Kiss Salamanders and Stones
Dr. Michael W. Fox
Animal powers are profound and real. Yet they
are not appreciated or even
recognized by modern technological society as having value or significance.
Indeed, they are dismissed as mere superstition. Those who claim empowerment
and ask respect for these inherent qualities (which some call the animals’
gifts and blessings) are labeled variously as primitives, heathens (dwellers of
the uncivilized heath), pagans, witches, mad shamans, social deviants, and perverts—sexually
and spiritually—if not outright insane.
But if sanity lies in
mental hygiene or purity, i.e., sanitation, then sanitization and
sanctification are unifying processes. Taking a dog to bed and loving it like a
human child—or any other nonhuman being, for that matter—is not insane or
People who appreciate,
too often subliminally, animal powers not only sleep and dream with certain
animals, they also revere them. They revere these animals because they are part
of the divine wholeness and holiness of creation. That some creatures are
domesticated and seen as human creations matters naught because their holiness
remains, except to those who continue to perceive them otherwise.
Thirty years ago in an
English pub an Irishman told me about a Celtic myth that stated, “One who has
kissed a salamander will not be hurt by fire.” The inebriated storyteller then
embellished the tale by heating a poker in the fire and placing its red-hot end
close to his tongue. If he had kissed a salamander, he said, his tongue would
not be burned.
This folkloric fragment
is from a time when humans lived much closer to nature, like the farming and
gatherer-hunter communities of Old Ireland and most of Old Europe. Kissing a
salamander is not done for power but out of reverence and awe.
In summer 1990 after a
visit to the hollowed interior of an ancient oak, I told my six-year-old
daughter, Mara, that if we were lucky and quiet, we might find a harmless
garter snake on the trail through the woods close to our home.
I found the snake closer
than I expected and hoped it would not move. I picked up Snake gently and reverently.
Snake coiled slowly around my hand, staring at me unblinkingly, flicking her
forked tongue as she probed my presence and intentions. I quietly told Mara
that this snake was not poisonous, that she ate insects and lizards, and that
she was not slimy but shiny and very beautiful. I pointed out her unblinking
but consciousness-reflecting eyes and told Mara that the snake’s tongue enabled
her to smell and taste without touching us.
I then asked Mara if she
would like to hold Ms. Snake. Mara did. I turned away and left them alone for a
moment. In that moment Mara closed her eyes and kissed the woodland serpent on
the mouth. Then she was ready, I knew, to say goodbye, and I stepped forward,
took the snake in my hands, kissed her, too, and let her go free with thanks
and our best wishes for her life in the woods.
Next to these woods,
there’s a street of homes with chemically treated lawns. The stream that runs
through the woods, like the acid rain that falls upon it, is contaminated with
pesticides and herbicides and the waste of heavy, toxic metals that drain from
the urban streets of automobile- and people-infested Washington, D.C.
We haven’t found a salamander
in these woods yet. A friend recently came upon a box turtle and a cat-torn
baby opossum that my veterinary training could not bring back to life. And I
found, by sense of smell first, a homeless man living on the stinking heap of
his own garbage. He had wrapped himself in a sort of shawl fashioned from a
long green army blanket. When I asked him, he replied that he did not know if
there were salamanders where he lived—or snakes or turtles. Perhaps he needed
others to kiss him, but I had no time because of the dying woods and the
thought that soon no child will have a chance to kiss a wild snake, or the
Irish to live their truth, free from the yoke of colonialism and industrial
imperialism that loves only the kiss of immortal gold.
Only those whom it
concerns will care if the kiss of the salamander is disproved scientifically or
medically. The difference between material, physical reality and spiritual,
metaphysical reality is one of degree, not of kind or rationality. But such
linkage—which is intuitive and empathic—is rejected as illusory, the dualistic
world of Cartesian science and mechanistic medicine.
Science does not confirm
that those who lick a cane-toad might see God, angels, and demons just because
science has shown that the toad secretes a potent hallucinogen in its skin
slime. There is a world of difference between licking a toad to get high (or
taking a toad-slime enema as the Aztecs purportedly did in order to have
visions) and kissing a salamander for spiritual power or a garter snake out of
love and reverence.
It was in summer 1960
that I kissed the renowned Blarney Stone in Ireland. I was on vacation with my
parents “cramming” for final examinations that fall at the Royal Veterinary
College, London, while my father drove his secondhand Austin sedan and my
mother pointed out the beauty along the quiet roads.
Irish legend has it that
those who kiss the Blarney Stone have the power of convincing speech (hence, a
zealot is often dubbed as being “full of the Blarney”). When I kissed the Blarney
Stone, I wished that I might be blessed with the power of the stone to help
alleviate the sufferings of the animal kingdom. Perhaps I’m just full of
Blarney after all.
Many myths in Old Europe
involve stones. The stone from which King Arthur pulled Merlin’s sword tells a
story. Many noblemen and warlords from far a field tried to pull the sword of
Dominion, magically embedded in the stone. Only one succeeded because the power
of the stone yielded and gave only to him who would use power—the power of Excalibur—to
bring peace, justice, and unity to the ravaged late Iron Age fiefdoms and rival
kingdoms of Avalon and its hinterlands and not to make war for retribution and
The powers of Nature—of
rocks, trees, and animals—were long celebrated by our ancestors who were surely
wiser but not more primitive than we because they did not crave the power to
control and exploit life and its processes and elements to the degree we, the
purportedly more “civilized” descendants, do. Why? Because perhaps they were
less insecure, far fewer in number than we, and had not yet exhausted their
natural environs of its resources or become dependent upon technology to
rapaciously and desperately exploit such resources.
Some call this age of
our forefathers and foremothers the Golden Age. It was during this epoch, when
humans were primarily gatherer-hunters, that we first recognized the power of
animals and Nature—blessings and gifts handed down from one generation to the
next in myth and legend and which have been variously romanticized, analyzed
objectively, and described as pagan, superstitious animism, primitive totemism,
and irrational nonsense.
To return to this
ancestral world view of respect and reverence for animal powers, blessings, and
gifts is to be judged a heretic, a follower of pagan ideology and idolatry, and
therefore a worshipper of the devil. But the devil, ex-Catholica, is Pan, the
horned pagan deity who cared for creatures wild and tame and who panicked those
who were separate from and who therefore feared all that is wild (uncivilized),
beastly (subhuman), and seemingly non-rational.
exemplifies what in the vernacular we call doing what comes naturally. Animals
embody the quality of authenticity, their kingdom mirroring our own lack
thereof, and our artifice, contrivances, and selfish delusions.
To begin to understand
and accept snakes and spiders and to see their inherent divinity and their
place within the whole is to begin to accept one’s self. But some children are
taught to fear, scorn, and destroy such creatures. Rarely do they learn to
revere and deeply understand. Consequently their place within the whole cannot
and domestic animals express certain emotions in ways very similar to our own feelings
and modes of expression. They may cry and squirm when hurt, curl up when
afraid, strut and puff when being assertive, and close their eyes with deep
satisfaction and even groan in contentment. So do we, and sharing such
subjective states and modes of expression, animals mirror our own animal
The clearer we see into
this mirror, wiped clean of the dust of ages, of the karmic ashes of human
egotism, the greater is our access to animal gifts and powers. If we were to go
to a zoo and look at the animals reflected in that mirror, what would we see?
As they stand naked, we see the power and Arctic aura of the polar bear; the
will and wisdom of the wolf; the agility and awareness of the deer. But when we
look at ourselves, naked, before such a mirror, what do we see?
By using animal powers,
we can learn to let go and to be ourselves, authentic and natural. When we
compare the grace, perfection, and dignity of animals with our own image, we
see the dissonance and contemplate the reality of our inferiority: that is, until
we shed our fears and pretensions, and stand and walk and talk in ways that the
fully human being would choose, and approve, and enjoy.