dies, and yields up its life with its blood.
But this, too, happens for its good:
For from its blood it wins immortal life,
And then death has no more power over it.
Its blood is the most precious Medicine upon earth,
The same has not its like in the world.
For this blood drives away all disease
In the bodies of metals,
Of men, and of beasts.
From it the Sages derive their science,
And through it they attain the Heavenly Gift,
Which is called the Philosopher’s Stone,
Possessing the power of the whole world.
This gift the Sages impart to us with loving hearts,
That we may remember them for ever.

Says Klossowski de Rola of Lambsprinck’s salamander:

The Salamander, which, according to fables, lives in the fire, is the perfect symbol of Sulphur, Fire, Spirit or Light. The Blood of Fire is the Quintessence, which cures all ills in the three Realms.

We will consider this ‘Blood of Fire’ in later posts. Returning to Secret Symbolism in Occult Art, Gettings eloquently elucidates ‘the occult veil’ and its relationship to esoteric texts, symbolism and art. He further elaborates upon the salamander as dynamic soul-being and exuberant animator of fire. This considered elaboration is quoted at length below:

The occult world is the hidden world. But what is it hidden from? Well, the occultists themselves usually insist that the world with which they themselves are familiar is hidden from ordinary vision. Most occultists will say that, while it is quite possible for anyone to see this hidden realm, special preparation is usually needed. The majority of people are quite content to pass their lives immersed in the ordinary world of time and space, oblivious to the fact that it is a world interpenetrated by other worlds in which there is a different time and a different space.

The whole range of occult symbols which have come down to us from the remote past is concerned with giving us information about the nature of this different time and space which is hidden from ordinary sight. How is it possible for a hidden world, or an invisible realm, to be represented in ordinary pictures? Imagine, for example, something we have already mentioned, such as the flames which are used to denote the spiritual realm. When an ordinary person looks at a fire, he sees flames leaping upwards. He probably knows that the flames are fed by oxygen from the air, and that what he is seeing is an incandescent gas. Now, when an occultist or an initiate looks with especially sensitised eyes towards the flames of a fire, he does not see only incandescent gases. He sees a sort of life force which is directly linked with the power of the Sun; he also sees that the fire is animated (like all earthly things) by a special soul-being. Such a soul-being is called by modern occultists a ‘salamander’. Salamanders are famous in occult circles for their volatility: they change their shape with extraordinary rapidity and love flames. Indeed, without flames they cannot live, just as humans cannot live without air. There are many occult drawings of salamanders luxuriating in the flames of the fire.

When an artist wants to paint the flames of fire, he realises that he cannot paint the movement. He has to adopt a convention to render the fire as though it were still, even though he knows full well that the important thing about a fire is that it is in constant movement and that it is hot. The two most important things about the fire – its movement and its heat – the artists cannot represent on paper. For this reason we accept the convention that the many tongues of flame … represent fire. So it is when an occultist seeks to represent the nature of the salamander which he sees dwelling in the flames. He knows that the most important thing about the salamander is its life, its joy, its exuberant movement and its love of warmth. None of these things can he represent on paper, of course, and so he is reduced to representing this extraordinary creature as a newt, or tiny dragon, bathed in flames.

It was quite usual for the alchemists to symbolise fire with the simple drawing of a triangle Δ. This symbol indicates that the fire principles strives upwards, as though to the spiritual realm. The broad base of the triangle also indicates that the creative force of fire is well founded or stable, resting firmly and securely on the earth.

Naturally, the representation of fire in its many forms is complex and not limited to the upwards-pointing triangle popularly recognised in contemporary (i.e. modern) alchemical texts. Fire in all its attributes warrants a more detailed examination; this shall be undertaken via forthcoming posts. There will be more on our beloved fire newt too.