Elephants have been depicted in mythology, symbolism and popular culture. They are revered in religion and respected for their prowess in war. They also have negative connotations, such as being a symbol of unnecessary burden. Since the Stone Age, when elephants were depicted in ancient petroglyphs and rock art, they have been portrayed in various art forms, such as paintings, sculpture, music, film and even architecture.
Spiritual significance of the elephant
The elephant is a majestic and powerful animal that has been revered and worshipped in various cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. Its imposing size, intelligence and strong bond with nature have made it an important symbol of strength, wisdom and spirituality.
In many cultures, the elephant is considered a sacred animal representing strength and stability. Elephants are large, strong animals that can bear great burdens and are able to defend themselves against dangers and threats. This physical strength has often been interpreted as a metaphor for the inner and emotional strength a person needs to overcome life’s challenges and adversities.
The elephant also symbolizes wisdom and intelligence. Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals that can remember family and friends for decades. Elephants are also known for their problem solving ability and mental acuity. This wisdom and mental capacity is a reflection of the importance of education and knowledge in a person’s spiritual and emotional development.
In many spiritual traditions, it has been associated with connection to nature and the earth. Elephants are land animals that live in close contact with the earth and their natural environment. This connection to nature has been associated with the importance of connection to the earth and nature for a person’s emotional and spiritual well-being.
In the Buddhist tradition, the elephant is an important symbol of wisdom and compassion. According to one of the many legends, Buddha was born from the womb of a white elephant, making it an important symbol of power and divinity. In the Buddhist tradition, the elephant also represents the ability to overcome obstacles and difficulties in life.
In the Hindu tradition, the elephant is an important symbol of strength and divinity. The god Ganesha one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, is represented as a man with the head of an elephant. Ganesha is considered the god of obstacles and success, and is believed to be able to help overcome life’s challenges and obstacles. In Hindu tradition, the elephant is also associated with wealth and prosperity, which is reflected in the belief that elephants bring good luck and abundance.
In African culture, the elephant is also an important symbol of strength and wisdom. Elephants are revered animals in many African cultures and are attributed with supernatural powers. In Zulu culture, for example, elephants are considered protective spirits that can help protect people from dangers and threats.
In Chinese culture, the elephant is a symbol of longevity and wisdom. It is believed that elephants can live for over a hundred years, making them a symbol of long life and wisdom accumulated over the years. In Chinese culture, the elephant is also associated with wealth and prosperity, which is reflected in the belief that elephants bring good luck and fortune to those who own them.
In Western culture, the elephant has often been used as a symbol of strength and endurance. In popular culture, elephants are often depicted as friendly and playful animals that can be trained to perform tricks and stunts. This image of elephants as docile and obedient animals has also often been used as a metaphor for the importance of discipline and self-control in a person’s spiritual and emotional development.
Personality traits associated with the elephant
In terms of personality traits, the elephant is commonly associated with traits such as:
- Strength and power: Elephants are large and strong animals, making them a symbol of strength and power. This quality is often associated with people who have a large presence and a dominant personality.
- Intelligence and wisdom: Elephants are intelligent and cunning animals. They are people who are insightful and wise, and who can make intelligent decisions in difficult situations.
- Patience and endurance: Elephants are animals that have great patience and endurance, which allows them to survive in difficult environments. They are persistent and can endure long hours of work or stressful situations.
- Community and protection: Elephants are animals that live in groups and look out for one another. They are loyal to their friends and family, and are concerned about the protection and welfare of others.
- Gentleness and compassion: Despite their great size and strength, elephants are gentle and compassionate animals. They are kind and empathetic, and they care about the welfare of others.
- Longevity and stability: Elephants are animals that can live for over a hundred years, making them a symbol of longevity and stability. They are stable and reliable individuals who can maintain long-lasting relationships.
The Elephant in Religion, Mythology and Philosophy
The Asian elephant appears in various religious traditions and mythologies. They are treated positively and sometimes venerated as deities, often symbolizing strength and wisdom. Similarly, the African elephant is seen as the wise chief who impartially settles disputes between forest creatures in African fables, and the Ashanti tradition holds that they are human chiefs of the past.
According to the Hindu cosmology of ancient India, the Earth is supported and guarded by mythical world elephants at the cardinal points. Classical Sanskrit literature also attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when they become tired.
Wisdom is represented by the elephant in the form of the deity Ganesha, one of the most popular gods in the pantheon of the Hindu religion. The deity is distinguished by having a human form with an elephant’s head, which was put on him after cutting off his human head or burning it, according to the version of the story from various Hindu sources.
The birthday (rebirth) of Lord Ganesha is celebrated in the Hindu festival known as Ganesha Chaturthi. In Japanese Buddhism, their adaptation of Ganesha is known as Kangiten (“Deva of Bliss”), often depicted as an elephant-headed male and female couple embracing to represent the unity of opposites.
In Hindu iconography, many devas are associated with a mount or vehicle known as a vāhana. In addition to providing a means of transportation, they symbolically represent a divine attribute. The vāhana elephant represents wisdom, divine knowledge and royal power; it is associated with Lakshmi, Brihaspati, Shachi and Indra.
It is said that Indra rode on a flying white elephant named Airavata, which was named King of all elephants by Lord Indra. A white elephant is rare and has special significance. It is often considered sacred and symbolizes royalty in Thailand and Burma, where it is also considered a symbol of good luck.
In Buddhist iconography, the elephant is associated with Queen Māyā of Sakya, mother of Gautama Buddha. To royal sages, the white elephant signifies royal majesty and authority; they interpreted the dream to mean that her son was destined for greatness as a universal monarch or buddha.
Elephants remain an integral part of religion in South Asia and some even appear in various religious practices. Temple elephants are specially trained captive elephants, lavishly attired and used in various temple activities. One of the most famous temple elephants is the Guruvayur Keshavan of Kerala (India). They are also used in Sri Lankan festivals, such as the Esala Perahera.
In the Chinese version of the chinese zodiac used in northern Thailand, the last year of the cycle of 12-called the “Year of the Pig” in China-is known instead as the “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, attempted to conquer Mecca and demolish the Kaaba, apparently in retaliation for the previous desecration by Meccans of the Al-Qalis church in Sana’a, a cathedral Abraha had built. However, his plan was foiled when his white elephant named Mahmud refused to cross the border into Mecca.
The elephant, who led Abraha’s forty thousand men, could not be persuaded by reason or even violence, which was considered a crucial omen by Abraha’s soldiers. This is generally related in the five verses of the chapter entitled “The Elephant” in the Koran.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, medieval artists depicted the mutual murder of Eleazar the Maccabee and a war elephant carrying an important Seleucid general, as described in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees. The early illustrators had little knowledge of the elephant and their depictions are very inaccurate.
The unfamiliarity of this exotic beast has also led to elephants being the subject of widely varying interpretations, thus giving rise to mythological creatures. The story of the blind men and the elephant was written to show how reality can be seen from different perspectives. The origin of this parable is unknown, but it seems to have originated in India. It has been attributed to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Sufis, and was also used by the Discordians.
The scattered skulls of prehistoric dwarf elephants, on the islands of Crete and Sicily, may have formed the basis for the belief in the existence of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giants who appear in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800~600 B.C.). As early as the 1370s, scholars had noted that the skulls featured a large nasal cavity at the front that could be mistaken for a unique eye socket; and the skulls, twice the size of a human’s, appeared to belong to giant humanoids. It has also been suggested that the Behemoth described in the Book of Job could be the elephant because of its herding habits and preference for rivers.
The Elephant in art
From the cave art of the Stone Age to the street art of the Modern Age, the elephant has remained a popular subject among artists.
North African prehistoric people depicted the elephant in Paleolithic rock art. For example, at Tadrart Acacus in Libya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is a rock sculpture of an elephant from the late Pleistocene phase (12,000-8,000 BC), depicted with extraordinary realism.
There are many other prehistoric examples, such as the Neolithic rock art of southern Oran (Algeria) and a rock painting of a white elephant in “Phillip’s Cave”, made by the San in the Erongo region (Namibia).
From the Bovidian[d] period (3550-3070 BC), images of elephants made by the San Bushmen in the South African Cederberg Wilderness suggest to the researchers that they had “a symbolic association with elephants” and “had a deep understanding of the communication, behavior and social structure of elephant family units” and “possibly developed a symbiotic relationship with elephants going back thousands of years.”
Indian rock reliefs include several depictions of elephants, notably the Descent of the Ganges at Mahabalipuram, a large 7th century Hindu scene with many figures using the shape of the rock to model the image At Unakoti, Tripura, there is a group of 11th century reliefs related to Shiva, which include several elephants.
Indian painting includes many elephants, mostly mounted for battle and royal transport in Mughal miniatures.
Elephants often appear in modern artistic works, including those by artists such as Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol and Banksy. The stork-footed elephant, present in many works by Salvador Dalí,[e] is one of the surrealist’s best-known icons, and adorns the walls of the Dalí Museum in Spain. Dalí used the elephant motif in several works such as Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, The Elephants, and in The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
The elephant and obelisk motif also appears in several works by this artist. Rembrandt made a series of sketches of the famous 17th century elephant, Hansken, and presented it as a symbol of chastity in his 1638 etching Adam and Eve.
The elephant is also depicted by various political groups and in secular society.
Asian cultures admire the great intelligence and good memory of Asian elephants. As such, they symbolize wisdom and royal power. They are used as a representative of various political parties, such as the United National Party of Sri Lanka and the Bahujan Samaj Party of India. Kerala elephants are an integral part of everyday life in Kerala, South India.
These Indian elephants are loved, revered, groomed and occupy a prestigious place in the culture of the state, where they are often referred to as “sons of the sahya”. The elephant is the state animal of Kerala and is featured on the emblem of the Government of Kerala, and formerly on the coat of arms of Travancore. The elephant also features on the flag of the Kingdom of Laos, with three elephants visible holding an umbrella (another symbol of royal power) until it became a republic in 1975. Other Southeast Asian kingdoms have also displayed one or more white elephants.
The elephant also gives names to some iconic Asian landmarks. Elephanta Island (also called “Gharapuri Island”), in Bombay harbor, was so named 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 tried to take it home, but ended up throwing it into the sea because its chains were not strong enough. Later, the British moved this elephant to the Victoria and Albert Museum (now the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum) in Bombay.
In addition to being a curiosity to Europeans, the elephant also became a symbol of military might from the experience of fighting foreign powers that deployed war elephants throughout history. In 326 BC, following Alexander the Great’s victory over King Porus of India, captured war elephants became a symbol of imperial power, being used as an emblem of the Seleucid Dadacid empire.
Around 800 AD, an elephant named Abul-Abbas was brought from Baghdad to Charlemagne’s residence in Aachen as a symbol of the beginning of the Abbasid-Colingian alliance.
In 1229, the so-called Cremona elephant was presented by the Sultan of Egypt Al-Kamil to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and the elephant was used by the emperor in parades. The elephant is mentioned in the visit of Frederick’s brother-in-law Richard of Cornwall to Cremona in 1241, in Matthew Paris’ Chronica Maiora. The animal’s presence is also recorded in 1237 in the annals of the city of Cremona.
In 1478, King Christian I founded the Order of the Elephant. This very select religious organization is the highest order in Denmark, and uses the elephant as a symbol of docility, sobriety and piety; instituted in its present form in 1693 by King Christian V.
In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to erect a monument to his imperial power and ordered a colossal bronze fountain in the shape of an elephant to be cast from the cannons captured in his victorious Battle of Friedland in 1807. It was destined for the site of the Bastille.
One of the elephants shot for their meat in Paris in December 1870.
In 1870, the slaughter and devouring of the elephants Castor and Pollux from the Botanical Gardens during the siege of Paris received considerable attention at the time. This became an emblem of the hardship and degradation caused by the siege and the war, especially since the two elephants had been very popular with the Parisian public.
The city of Catania, in Sicily, has an immemorial relationship with the elephant. The local sorcerer Heliodorus is credited with having ridden a magical elephant or transformed himself into this animal. Under medieval Arab rule, Catania was known as Medinat-ul-Fil or Balad-ul-Fil (City/State of the Elephant).
The symbol of the city is the Fontana dell’Elefante (Fountain of the Elephant), erected in its present form in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini.
In central London, England, an area known as “Elephant and Castle” (or “The Elephant”) is centered on a major road intersection and a London Underground station. The “castle” in the place name refers to a medieval European perception of a howdah. The heraldic elephant and castle have also been associated with the city of Coventry (England) since medieval times, where it denotes religious symbolism, and with the town of Dumbarton (Scotland). More recently, in Great Britain, Welephant, a cartoon red elephant in a fireman’s helmet, was originally used as a mascot by the UK fire departments to promote fire safety among children and has become the mascot of the Children’s Burn Trust.
The elephant as a symbol of the U.S. Republican Party has its origins in an 1874 political cartoon of an Asian elephant by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. This cartoon, entitled “Third Term Panic,” is a parody of Aesop’s fable,“The Ass in the Lion’s Skin.” It depicts an elephant (labeled The Republican Vote) running into an abyss of chaos; frightening a lion-skinned donkey (labeled Caesarism) that 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, endurance, mental faculties, cooperative spirit and loyalty. South Africa uses elephant tusks on its coat of arms to represent wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity The elephant is symbolically important to the nation of Ivory Coast the coat of arms of Ivory Coast features a shield with an elephant’s head as a central point.
In the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now part of Benin), the elephant was associated with the 19th century rulers of the Fon people, Guezo and his son Glele. The animal is believed to evoke strength, royal legacy and enduring memory, as related in the proverbs, “Where the elephant passes in the forest, it is known” and “The animal treads the ground, but the elephant comes down hard” Their flag depicted an elephant with a royal crown.
The Elephant in Popular Culture
The elephant has entered popular culture through various idioms and adages.
The phrase “Elephants never forget” refers to the belief that elephants have an excellent memory. The variation “Women and elephants never forget an injury” originates from the 1904 book Reginald on Besetting Sins, by the British writer Saki.
This adage appears to have a real basis, as reported in Scientific American:
Researchers believe that elephants survive largely because of their extraordinary powers of memory. Matriarchal female elephants, in particular, possess a store of social knowledge that their families can scarcely do without, according to research on elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th-century Americanism denoting a world-weary experience; often used by soldiers, pioneers and adventurers to qualify new and exciting adventures such as the Civil War, the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush. A “white elephant” has become a term referring to an expensive cargo, especially when much has been invested with false expectations.
The term “white elephant sale” was sometimes used in Australia as a synonym for jumble sale. In the United States, the “white elephant” gift exchange is a popular winter holiday activity. The idiom Elephant in the room speaks to an obvious truth that no one wants to discuss, alluding to the size of the animal in comparison to a small space. Seeing pink elephants” refers to a drunken hallucination and is the basis for the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in the 1941 Disney animated film, Dumbo. “Jumbo” has entered the English language as a synonym for “big” Jumbo was originally the name of a huge elephant acquired by circus impresario P. T. Barnum from the London Zoo in 1882. The name may have come from a native West African word[l] meaning “elephant”.
The elephant is both positively and negatively regarded similarly to humans in various forms of literature. In fact, Pliny the Elder praised the beast in his Naturalis Historia as one of the closest animals to humans in terms of sentience.
The different connotations of the elephant collide in Ivo Andrić’s novel The Vizier’s Elephant. In it, the citizens of Travnik despise the young elephant that symbolizes the cruelty of the invisible vizier. However, the elephant himself is young and innocent despite unknowingly wreaking havoc due to a juvenile game. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, Tantor is the generic term for “elephant” in the fictional language of the Mangani apes, but it is associated with a particular elephant who eventually becomes Tarzan’s faithful companion.
Other elephant characters portrayed in a positive light include Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar and Dr. Seuss’s Horton. Jules Verne featured a steam-powered mechanical elephant in his 1880 novel The Steam House. In addition, the animal appears in military use through the oliphants in J. R. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the alien invaders in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1985 science fiction novel Footfall.
Rudyard Kipling’s short stories featuring elephants include “All the Stories of Mowgli,” “Toomai of the Elephants,” and “The Elephant’s Son,” as well as Mark Twain’s “The Stolen White Elephant.” George Orwell wrote an allegorical essay, “Shooting an Elephant”; and in “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway used the allegorical white elephant, alluding to a pregnancy as an unwanted gift.
The animal also appears in historical novels. The Elephant’s Journey (Portuguese: A Viagem do Elefante, 2008) is a novel by the Nobel laureate. José Saramago. It is a fictional account based on a 16th century historical journey from Lisbon to Vienna made by an elephant named Solomon.
An Elephant for Aristotle is a 1958 historical novel by L. Sprague de Camp. It deals with the adventures of a Thessalian cavalry commander who is commissioned by Alexander the Great to bring an elephant captured from King Poro of India to Athens as a gift for Alexander’s former tutor, Aristotle.
Elephants can also represent the vastness 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 Heffalump. 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. Since then, “heffalump” has been defined as “a child’s term for an elephant.”
The elephant is used as a mascot or logo for various sports groups.
Circus man P. T. Barnum donated the stuffed skin of the Jumbo elephant to Tufts University in 1885, where Jumbo soon became the mascot for its sports teams. However, all that remains of Jumbo are some ashes stored in a peanut butter jar and a piece of his tail after a fire in 1975. “The spirit of Jumbo lives on” in the peanut butter jar, which is ceremoniously given to successive athletic directors.
The Oakland Athletics baseball team mascot is based on the white elephant. The story of the mascot choice began when New York Giants coach John McGraw told reporters that Philadelphia manufacturer Benjamin Shibe, who owned the majority stake in the new team, had a “white elephant on his hands“; coach Connie Mack defiantly adopted the white elephant as the team mascot[m] The A’s are sometimes, but infrequently, called the “Elephants” or “White Elephants“. Their mascot is named Stomper.
The mascot of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide has been an elephant since 1930, after a sportswriter wrote that a fan yelled, “Hold on, the elephants are coming!” as the soccer team entered the field. His “Big Al” elephant costume officially debuted at the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
Catania (Italy) uses the elephant to represent its soccer team, a reference to the animal that has represented its city since ancient times.
The crest of Kerala Blasters FC, a soccer club in India, is designed around an elephant holding a ball. Elephants are the state animal of Kerala and play a central role in its culture. They are considered a symbol of unity, power and pride. The club crest symbolizes Kerala’s heritage, culture, spirit and passion, and its love of soccer.
The elephant is also represented in music, as in Henry Mancini’s hit song “Baby Elephant Walk,” which has been described as “musical shorthand for any kind of madness. “The American band The White Stripes’ fourth album was titled Elephant in honor of the animal’s brute strength and closeness to its kin.
British singer Alexandra Burke’s hit single “Elephant” is based on the expression “elephant in the room.” “Nellie the Elephant” is a children’s song first published in 1956 and covered since then by many artists, including the punk-rock group Toy Dolls.For her album Leave Your Sleep, Natalie Merchant set John Godfrey Saxe’s poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” based on the parable, to music.
Film and television
The elephant also appears in film and television. Thailand has produced several films about the animal, from the 1940 historical drama King of the White Elephant to the 2005 action/martial arts film Tom-Yum-Goong. In the West, the elephant was popularized by Dumbo, the elephant who learns to fly in the 1941 Disney animated film of the same name.
Kipling’s “Toomai of the Elephants” was adapted into the 1937 British adventure film Elephant Boy. In popular modern films, Tai, the elephant-actress, has played Bo Tat in Operation Dumbo Drop (1995), Vera in Larger than Life (1996) and Rosie in Water for Elephants (2011).
Elephants have also appeared in Disney’s modern live-action films Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale (2000) and the 2019 remake of Dumbo. Horton Hears a Who was a 2008 American computer-animated film based on the 1954 book of the same name by Dr. Seuss, produced by Blue Sky Studios and distributed by 20th Century Fox. In the Malayalam film industry, there are several films featuring elephants, such as Guruvayur Kesavan (1977), Gajakesariyogam (1990) and Aanachandam (2006).
On television, Nellie the Elephant is a 1990 British cartoon series inspired by the 1956 song of the same name, in which Scottish singer Lulu voices Nelly. Britt Allcroft adapted the elephant “Mumfie” from Katherine Tozer’s series of children’s books, originally into a 1970s television puppet show and then into the 1990s animated series Magic Adventures of Mumfie.
The 2016 action-comedy film The Brothers Grimsby was made famous for its crude and graphic elephant scene.
The elephant also appears in games. In shatranj, the medieval game from which chess developed, the piece corresponding to the modern bishop was known as Pil or Bishop (“Elephant”; from Persian and Arabic, respectively).
In the Indian game chaturanga the piece is also called “Elephant” (Gaja). The same happens in Chinese chess, which has an elephant piece that serves as a defensive piece, being the only one that cannot cross the river that divides the game board.
In the Japanese version of shogi, the piece was known as the “Drunken Elephant”; however, it was suppressed by order of Emperor Go-Nara and no longer appears in the version played in contemporary Japan.
Even in modern chess, the word for bishop is still Alfil in Spanish, Alfiere in Italian, Feel in Persian and “Elephant” (Слон) in Russian. All these games originally simulated a kind of battlefield, so this piece represented a war elephant.
In the current Staunton canonical chess set, the deep groove on the piece, which originally represented the elephant’s tusks, is now considered to represent a bishop’s mitre.
In the 18th century, French architect Charles Ribart planned to build a three-tiered elephant building on the site in Paris where the Arc de Triomphe eventually stood. But in the early 19th century, Napoleon conceived an even larger structure, the Elephant of the Bastille. Although the ambitious project was never completed with the intended bronze elephant, a life-size plaster and wood model was built in its place. After Napoleon’s defeat, this structure became an abandoned eyesore and the setting for Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Miserables.
In the 1880s, James V. Lafferty built three multi-story elephant-shaped buildings in the United States. The largest, seven-story, thirty-one-room Elephantine Colossus, served as a hotel, concert hall, and attraction at Coney Island before burning down in 1896. The six-story Lucy Elephantine is the only one remaining of the three and survives as a tourist attraction near Atlantic City. However, these giant elephant structures are dwarfed by the 32-story Bangkok Elephant Tower in Thailand. This iconic elephant-inspired building reflects the influence of the elephant in Thai culture.