Bestiary 8



Small lizard living in fire. It is believed to be poisonous. Pliny the Elder, in Book 9 of Historia Naturalis, chapter 67, informs us that salamander casts venom from its mouth. If it touches man or a woman, their hair will fall out and the skin touched will turn white. An antidote was made by brewing stinging nettle in tortoise broth. Pliny then continues: ”it seeks the hottest fire to breed in but quenches it with the extreme frigidity of its body.” Christians took this idea further and made the salamander a symbol of struggle against the desire of the hot flesh. What more, salamander was believed to be genderless, neither male nor female, and therefore could not propagate.


In the Ancient Egypt the pictograph of salamander became a hieroglyph for a man who died of cold. Despotic king Francis of France used salamander as a symbol of his absolute power. In his coat of arms, salamander was surrounded by flames above the description “I nourish and extinguish.” The notorious 12th cen letter from Prester John to the Emperor of Byzantium states: ”Our realm yields the worm known as salamander. Salamanders live in fire and make cocoons, which our court ladies spin and use to weave cloth and garments. To wash and clean these fabrics they throw them into flames.” Marco Polo attested that salamander was a substance, not an animal. Nobody believed him. Goods woven from asbestos were sold as salamander’s skins, a firm proof of the lizard’s existence.


In zoology, salamanders are small brightly coloured amphibians. The rare Giant Salamander from Japan (Andrias japonicus), reaching formidable 4 feet in length and 20 lbs in weight, is sadly nearing extinction. Nocturnal, it lives to 50 years of age or more and its meat is said to be very tasty.


Also spelled Anzu, meaning in both instances “tempest”. Monster bird from Sumer, appearing frequently in Mesopotamian literature, as a manifestation of demonic forces which are dangerous but not always evil. “Zu and the Tablets of Destiny”, an epic tale preserved on clay tablets, recounts how in his greed for power and domination Zu decided to steal from the god Bel the Tablets of Fate and Destiny, which gave the owner the supreme power over men and gods. Entering the Great Hall of Bel, he awaited the coming of a new day. As Bel made the day appear, Zu snatched the tablets from the Bel’s hands and flew off, to hide in the mountains. The sudden shift in the cosmic order had dramatic results. The rivers dried at their source and the gods were helpless. Anu, the sky god, conveyed the assembly of gods. As he calls upon one god to come forth and fight the devious bird, the extant text breaks off.

From inferences in other sources it appears, that after several major deities refused the task, Lugalbanda, then a mortal king of Kish, stepped in and tackled Zu. He invited the bird to a banquet, made him drunk, then slayed him. For his victory he was raised to the ranks of deities and became a god of shepherds. Lugalbanda’s wife, goddess Ninshun, was a mother of Gilgamesh, the 5th king of Uruk.


The epic of “ Lugalbanda and Eumencar” recounts a totally different encounter with the bird. Zu is said to inhabit the inaccessible peaks of carneol mountains, where his nest is in the top of the eagle tree. He is enormous, herding the wild bulls for supper. Lugalbanda on his travels through the wild mountains of Zabu blunders into the nest of Zu, while the big bird is away and only his young chicks are home. The hero realises he has to approach Zu cautiously and he proceeds to to feed and actually worship its young, decorating them with kohl and white feathers. On his return to his nest, Zu is pleased and return rewards Lugalbanda with supernatural powers. “Gilgamesh and Huluppu-tree” places Zu in the sacred tree which goddess Inanna tended in her garden to make a bed and a seat from it. Huluppu-tree is infested with vermin: a serpent, Zu-bird and demon Lilith. Gilgamesh is summoned to intervene. He kills the serpent with his axe and Zu and Lilith wisely flee.


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