“In order to harness the energy of inspiration, you need to connect to your creative centre. This in turn will spark the flame inside of you that is just waiting to burn brightly. Now is not the time for mastery, however; it is a time of experimentation and fun. Learn as much as you can while you can and don’t worry about doing it the wrong or right way.”
– Message from Salamander, Animal Totem Tarot
Salamanders are amphibians that look a lot like lizards- slim bodies, short legs and blunt snouts – but they have permeable skin that means they need to live in cool, damp places. As they breathe through their skin, it is hard for them to filter out toxins in the environment and so they can be used as an indicator species; their presence or lack of, reflects pollution levels.
As I write this, I am having an allergic reaction to something in my environment. I am exceptionally sensitive to changes in my environment and so I am alert to any changes, whether that’s consciously or through the rash on my cheek. But you should also be sensitive to energy vampires and toxic people. Especially as salamanders have skin glands which excrete poisons, in some cases powerful neurotoxins.
Some salamanders live in caves, others in moist crevices but most species live in humid forests. They are generally more active during the cooler parts of the day, and wait until night to eat. In the warmer parts of the day, they hide under rocks or in shadowy areas to stay cool.
“To a salamander beneath a log, the first heavy raindrops must sound like the knuckles of spring knocking on the door overhead. After six months of torpor, stiff limbs slowly flex, tails wiggle out of winter immobility, and within minutes, snouts nose upward and legs push away cold earth as the salamanders crawl up into the night.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer
Once out, they head towards water where they will mate and breed. Like salmon, they return to the same waters that they were born in. Perhaps this is a nudge telling you to return home, to visit your birth place or to spend time with your ancestors.
“Part of their direction-finding ability relies on a precise reading of the lines in the earth’s magnetic field. A small organ in the brain processes magnetic data and guides the salamander to its pond… Following the earth’s magnetic gets them to the neighbourhood and then scent takes over to guide them home.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer
The amazing way they find their destination makes me think we should all be listening to our intuition when it comes to travel. Perhaps there is a reason why you are drawn to that particular place over and over again.
Once they reach their destination, the male deposits a spermatophore (a packet of sperm) on the ground or in the water and the female picks this up with her cloaca. Here the sperm fertilises her eggs and they are then laid in water. NB some species do give birth to live young.
During the larval stage, the young live in the water, breathing through gills and resembling tadpoles. By the end of this stage, they have limbs and metamorphosis normally takes place, with lungs replacing gills.
Their reproductive cycle echoes that of life overall – larvae are born in water with gills and grow up into adults with lungs that live on land, like how life developed lungs and stepped onto land. Or most salamanders do. The axolotl provides a striking exception.
Axolotls were revered by Aztecs and get their name from an Aztec deity called Xolotl who was associated with death and lightning. They are strange creatures who never grow out of the larval form, and yet still reach sexual maturity, an odd paradox. In labs, they can be ‘turned’ into land animals through the use of hormones suggesting the potential is there and yet as a species they choose not to take this final metamorphosis. Those that do go through this process have a shorter lifespan.
All salamanders engage in autotomy, or self amputation, to escape predators, and the acolotyl raises the bar incredibly. They can regenerate limbs, tails, jaw, skin and even their spinal cord without scarring.
“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level – the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm – and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, there’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.”
– Prof. Stephane Roy
They can also accept limbs from other axolotls; in a questionable experiment, scientists gave an axolotl a second head… Research into this creature could help people with severe burns, transplant recipients and even cancer as they are more resistant to it than any mammals. They are true survivors but I wonder how we would feel if we came out of a traumatic experience unscarred. Scars can be hard to bear but they show us that we have been hurt and that we have survived, they also prove that the painful thing was real.
“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.”
― Linda Hogan
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
― Cormac McCarthy
“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.”
― Steve Goodier
The axolotl brings messages around healing oneself and the power we have within. I am not suggesting we can cure illness with the power of our mind, rather that we can use tools such as meditation to reduce stress and that in turn can help us live healthier lives. It might be time for you to think about your health or to seek out help from experts.
The ability of the salamander, and especially the axolotl, to regenerate is ripe for metaphor. With this card, we are reminded that we have the power to change our lives, to transform ourselves to go into the fire and come out alive like the phoenix.
The axolotl isn’t the only wonder salamander, the Eastern Hellbender – a fantastic name but as if that wasn’t enough, they are also known as Devil Dogs, Lasagne Lizards and Snot Otters – is a large kind of Salamander found in America. They are being studied as they seem to be resistant to BD, a deadly disease which is killing amphibians around the world. They test positive for it and yet show no symptoms so it is possible they can bring hope to frogs, toads, newts and other salamanders everywhere!
In my notes, I have written that the salamander is the spirit of fire in animal form but I have not said where I got that from. Thinking in terms of tarot and elements, we have in the salamander, a creature that combines fire and water. Fire can be destructive and water can balance it, in the same way that the creative energy of the fire element can be intense, overwhelming and destructive and need some balancing out if you want to avoid burn out.
Many beliefs and myths around salamanders relate them to fire. It is thought this is because they hang out inside rotting logs and when these are burn, the salamander would try to escape, leading to the belief that they were created from the flames.
In ancient Rome it was said that salamanders could spit fire and burn water, and that if you touched them you would be poisoned but if you put one in honey it would create an aphrodisiac. These tie in nicely with the elemental ideas above – power and passion.
In ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder wrote:
“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 colour and break out in a rash.”
In later times, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:
“[The salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”
In France, the folkloric salamander brings poison; simply by falling into a well, all the water would be poisoned, and by climbing a tree, all the fruits would be poisoned.
“Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished. They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality. They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.”
– zteve t evans
The salamander is a very interesting creature, both scientifically and in terms of symbolism. Healing, regeneration, sensitivity and homing are themes at play, along with the element of fire, especially in combination with water. I hope you have enjoyed this wander through the salamander, are there any animals you’d like me to look at next?