Cultural depictions of elephants
Elephants have been the subject of various cultural depictions in popular culture, mythology and symbolism. They are both revered in religion and are known for their prowess in war. They also have negative connotations such as being a symbol for an unnecessary burden. Ever since the stone age, when elephants were represented by ancient petroglyphs and cave art, they have been depicted in the arts in various forms, including pictures, sculptures, music, film, and even architecture.
- 1 Religion, mythology and philosophy
- 2 In Art
- 3 In Politics and Secular Society
- 4 In popular culture
- 5 Gallery
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Religion, mythology and philosophy
The Asian elephant appears in various religious traditions and mythologies. They are treated positively and are sometimes revered as deities, often symbolising strength and wisdom. Similarly, the African elephant is seen as the wise chief who impartially settles disputes among the forest creatures in African fables, and the Ashanti tradition holds that they are human chiefs from the past.
The earth is supported and guarded by mythical World Elephants at the compass points of the cardinal directions, according to the Hindu cosmology of ancient India. The classical Sanskrit literature also attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when they tire. Wisdom is represented by the elephant in the form of the deity Ganesh, one of the most popular gods in the Hindu religion's pantheon. Also sometimes known as Ganesha, this deity is very distinctive in having a human form with the head of an elephant. This was put on after the human head was either was cut off or burned, depending on the version of the story from various Hindu sources. Lord Ganesha's birthday (rebirth) is celebrated as the Hindu festival known as Ganesha Chaturthi.
Indra was said to ride on a flying white elephant named Airavata, who was made the King of all elephants by Lord Indra. A white elephant is rare and given special significance. It is often considered sacred and symbolises royalty in Thailand and Burma, where it is also considered a symbol of good luck.
Elephants remain an integral part of religion in South Asia and some are even used in various religious practices. Temple elephants are specially trained captive elephants that are used in various temple activities. Among the most famous of the temple elephants is Guruvayur Keshavan of Kerala, India. They are also used in festivals in Sri Lanka such as the Esala Perahera.
In the version of the Chinese zodiac used in Northern Thailand, the last year in the 12-year cycle – called "Year of the Pig" in China – is known instead as "Year of the Elephant", reflecting the importance of elephants in Thai culture.
In Islamic tradition, the year 570 is when the Prophet Muhammad was born and is known as the Year of the Elephant. In that year, Abraha, ruler of Yemen tried to conquer Mecca and demolish the Kaaba, reportedly in retaliation for the previous Meccan defilement of a cathedral Abraha had constructed in Sana'a. However, his plan was foiled when his white elephant named Mahmud refused to cross the boundary of Mecca. The elephant, who led Abraha's forty thousand men, could not be persuaded with reason or even with violence, which was regarded as a crucial omen by Abraha's soldiers. This is generally related in the five verses of the chapter titled 'The Elephant'[b] in the Quran.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, medieval artists depicted the mutual killing of both Eleazar the Maccabee and a war elephant carrying an important Seleucid general as described in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees. The early illustrators knew little of the elephant and their portrayals are highly inaccurate.
The unfamiliarity with the exotic beast have also made elephants a subject of widely different interpretations thus giving rise to different mythological creatures. The story of the blind men and an elephant was written to show how reality may be viewed by different perspectives. The source of this parable is unknown, but it appears to have originated in India. It has been attributed to Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, and Sufis, and was also used by Discordians. The scattered skulls of prehistoric pygmy elephants on the islands of Crete and Sicily may have formed the basis of belief in existence of cyclopes,[c] the one-eyed giants featured in Homer's Odyssey (c. 800~600 BC). As early as the 1370s, scholars had noted that the skulls feature a large nasal cavity at the front that could be mistaken for a singular eye socket; and the skulls, twice the size of a human's, looked as if they could belong to giant humanoids. It is also suggested that the Behemoth described in the Book of Job may be the elephant due to its grazing habits and preference to rivers.
Prehistoric North Africans depicted the elephant in Paleolithic age rock art. For example, the Libyan Tadrart Acacus (UNESCO World Heritage site) features a rock carving of an elephant from the last phase of the Pleistocene epoch (12,000–8000 BC) rendered with remarkable realism. There are many other prehistoric examples, including Neolithic rock art of south Oran (Algeria), and a white elephant rock painting in 'Phillip's Cave' by the San in the Erongo region of Namibia. From the Bovidian[d] period (3550–3070 BCE) elephant images by the San bushmen in the South African Cederberg Wilderness Area suggest to researchers that they had "a symbolic association with elephants" and "had a deep understanding of the communication, behaviour and social structure of elephant family units" and "possibly developed a symbiotic relationship with elephants that goes back thousands of years."
Elephants are often featured in modern artistic works, including those by artists such as Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and Banksy. The stork-legged elephant, found in many Salvador Dalí works, is one of the surrealist's best known Icons, and adorn the walls of the Dalí Museum in Spain.
In Politics and Secular Society
The elephant is also depicted in various political groups and secular society.
Asian cultures admire the high intelligence and good memory of Asian elephants. As such, they symbolise wisdom and royal power. They are used as a representative of various political parties such as United National Party of Sri Lanka and Bahujan Samaj Party of India. The Elephants of Kerala are an integral part of the daily life in Kerala, South India. These Indian elephants are loved, revered, groomed and given a prestigious place in the state's culture. There they are often referred to as the 'sons of the sahya.' The elephant is the state animal of Kerala and is featured on the emblem of the Government of Kerala. The elephant is also on the flag of the Kingdom of Laos with three elephants visible, supporting an umbrella (another symbol of royal power) until it became a republic in 1975. Other Indochinese and Thai realms had also displayed one or more white elephants.
The elephant can also be found in games. In shatranj, the Medieval game from which Chess developed, the piece corresponding to the modern bishop was known as Pil or Alfil ("Elephant"; from Persian and Arabic,[e] respectively). In the Indian chaturanga game the piece is also called "Elephant" (Gaja). The same is true in Chinese chess[f] which has an elephant piece ("Xiàng", 象); the elephants serve as a defensive pieces, being the only ones that may not cross the river that divides the game board. In the Japanese shogi version, the piece was known as the "Drunken Elephant"; however, it was dropped by order of the Emperor Go-Nara and no longer appears in the version played in contemporary Japan. Even with modern Chess, the word for the bishop is still Alfil in Spanish, Alfiere in Italian, Feel in Persian, and "Elephant" (Слон) in Russian. All of these games were originally a kind of simulation of a battlefield, thus this piece represented a war elephant. In the present-day canonical Staunton chess set, the piece's deep groove, which originally represented the elephant's tusks, is now regarded as representing a bishop's (or abbot's) mitre.
The elephant also lends its name in some of the landmarks in Asia. Elephanta Island (also called "Gharapuri Island") in Mumbai Harbour was given this name by 17th century Portuguese explorers who saw a monolithic basalt sculpture of an elephant near the entrance to what became known as the Elephanta Caves. The Portuguese attempted to take it home with them but ended up dropping it into the sea because their chains were not strong enough. Later, the British moved this elephant to the Victoria and Albert Museum (now Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum) in Mumbai.
Aside from being a curiosity for Europeans, the elephant also became a symbol of military might from the experience of fighting foreign powers that fielded war elephants throughout history. After Alexander the Great's victory over King Porus of India, the captured war elephants became a symbol of imperial power, being used as an emblem of the Seleucid diadoch empire. The Order of the Elephant (Danish: Elefantordenen) is the highest order of Denmark, instituted in its current form on 1693 by King Christian V.
The killing and eating of the elephants Castor and Pollux from the Botanical gardens during the 1870 Siege of Paris received considerable attention at the time. This became emblematic of the hardships and degradation caused by siege and war, especially since the two elephants were previously very popular with the Parisian public. The city of Catania, Sicily has an immemorial connection with this animal. The local sorcerer Heliodorus, was credited with either riding a magic elephant or transforming himself into this animal. Under Medieval Arab rule Catania was known as Balad-Al-Fil or Medinat-Al-Fil (Country/City of the Elephant). The symbol of the city is the Fontana dell'Elefante assembled in its present form in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini.
In Central London, England, an area known as the "Elephant and Castle" (or "The Elephant") is a major road intersection and a station of the London Underground. The "Castle" in the location's name likely refers to a Howdah. More recently in Britain, Welephant, a red elephant cartoon character with a fireman's helmet, was originally used as a mascot by fire brigades in the United Kingdom to promote fire safety for children and has become the mascot for the Children's Burn Trust.
The elephant as the symbol for the Republican Party of the United States originated in an 1874 political cartoon of an Asian elephant by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly. This cartoon, titled "Third Term Panic", is a parody of Aesop's fable,[g] "The Ass in the Lion's Skin". It depicts an elephant (labelled The Republican Vote) running toward a chasm of chaos; frightening a jackass[h] in a lion's skin (labelled Caesarism) which scatters animals representing various interests. Although Nast used the elephant seven more times to represent the "Republican Vote", he did not use it to represent the Republican Party until March 1884 in "The Sacred Elephant".
Many African cultures revere the African Elephant as a symbol of strength and power. It is also praised for its size, longevity, stamina, mental faculties, cooperative spirit, and loyalty. South Africa, uses elephant tusks in their coat of arms to represent wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity. The elephant is symbolically important to the nation of Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire); the Coat of arms of Ivory Coast features an elephant head escutcheon as its focal point.
In popular culture
The phrase "elephants never forget" refers to the belief that elephants have excellent memories. The variation "Women and elephants never forget an injury" originates from the 1904 book Reginald on Besetting Sins by British writer Hector Hugh Munro, better known as Saki.
"Seeing the Elephant" was a 19th-century Americanism that pioneers and soldiers used to qualify new and exciting adventures that sometimes ended badly. Often used in regards to the Civil War, Mexican-American War, and the Oregon Trail. The expression white elephant refers to an expensive burden, particularly to a situation in which much has been invested with false expectations. The phrase 'white elephant sale' was sometimes used in Australia as a synonym for jumble sale. In the U.S., a White elephant gift exchange is a popular winter holiday party activity. The idiom Elephant in the room tells of an obvious truth that no one wants to discuss, alluding to the animal's size compared to a small space. Jumbo, a circus elephant, has entered the English language as a synonym for "large". Jumbo was the name of a huge elephant acquired by P. T. Barnum from the London Zoo in 1882. The name itself may have come from a West African native word for "elephant" (cf. Kongo nzamba).
The elephant is viewed in both positive and negative lights in similar fashion as humans in various forms of literature. In fact, Pliny the Elder praised the beast in his Naturalis Historia as one who is the closest to human sensibilities. The elephant's different connotations clash in Ivo Andrić's novella The Vizier's Elephant. Here the citizens of Travnik despise the young elephant who symbolises the cruelty of the unseen Vizier. However, the elephant itself is young and innocent despite unknowingly causing havoc due to youthful play. Elephant characters are often shown in a positive light, such as Jean de Brunhoff's Babar and Dr. Seuss' Horton. The animal is also depicted in their military use through the oliphaunts of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the alien invaders of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's 1985 science fiction novel, Footfall.
Notable short stories featuring elephants include Rudyard Kipling's "Toomai of the Elephants" and "The Elephant's Child"; as well as Mark Twain's "The Stolen White Elephant". George Orwell wrote an allegorical essay: "Shooting an Elephant".
The animal is also seen in historical novels. The Elephant's Journey (Portuguese: A Viagem do Elefante, 2008) is a novel by Nobel laureate José Saramago. This is a fictional account based on an historical 16th century journey from Lisbon to Vienna by an elephant named Solomon. An Elephant for Aristotle is a 1958 historical novel by L. Sprague de Camp. It concerns the adventures of a Thessalian cavalry commander who has been tasked by Alexander the Great to bring an elephant captured from an Indian ruler, Porus, to Athens as a present for Alexander's old tutor, Aristotle.
Elephants can also represent the hugeness and wildness of the imagination, as in Ursula Dubosarsky's 2012 children's book, Too Many Elephants in This House, which also plays with the notion of the elephant in the room.
An imaginary elephant can (perhaps) become real, as with the elusive Hefalump. Although never specified as an elephant in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories, a heffalump physically resembles an elephant; and E. H. Shepard's illustration shows an Indian elephant. "Hefalump" has since been defined as "a child's term for an elephant."
The Elephant is used as a mascot or logo for various sports groups. The mascot for the Oakland Athletics ("A's") baseball team is based on the figurative white elephant. The story of picking the mascot began when New York Giants' manager John McGraw told reporters that Philadelphia manufacturer Benjamin Shibe, who owned the controlling interest in the new team, had a "white elephant on his hands"; Connie Mack defiantly adopted the white elephant as the team mascot, although over the years the elephant has appeared in several different colours (currently forest green). The A's are sometimes, but infrequently, referred to as the 'Elephants' or 'White Elephants'. The team mascot is nicknamed Stomper. Catania, Italy also uses the elephant to represent their football team, referencing the animal that also represents their city.
The elephant is also featured in music such as Henry Mancini's hit song Baby Elephant Walk. The American band the White Stripes' fourth album was entitled Elephant in honour of the animal's brute strength and closeness to its relatives. The hit single "Elephant" by British recording artist Alexandra Burke is based on the expression "elephant in the room". "Nellie the Elephant" is a children's song first released in 1956 and since covered by many artists including the punk-rock band Toy Dolls; which also inspired a UK cartoon TV series of the same name featuring Lulu voicing Nelly.
Film and television
The elephant is also featured in film and television. Thailand has produced various movies about the animal. Among them are Tom-Yum-Goong (US title: The Protector, UK title: Warrior King) and the 1940 historical drama film King of the White Elephant. In the West, the elephant was popularised by Dumbo, the elephant who learns to fly in the Disney movie of the same name. Kipling's "Toomai of the Elephants" was adapted as the 1937 British adventure film Elephant Boy.
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