The Folklore of Elephants
Elephants are more than just the massive, captivating creatures we see in zoos. These complex social beings, filled with rich lore, have also been the beloved possessions of kings, majestic carriers of royal riders in processions, and valuable assets on both hunting grounds and battlefields.
They have a long and storied presence in Asian mythology, art and culture.
Figures of religious and spiritual significance in the Asian world, here are two examples of their roles:
- Ganesh, an elephant-headed Hindu deity. Considered to be equal with the supreme gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Often associated with writers, merchants it is said to give people success.
- Airavata, an elephant ridden by the Hindu god Indra . Linked with thunderstorms, lightning and rainbows.
Since Paleolithic times, these large, magnificent creatures have been represented in art. In the Far East, depictions of this animal can be found in Hindu and Buddhist shrines and temples. Elephants were often difficult to portray by people with no first-hand experience with them.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, when Europeans had little to no access to the animals, elephants were portrayed more like fantasy creatures. They were given horse- or bovine-like bodies with trumpet-like trunks and tusks like a boar; some were even given hooves.
As more elephants began to be sent to European kings as gifts during the 15th century, depictions of them became more accurate, including one made by Leonardo da Vinci.
Here are a few interesting beliefs about this majestic beast:
The Buddha was said to have been a white elephant that had been reincarnated as human being.
Islamic prophet Muhammad was born in the Year of the Elephant.
Ancient Romans thought that elephants worshiped celestial bodies, like the sun and the stars.
The Lan Chang Province (formerly known as the ancient kingdom of Lax Xang) was named The Land of a Million Elephants.
To learn more you can check out the current ELEPHANTS WITHOUT NUMBERS exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This exhibit with runs through June 2016. It explores the central position of elephants in the Indian cultural landscape and their prominent place in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religious traditions. It will also weave in information about how the elephant became a popular subject for Western artists traveling through India in the 1800s.