SALAMANDER BRANDY: A PSYCHEDELIC DRINK MADE IN SLOVENIA
In a hilly region northwest of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, a most curious event starts every autumn: salamander hunting. Salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) abound in rainy forested glens, and at some places hunters must be careful not to tread upon them. One must also be very careful when he or she picks them up and puts them in a special vessel, because the skin of salamanders, more or less like that of all amphibians, exudes a toxic mucous substance that, after a time, irritates even the thick skin of human palms. The salamander’s skin mucus is highly toxic, so practically all animals shy away from it, and its toxicity is not reduced by its ingestion, at least in mammals. It is a generally accepted observation that if an average sized dog - out of curiosity or hunger - eats a salamander, it will die.
Salamander brandy production is an endeavour that, according to oral tradition, originated in the Middle Ages. The salamander was an emblem of alchemists, as well as an indispensable ingredient of many witches’ brews. Its representation can be found on medieval reliefs and quite often in illuminated codices, and the range of symbolic meanings ascribed to it has been vast since the time of antiquity (Canestrini, 1985). Sometimes it was considered to be the symbol of transformation, of death and rebirth, and of double life, probably due to its salient yellow and black skin and the characteristic metamorphosis of the life cycle that it shares with all amphibians.
There are some other symbolic meanings of the salamander, especially in Christianity (Cooper, 1978; Metford, 1983). The salamander was thought to be sexless; hence it was equated with chastity. In Christian symbolism it represents enduring faith and the righteous who cannot be consumed by the fire of temptation. In medieval iconography it was usually depicted as a small, wingless dragon or lizard, sometimes as a dog-like or even a man-like creature, leaping out of the flames. So cold that it quenched the heat (of passions), the salamander was able to live and breed in the hottest fire, therefore symbolizing the triumph of self-restraint over dissipation. The salamander is the animal representative of Fire, one of the four elements, and the name “salamander’s wool” has been given to asbestos. For alchemists it also represented sulphur and the so called in the red fixated stone (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969). Many members of nobility have put the salamander in their coat of arms; it could be displayed either in the shield or in the crest on the shield. It can be found even in British heraldry though salamanders do not live on the British Isles. As a personal device in heraldry the salamander usually symbolizes courage.
Although the art of brewing salamander brandy is thought to be at least a few centuries old on the Slovenian territory, the first article that described it appeared not until last year (Ogorevc, 1995). Its production has always been looked at sort of askance and hardly considered to be a commendable activity. Not long ago I was told that it is downright an unholy act to put innocent animals under torture in order to get dissolutely stoned. It is quite understandable then that there were not many in Slovenia who had been aware of its production before the publication of the aforementioned article, let alone having been privy to its recipes and the distilleries, where this production takes place. I have to explain here that in Slovenia the production of alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, spirits) is neither monopolized nor controlled by the government, and at the present time any person of age is allowed to make any alcoholic drink provided that he or she has the means to do so.
According to Ogorevc there exist three recipes for the production of salamander brandy. The first is the most unsophisticated method: a couple of salamanders are put in a barrel along the fruit (usu. apples, pears or plums) that is being fermented for about a month. Salamanders fend off the alcohol and other products of fermentation by exuding their skin mucus until they die. The fermented mixture is then distilled into brandy, which contains approximately 45% of ethanol and is colourless. The second method consists of salamanders being put in a sieve and then being soaked in the already distilled brandy. Again, the animals fend off being intoxicated and drowned in the distillate by oozing the mucus out of their skin. The distiller must be careful not to intoxicate them too much or let them drown too early, since this would cause the salamanders to stop exuding the mucus. The average dosage is five to six adult salamanders (about 20 cm long) for 30 litres of brandy.
The third, the most complicated method is thought by distillers and connoisseurs to produce the best salamander brandy which flows most smoothly down the throat and is the least annoying for the stomach. Freshly distilled and still hot brandy is trickled over a salamander, which is suspended by a rope, and washes its exudates down in a vessel. When the poor animal dies it has to be replaced with a living one and so on until the process of distillation is completed. In the brandy that has been produced by any of the three mentioned methods, there is usually put wormwood to make it more palatable and less heavy for the stomach. Wormwood gives the brandy that is otherwise always colourless the characteristic yellowish hue. Of course, wormwood also contains some psychoactive substances, albeit most distillers are apparently not aware of this fact or at least do not consider this addition to have any significant contribution to the overall action of salamander brandy.
When the brandy has been aged with wormwood for a couple of weeks it is ready for consumption. Bottled brandy must contain some lees, which is thought to have a considerable importance in eliciting the effects in drinkers. The dosage varies between 50 and 200 ml of pure brandy, which can be mixed with other beverages, depending on its strength as well as on the physical and personality traits of the consumer. The bottle should be thoroughly shaken before the beverage is poured into glasses so that the lees is evenly mixed with the brandy. If the brandy is of good quality then it must elicit not only pleasant inebriation but also all those things that had been seen by the master Hieronymus Bosch, as one of the connoisseurs has recently declared. In his opinion, toad-licking fans, when compared with salamander brandy drinkers, are just unsophisticated backward boors.
At this moment I have to digress a little and let the reader know that it is not my intention to endorse the use of salamanders in the production of salamander brandy. Although I have never witnessed its production, it is without doubt that salamanders feel no pleasure when used as a means for making a psychedelic beverage. As I mentioned earlier, I had been told that salamander brandy production represents a blatant example of animal torture suitable for taking action. Despite the claims that it is probably only mammals, and maybe birds, that possess some kind of mind or consciousness that allows them to experience feelings, such as pain, as Sir John Eccles wrote (1994), it is evident to anyone that all animals try to evade harmful stimuli, as well as that Sir John must merely have expressed his own feeling (this is not to say that future research may not prove him right). It is my sole intention by writing this article to present the information I have discovered and as I see it in its historical, social and psychological relevance. Therefore I do not wish to take a moral stand on this issue. I also disclaim all responsibility for the possible consequences that may befall anyone who sets out to make, and consume, salamander brandy. I have never tried it myself and all claims in either written or spoken form as to its production and action, have been reported in good faith as they had been reported to me. Thus, I also cannot be responsible for the validity of the subjective experiences reported by its consumers and described herein.
What action does salamander brandy have on human consciousness? Ogorevc says it definitely has hallucinogenic effects which I would compare, according to his description, more to the reactions elicited by muscimole, ibogaine or strychnine than to the effects of classic psychedelics like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Under its influence visual reality starts to be illuminated by colourful flashes and is contorted in a specific way. Auditory phenomena may accompany visual changes, but the subject is not sure if they are real or not.
Above all, it has been said that it has a strong effect on the sex drive. It purportedly produces a temporary sexual disorientation, but nonetheless the sexuality of the consumer can be promoted from the commonest banality into metaphysical play. It is said to be a powerful libidinous agent that can turn everything in the environment into an erotically charged being or object. If there is any symbolism that should be ascribed to the salamander, it is not ethereal chastity but fiery passion. It is no surprise then that some consumers take the brandy in order to enhance their sexual imagination and modify their reactions to sexual stimuli.
The consumer can fall asleep from time to time and lose his or her sense for how much time has elapsed in between as well as from the beginning of the trip. It is possible to have partial amnesia. After-effects have not been reported, yet an adept in psychedelic movement avers that salamander brandy is a bad drug, because it contains, along with psychoactive substances, also spiritually negative emanation caused by the suffering of salamanders in mortal agony. By the way, there was a famous death in the scientific community related to salamanders: a Viennese biologist, Paul Kammerer committed suicide in 1926 after he had unluckily failed to irreproachably produce the evidence for the Lamarckian hypothesis of inheritability of acquired traits. His experimental animals were salamanders.
The naturalists of antiquity (Canestrini, 1985) reported on corrosive effects of the salamander’s mucus on human skin, its depilatory property, which has since been confirmed experimentally, and also its aphrodisiacal power. There are many reports on the mucus used as an antipyretic and antiparasitic agent (its strong antibiotic effect has also been confirmed), which is understandable since salamanders live in an environment highly infested with microorganisms. The primary function of their skin mucus is self-defence against bacteria, moulds and other parasites. To salamanders or their organs (e.g. mucus, saliva, blood, heart) has sometimes been ascribed some medicinal value in the writings of antiquity and the Middle Ages as well as in folk medicine, but this information needs certainly to be looked at with reservation (Canestrini, 1985).
The mucus of the salamander’s skin (Salamandra salamandra and Salamandra atra) contains many toxic substances, which are biogenetically synthesized from cholesterin. The main steroid alkaloid whose action has been also most thoroughly studied is samandarin (Altmann, 1980; Habermehl, 1987). It is soluble in most of organic solvents, but practically insoluble in water. Samandarin is an agent with strong central nervous system activity: its most important effects include cramps, high blood pressure, and localized anesthesia. It is extremely irritating for all mucous membranes and, with time, also for undamaged skin. It is most important that anyone who handles salamanders use gloves if possible, and he or she should avoid any contact with the eyes. Contact with other animals must be also avoided since there are reports about animals, e.g. cats, developing toxic reactions after having been caressed by someone who had handled salamanders earlier.
The action of other salamander alkaloids, among them primarily histamines (Shulgin and Shulgin, 1997), has not been studied in detail, and research about their possible psychoactivity is nonexistent. I have come across only one reference (Grof, 1996) that the salamander’s skin has some psychoactive properties. It is to be hoped that in the not too far distant future, the research of the salamander’s mucus might reveal some hidden knowledge about an animal that has been endowed with mysterious and marvellous powers by the sages of the past, and yet one that is of almost no interest outside strictly biological field. Maybe the time has come near when the long forgotten salamander might leap out of the fire of oblivion, unscathed, to prove its magical immortality against human arrogance and neglect.
After the publication of the original version of this article in 1998 I’ve come across some new information and testimonials about the brandy, which, however, do not add to or change much of that that had been written before. I’ve received some new reports by consumers, which only confirm that the brandy elicits more psychoactive effects than just those that can be expected from mere alcoholic inebriation. Notwithstanding sometimes considerable differences among the emotional quality, modality and the contents of the experiences of various consumers it not possible to maintain the notion that all of them were simply drunk or even dismiss them as fabricators.
The reports can be summarized in two points: 1) that backyard distillers of salamander brandy are, albeit few, alive and kicking in this country, with their final products having different quality, and 2) that most consumers, provided they have procured the brandy of good quality, undoubtedly experience psychedelic effects. Those effects vary from person to person, most probably according to their set and setting as well as the composition of the brandy they drink. Most also report those experiences as having completely different nature from drunkenness, but which interferes with it and diminishes its strength.
This ethnopharmacological treatise can be concluded with the recognition that salamander brandy should be the subject of legitimate scientific study because there is no certain knowledge what its ingredients are and how they affect human consciousness. In addition to that there is a burning question of ethical dimension: salamanders are living beings that cannot be equated with plants whose use in the production of psychoactive drugs is much less morally questionable than the use of live animals, and that is pointedly so also in the eyes of some who have drunk the brandy. If anything, then along with discovering the secret of their skins, salamanders should not become the next item on the World Heritage’s endangered species list.
I am thankful to Alexander Shulgin,
Slavko Polak and
Francesco Festi for their help in preparing this article.
Altmann, H.: Giftpflanzen Gifttiere. Hans Marseille Verlag GmbH, München 1980
Canestrini, D.: La salamandra. Rizzoli Editore, Milano 1985
Chevalier, J. & Gheerbrant, A.: Dictionnaire des symboles. Editions Robert Laffont S.A., Paris 1969
Cooper, J.C.: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. Thames and Hudson, London 1978
Diesener, G. & Reichholf, J.: Lurche und Kriechtiere. Mosaik Verlag, München 1986
Eccles, J.C.: How the Self Controls Its Brain. Springer-Verlag, Berlin etc. 1994
Grof, S.: Technologien des Heiligen. Esotera, 11, 1996 (16-21)
Habermehl, G.G.: Gift-Tiere und ihre Waffen. Springer-Verlag, Berlin etc. 1987
Metford, J.C.J.: Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. Thames and Hudson, London 1983
Nöllert, A. & Nöllert, C.: Die Amphibien Europas. Franckh-Kosmos, Stuttgart 1992
Neubecker, O.: Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning. Tiger Books International, London 1997
Ogorevc, B.: Halucinogene droge Made in Slovenia: Močeradovec (Hallucinogenic Drugs Made in Slovenia: Salamander Brandy). Mladina, 23, 1995 (26-32)
Shulgin, A. & Shulgin, A.: Tihkal: The Continuation. Transform Press, Berkeley 1997
Wurffbain, J.P.: Salamandrologia, h.e. Descriptio Historico-Philologico-Philosophico-Medica Salamandrae. Georg Scheurer, Nürnberg 1683
The original version of this article was published in: Rätsch, C. & Baker, J.R. (Eds.): Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, Issue 5, 1996. Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, Berlin 1998 (213 – 225)