Asbestos has been considered a valuable utility for its fire resistant properties for over 3,000 years. This value was not soon diminished, in spite of the fact that the adverse effects were evident almost instantly after its discovery. It was only as recently as the dawn of 20th century that there’s been any sort of consensus on what the fibrous stone material actually is. While we know asbestos today to be the lifeblood of a slew of specialized attorneys, it used to be a major point of speculation among mystics, naturalists, slaves and kings alike. It would ultimately take hundreds of years to learn what asbestos really was, but in interim we were determined to understand it. This is what folklore is for.
Salamanders are a seemingly unlikely place to start, but they’re actually integral to the folklore of asbestos. Some quick research reveals that the word “Salamander” is derived from persian meaning “fire within”. This may not seem to have much relevance until you understand that salamanders were thought to be “fire elementals,” meaning that they require only fire for sustenance. It doesn’t stop there though, salamanders actually may have been one of antiquity’s most wildly misunderstood creatures. They were regarded as miraculous, dangerous creatures who were born from blistering bonfires and who could lay entire armies to waste with their poison. When it was discovered that one could weave a cloth from asbestos that couldn’t be destroyed by a hot fire, the fibers were thought to be the fur of a salamander. Of course, even if salamanders did have fur, it’d be safe to bet that no one knew what it looked like. This myth remained extremely popular until Marco Polo put an end to it after having visited a chinese asbestos mine and deducing that it was actually a stone that was dug out of the earth.
Grifters and Pranksters
Many myths surrounding asbestos aren’t so much about asbestos itself, but rather the way people used it. There was a lot of wiggle room back in ancient times when it came to utilizing a fabric that wouldn’t burn in a fire. One famous group of pranksters, aptly called “The Human Salamanders”, was particularly famous for using fire-proof asbestos based clothing to do crazy things such as roast handheld steaks whilst standing inside of an open flame. Others had more nefarious intentions, selling fireproof robes allegedly having belonged to christ was especially common in the dark ages. Asbestos, it’s origins, mythology and potential uses eventually came to be known in so many ways, across so many cultures that it was soon interpreted as several different substances altogether with names such as Salamandra, Mountain Leather and Rock Floss.
The Disease of Slaves
This last bit of folklore, unfortunately, turned out to be completely accurate in hindsight. It was considered a myth, but word in ancient greece was that the slaves that had worked in the asbestos mines weren’t worth buying due to their short life expectancy and their tendency to develop pulmonary based illnesses. Initially, before it was known for it’s unique properties, asbestos was worn almost exclusively by slaves. However, it was soon used specifically for royalty. Asbestos came to be weaved into napkins, tablecloths and used to make wicks for candles. The effect on the slaves and workers who had no choice but weave the fabric was widely observed. What was in all likelihood Mesothelioma was then called “the disease of slaves”. It could be said that a precedence was set for asbestos exposure being considered a poor man’s problem as early as ancient Rome.
Turns out there wasn’t much left to be clarified about asbestos after the salamander fur myth was debunked. Ultimately it’s defining characteristics stood out right from the beginning. It can’t be burnt in a fire and it will kill you. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and yet, asbestos still seems otherworldly hellish. But this is and always has been the primary role of folklore, to transform and diminish the things that terrify us. Maybe one day as a society we can eventually avoid these things altogether and leave the salamander fur in the ground where it belongs.