Of the salamander The salamander is so called because it is proof against fire. Of all poisonous creatures, it has the strongest poison. Other poisonous creatures kill one at a time; it can kill several things at the same time. For if it has crawled into a tree, it poisons all the apples and kills those who eat them. In addition, if it falls into a well, the strength of its poison kills those who drink the water. It resists fire and alone among creatures can put fires out. For it can exist in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed by them, not only because it does not burn but because it puts the fire out.
Of the snake called the saura The saura is a lizard which goes blind when it grows old; it enters a crack in a wall and, looking toward the east, it bends its gaze on the rising sun and regains its sight. Of the newt The newt, stellio, gets its name from its colouring. For it is adorned on its back with shining spots like stars, stella. Ovid says of it: ‘Its name fits its colour; it is starred on the body with spots of various colours’ (see Ovid, Metamorphoses, 5, 461). It is said to be so hostile to scorpions, that the sight of it paralyses them with fear. There are other species of snakes, like the admodite, elephantia, camedracontes. Finally, it can be said that snakes inflict as many kinds of death as they have names.
All snakes are cold by nature; they will only strike you when their body warms up. For as long as it is cold, they will touch no-one. As a result, their poison is more harmful by day than by night. For they become sluggish in the cold of the night; and rightly so, because they grow cold in the night-time dew. For the deathly cold and freezing weather draw off the warmth of the body. Thus in winter they lie inactive in their nests; in summer, they grow lively again. So, if you are struck by a snake’s poison, you are numbed at first; then, when the venom warms up and begins to burn, it kills you at once. Their poison is called ‘venom’, venenum, because it spreads through your veins. For when its deathly effect is introduced, it courses in every direction through the veins, increased by the quickening of the body, and drives out life. As a result, poison cannot hurt unless it infects your blood. Lucan says: ‘The poison of snakes is only deadly when mixed with the blood’ (Pharsalia, 9, 614). All poison is cold; as a result, the soul, which is by nature hot, flees from the poison’s icy touch. In terms of the natural qualities which we observe that we, reasoning beings, share with animals, who have no capacity for reason, the serpent stands out by virtue of its lively intelligence. On this subject, it says in Genesis: ‘Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field’ (3:1).