|Arrival of the Birds, by Zoe Blue|
In the medieval bestiaries, the salamander (from the Greek salambeander, or chimney-sweep) is defined as a creature impervious to fire. Often, the salamander is depicted not only in the midst of flames, but also by an apple tree, with an old man looking rather ill and holding a bitten apple collapsing next to it, showing the salamander’s dark reputation for poisoning fruit. According to The Medieval Bestiary, one bestiary 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.” I’ve chosen to pursue a different aspect of the poison stories, however: I would rather suggest that this whole idea of the apple that causes so many problems in The Garden (which some say was actually a pomegranate--and I’ll come back to that) is really fear of the new. Everything is set in Eden: the rules are in place, the Father runs things. Then the children reach the age where they become their own people. It becomes time for the old order to undergo an upheaval, for changes to be made, for the young to implement their own ideas. This part of the process of life shows up in all mythologies. For example, in the ancient Greek myths, Cronus, the youngest of the Titans, overthrew his father and became the new ruler, and then tried to have all his own children killed so that the same could not be done to him. But one of his sons, Zeus, escaped, and he grew up to overthrow his father and become the new leader. In those stories (as in the story of Oedipus), the idea of the “Old Guard” trying to hold onto its power past its time is shown in a particularly ugly light--as killing one’s own children. But in the story of Adam and Eve, it is the “upstarts” that become the sinners. The idea of assuming they might one day know as much as or more than their father is unforgivable, and the day they choose not to follow his rules is the day we all become exposed to the idea of an eternity of burning in hellfire. The depiction of the salamander poisoning the apple tree shows another possibility for this story, however.
As St. Augustine says, not all that burns perishes in the fire; some fire is cleansing, in fact. And the salamander, here, is an animal that can walk through fire, bringing you to the other side. So though Eve eats the apple that this salamander/snake has offered, and apple depicted (in a sense) as having been poisoned by the one offering it, she is not necessarily then condemned to burn eternally in hell-she could, instead, ride out of the fire on the back of the salamander--that is, she could follow her new ideas through the difficult process of “revolution” and into a new, fresh world.
So, the woman riding the salamander here could be Eve, though when I was drawing her, I was thinking of St. Sophia, who was born two months premature, at the end of the frost but in the midst of a village fire. She was brought into a world in flames and as soon as she was born, her family evacuated the village along with everyone else. She became the saint responsible for the end of winter, and was called upon to protect the harvest from late frosts. So she is a good representative for the end of the old ways, of something "frozen" in place, and the process--the fire of passion--that leads one to the new. The flames thaw that ice, and allow for new growth.
And here, it’s interesting to note that the tradition of stringing up lights during the winter holidays dates back to festivals surrounding the winter solstice--the longest night of the year--when fires were lit in an effort to coax light back to the world. The end of the old year, the beginning of the new.
And as for that apple that might really be a pomegranate--that brings us to another Greek myth, the myth of Persephone (or the Roman Proserpina), who was abducted by Hades and brought to the Underworld to be his wife. Her mother turned the world dark and wintry as she searched for her missing daughter. When Persephone was found, it was discovered that she had eaten of the pomegranate that she’d been offered while in the Underworld, and the rules stated that whoever ate while in the Underworld stayed in the Underworld. However, because no one wanted the world to be dark and wintry forever, the gods got together and forced a compromise on Hades which allowed Persephone to rejoin her mother for part of the year, during which Spring would come and the world would flower again. So, though she ate of a forbidden fruit, which condemned her to eternity in the underworld, Persephone was able to survive it--and to bring new life to earth.
In his book “A New Earth,” Ekhart Tolle adds another detail to the life of the salamander (an amphibious lizard) as he describes the slow and difficult process some water creatures underwent, facing down the difficulties of gravity and air in order to learn to live on dry land. First, they only lived in water, then, slowly, they became able to drag themselves out for small amounts of time, until finally they could travel farther and farther away from the water and still survive. In the book, he posits that it is unlikely those creatures would have gone through such a struggle if it had not been necessary, by some danger, or some new lack of nutrients, to do so. Because of their need to shed the old way of life, they became entirely new. And then:
“Most crawling reptilians, the most earthbound of all creatures, have remained unchanged for millions of years. Some, however, grew feathers and wings and turned into birds, thus defying the force of gravity that had held them for so long. They didn’t become better at crawling or walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely.”
Thus, even the laws of genetics were overcome--no rule, it seems, is all that hard or fast when necessity strikes. If we want to enough, we can pass through the fires of hell and keep walking. If we so desire, we can quit walking entirely, and fly.
So that is the story here: She rides on the back of the salamander through the flames, which become wings for the salamander. Notice its offspring, leaping with new found wings from the tree. Notice the long body of the next-generation bird, and then the smaller, rounder form of the highest one. Sophia/Eve/Persephone’s snowy dress falls away, and the new material blooms Fire Lilies (not the orange lilies, but the ones which depend on fire in order to flower*), one of which she breaks off to offer her ride. A pomegranate tree blooms from the flames, new leaves and blooms and fruit forming on its trunk, distinct from the snow-covered hedge and frozen fountain further behind.
This drawing is my addition to the post “may my heart always be open to little,” on continuum, with the e.e.cummings poem of that title:
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
- ee cummings
*I used the ones in the Taschen Book of Botanical Prints as my models. The hedge and gate were borrowed from the beautiful lawn of Clive Hicks Jenkins.