To Kiss Salamanders and Stones

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 unsanitary.

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 self-aggrandizement.

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.

Animal behavior 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 be realized.

Wild 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 nature.

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.