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The Bestiary Elephant

An exotic creature, although not so fabulous as the mythical unicorn or phoenix, Elephas the Elephant was one of the most popular animals in the bestiary and had one of the longest entries. Usually represented with a howdah or war-tower on its back (the "elephant and castle" of heraldry) or entwined in the coils of a dragon, it was though to be intelligent, gentle (leading the lost wayfarer back to the road), possessing a great memory, to live for three hundred years, and be afraid of mice. When traveling together, it was careful not to injure its companions with its ivory tusks, tended the wounded and protected them in the middle of the herd, and used its trunk to gather leaves to feed, hence the name proboscis, "for the bushes."

The elephant often fought with the unicorn, who could wound it in the belly with its horn. Its archenemy, however, was the dragon, which would lie in wait and then entangle the legs of the elephant in its coils and kill it by suffocation. (The elephant tends to be illustrated twice in the bestiaries, once in the section on animals, carrying armed knights in the tower on its back, and then again with reptiles, where Draco the Dragon is discussed, the tail of which was particularly deadly.)

A faithful spouse, neither quarrelsome or adulterous, the male elephant was a reluctant lover. When the female desired to copulate (which she did only once), she was obliged to take her mate eastward to Paradise, where the mandragora grew. First, she ate of the mandrake root, itself in the shape of a human figure and a reputed aphrodisiac, and then enticed the male to do the same. Seduced, she conceived immediately and gestated for two years before giving birth in the water, while her mate stood guard against dragons. It was supposed that the elephant, being modest, copulated back-to-back (and also to be retromingent, urinating backwards).

The elephant was thought to have no joints in its knees. Unable to rise if it ever fell, it was obliged to sleep on its feet, supported by a tree. Hunters in India were said to saw partly through the tree, so that the elephant, leaning against it, would topple to the ground. Trumpeting its alarm, neither a large elephant nor twelve more were able to raise it. Only a single small elephant, using its trunk, could lift the fallen animal.

Aristotle, in his Historia Animalium, had refuted the notion that elephants have no joints, and Henry III even had one in his menagerie. A gift from Louis IX of France in 1254, it managed to survive for four years in the Tower of London. Drawn from life by Matthew Paris for his Chronica Majora, it was the first elephant to be seen in England since those that accompanied the Roman emperor Claudius more than twelve-hundred years earlier. Yet, even if one could be observed at court (and in spite of classical authority), a naturalistic representation in the bestiary was less important than the symbolism or iconography of the image.

Mating only once, the elephant was a model for human moral behavior. According with the medieval ideal that sex in marriage be for reproduction only, the elephant symbolized the paradox of chaste marriage and conjugal chastity (as, indeed, did Edward the Confessor). Until they ate of the mandrake, the elephant pair were not concupiscent, just as Adam and Eve originally were in a state of bliss before being tempted to disobedience by the fruit of the Garden. So should married couples aspire to that lost innocence and remain chaste, having sexual relations only to bear children.

The fallen elephant is allegorical, as well. Saved neither by one elephant (Hebrew Law) nor the twelve (the Prophets), only Christ could raise it up and redeem mankind, teaching, like the small elephant, the power of the humble and meek. The story also relates to the Samaritan, where Christ lifts up the fallen, who has been abandoned by the Pharisee and the Levite. There even is a lesson in the dragon. The Devil was thought to lie in wait, laying the coils of sin in the paths of the righteous, suffocating them by sin and slaying them in its embrace, squeezing out God's breath of life.

Even the representation of the elephant in battle, with a crenelated tower on its back, may have been intended to evoke the Crusades, the notion of the Church militant doing battle against the infidel, or simply the spiritual struggle between good and evil.

This image is from the Aberdeen Bestiary, which can be viewed in full at its quite wonderful website.

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