Beast

Elephant


Latin name: Elephas
Other names: Elefant, Elephans, Elifant, Olifant, Olyfanz, Olyphant
Category: Beast

Persian and Indian soldiers build wooden towers on the back of elephants and fight from there.

General Attributes

Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls. Unable to rise, the beast cries out, and a large elephant tries to lift it up, but fails. In some accounts, twelve elephants next attempt to lift it, and also fail. Finally a small elephant comes and succeeds in raising the fallen one.

The idea that elephants have no knee joints may be a misunderstanding of, or a conflation with, an account of the elk in Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, repeated by Pliny; see Sources below.

Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. The female remains pregnant for two years, and can only give birth once. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant's enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool.

If the skin or bones of an elephant are burned, the smoke will drive out serpents.

The elephant's life span is three hundred years. They travel in herds, are afraid of mice, and courteously salute men in whatever way they can. They once lived in both in Africa and India, but now only live in India.

Persian and Indian soldiers build wooden towers on the back of elephants and fight from there.

To this the Aberdeen Bestiary adds: "Whatever elephants wrap their trunks around, they break; whatever they trample underfoot is crushed to death as if by the fall of a great ruin. They never fight over female elephants, for they know nothing of adultery. They possess the quality of mercy. If by chance they see a man wandering in the desert, they offer to lead him to familiar paths. Or if they encounter herds of cattle huddled together, they make their way carefully and peaceably lest their tusks kill any animal in their way. If by chance they fight in battle, they have no mean [intent to] the wounded. For they take the exhausted and the injured back into their midst."

Allegory/Moral

The elephant and its mate represent Adam and Eve. When they were still without sin in the Garden of Eden, they did not mate, but when the dragon seduced them and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and gave some to Adam, they were forced to leave Paradise and enter the world, which was like a turbulent lake of pleasures and passions. The elephants mated and she conceived, and "gave birth on the waters of guilt." The big elephant represents the law, which could not raise up mankind from sin, nor could the twelve elephants, which represent the prophets. Christ is the small elephant who succeeded to raising the fallen. The burning skin and bones of the elephant represent the commandments of God, which allow nothing evil to enter the pure soul.

Illustration

There are several common illustrations of the elephant to show its various aspects.

  • Elephant and castle: The elephant is shown carrying a "castle", which can be anything from a simple platform to an actual stone castle.
  • Giving birth in water: Usually the female elephant is shown standing in water with the baby elephant below her or nearby. Often the male elephant is standing guard on shore, with a dragon menacing the mother and child.
  • Fighting a dragon: The elephant is shown with a dragon wrapping its coils around it.

Reality

While elephants with actual castles on their backs is highly improbable, elephants were used to carry a platform or carriage called a howdah, which could sometimes be quite large and elaborate. The elphant and castle motif is likely an exageration of traveller's tale of seeing a howdah.