Asbestos has been considered a valuable utility for its fire-resistant properties for more than 3,000 years. This value was not soon diminished, despite the fact that adverse effects became apparent almost instantly upon discovery. It was only at the dawn of the 20th century that there was any sort of consensus on what fibrous stone material actually is. While we know today that asbestos is the lifeblood of a host of specialized lawyers, it used to be a major point of speculation among mystics, naturalists, slaves, and kings alike. Ultimately, it would take hundreds of years to learn what asbestos really was, but in the meantime, we were determined to understand it. That’s what folklore is for.
Salamanders are a seemingly unlikely place to start, but they are actually an integral part of asbestos folklore. Some quick research reveals that the word “Salamander” is derived from Persian and means “inner fire”. This may not seem like it has much relevance until you understand that salamanders were thought to be “fire elementals”, meaning they only require fire for sustenance. It doesn’t stop there though, salamanders may actually have been one of the most misunderstood creatures of ancient times. They were considered miraculous and dangerous creatures that were born from scorching fires and could devastate entire armies with their poison. When it was discovered that an asbestos fabric could be woven that could not be destroyed by a hot fire, the fibers were thought to be the skin of a salamander. Of course, even if salamanders did have fur, it would be safe to bet that no one knew what it looked like. This myth remained very popular until Marco Polo put an end to it after visiting a Chinese asbestos mine and deducing that it was actually a stone dug out of the ground.
Scammers and pranksters
Many myths surrounding asbestos are not so much about asbestos itself, but about how people use it. There was a lot of wiggle room in ancient times when it came to using a fabric that wouldn’t burn in a fire. One famous group of pranksters, aptly named “The Human Salamanders,” were particularly famous for wearing fireproof asbestos-based clothing to do crazy things like hand-grill steaks while standing inside an open flame. Others had more nefarious intentions, the sale of fireproof robes that supposedly belonged to Christ was especially common in the Middle Ages. Asbestos, its origins, mythology, and potential uses eventually became known in so many ways, across so many cultures, that it was soon interpreted as several different substances along with names like Salamander, Mountain Leather, and Rock Floss.
The disease of the Slavs
Unfortunately, this last bit of folklore turned out to be entirely accurate in hindsight. It was considered a myth, but in ancient Greece it was said that slaves who had worked in asbestos mines were not worth buying due to their short life expectancy and their tendency to develop lung disease. Initially, before it was known for its unique properties, asbestos was used almost exclusively by slaves. However, it was soon used specifically for royalty. Asbestos came to be woven into napkins, tablecloths, and used to make candle wicks. The effect on slaves and laborers who had no choice but to weave cloth was widely noted. What was in all probability mesothelioma was then called “the disease of the slaves”. Arguably, a precedent was set for asbestos exposure to be considered a problem of the poor as far back as ancient Rome.
It turns out that there wasn’t much left to unravel about asbestos after the salamander skin myth was debunked. Ultimately, its defining characteristics were highlighted early on. It cannot burn in a fire and it will kill you. In hindsight, it’s twenty-twenty, and yet asbestos still seems like an otherworldly hell. But this is and has always been the main role of folklore, to transform and diminish the things that terrify us. Maybe one day as a society we can avoid these things altogether and leave the salamander skin on the ground where it belongs.