If Aristotle told me that something was true, I’d be inclined to believe him. Well, once I’d got over the surprise that a long-dead thinker was talking to me. In English. But once I’d got past that, you can bet that he’d have my full attention.
However, we should be wary of accepting the claims of even the cleverest people at face value. Science is all about questioning things in order to better understand them, but there have been many cases where ideas have gone unchallenged for hundreds of years because nobody ever thought to investigate them further. People over the ages have been particularly trusting of Aristotle, and so when he stated that flies have four legs, or that men have more teeth than women, or that buzzards have three testicles… people in subsequent generations simply assumed that he must have known what he was talking about, despite the fact that all of these misconceptions could have been cleared up with some very simple counting. But nobody thought to try this, with the result that some of these patently wrong ideas went unchallenged for over a thousand years.
We shouldn’t judge Aristotle too harshly for making these mistakes, because he got more than enough things right to make up for the occasional glaring error. His followers and successors deserve more of the blame, really, for never checking up on his findings. Today’s Pokémon is based on a creature that was the subject of just such a misconception, popularized by Aristotle himself, that persisted for so long that it’s become a staple of Western folklore.
Charmander is likely a familiar figure to even the most casual acquaintance of the series, and it takes its inspiration from the salamander. It isn’t the only Pokémon to do so: way back when I began these columns, I discussed Wooper’s relationship to the axolotl, a strange type of salamander that never grows up. But there are many other kinds of salamander: at least 500 species that we know about. Salamanders are amphibians, and although they resemble lizards, they’re no more closely related to them than we are.
The salamander’s life cycle varies greatly depending on the species, but in most cases they have a larval stage that has gills and lives in the water, before developing lungs and moving onto land as an adult. This dependence on moist environments seems to sit rather oddly with Charmander’s Fire typing, but this is where the misconceptions come in. For many centuries, it was believed that salamanders had a strong association with fire. The precise level of association varied, but as we’ll see, all of these claims were extremely fanciful.
Both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder believed that the salamander was capable of withstanding the heat of flames, and even had the ability to extinguish them. In Pliny’s Natural History, the oldest surviving encyclopedia, a fairly accurate description of the salamander is followed up by claims that “This animal is so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, in the same way as ice does” (Book 10, Chapter 86). Later in the same work, though, he seems to view these supposed properties with more skepticism, claiming that “if it had been true, it would have been made trial of at Rome long before this” (Book 29, Chapter 23).
The connection between salamanders and fire persisted, however, and we can also find it in the Talmud, which briefly mentions the salamander as a creature actually produced by flames, whose blood could protect anybody smeared in it from fire. Even Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s greatest scientific minds, seemed content to echo the received wisdom on the subject, mentioning in his notebooks that the salamander “has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”
So, where did this misconception originate? It certainly seems counter-intuitive, given that most salamanders spend their early lives in the water. Perhaps we can get some idea by looking at the biography of Benvenuto Cellini, the famous Renaissance sculptor and musician. In his biography, he recalls an incident from his childhood when he witnessed a salamander being produced by the burning of logs. The logs, it seems, are the key: many salamander species hibernate inside rotting logs. When these start to burn, the salamander wakes up and hurriedly makes its escape. It’s also common for salamanders to secrete a milky, poisonous substance when threatened or distressed, and this may have given rise to the notion that they could use it to extinguish fires. In reality, salamanders have no such ability, nor are they any more heatproof than you or I, and their sudden emergence in the event of fire should serve as proof of this.
The most common species of salamander in Europe is called the fire salamander – a name given to it when such myths were still taken as fact by naturalists. Eventually, though, scientists started to doubt the fantastical claims made about the salamander’s abilities, and the creature took on two distinct identities: the salamander of the real world, and the salamander of fiery legend.
One of the most instrumental figures in giving the mythical version of the salamander its own distinct identity was Paracelsus, a Swiss occultist. He described four elemental spirits corresponding to the four classical elements: Undine, spirit of water; Gnome, spirit of earth; Sylph, spirit of air; and Salamander, spirit of fire. His description shows how divorced the mythical salamander had become from its real-life counterpart: “Salamanders have been seen in the shape of fiery balls, or tongues of fire, running over the fields, or peering in houses.” Though some accounts that drew upon Paracelsus’ work would still give the salamander a lizard-like appearance, the mythical salamander was now a very different creature from the one that had inspired it.
In our popular culture, this has created an odd situation where a salamander can be an ordinary amphibian, a fire spirit, or both. In the Mana series of games, for example, Salamando is the elemental spirit of fire and bears absolutely no resemblance to a real-life salamander. Final Fantasy goes the other way and portrays salamanders as vaguely reptilian creatures that breathe fire (though their appearance varies greatly throughout the series).
And then we have Charmander, whose design has taken a similar approach. It looks not unlike a real salamander, but its powers are very much inspired by its mythological cousin. The references in the Pokédex to the flame on its tail being essential for Charmander’s life may well be allusions to the salamander’s dependence on fire in some versions of the myth.
Many of these associations remain as Charmander evolves, but it’s the first stage of this family that has the most direct relationship to the salamander. One indicator of this is Charmander’s name, in Japanese as well as English: Hitokage (ヒトカゲ or 火蜥蜴) is a term literally meaning ‘salamander’, deriving from fire (火) and lizard (蜥蜴). Charmeleon and Charizard‘s Japanese names, Lizardo (リザード) and Lizardon (リザードン) show no such relationship to the salamander, and seem to fit with the family’s development into something more resembling a fire-breathing dragon. Charmander itself, though, stands out as a tribute to a legend that, for many years, was not considered a legend at all. If this story should teach us anything, then it’s not to believe everything you read… including this.