Find the Elephants

Desirée Glanville

Alkmaar, Netherlands

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available from $15.99
Available as matted print, framed print, canvas wrap, poster, greeting card print, skin

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Elephant in Myths, Mythology and Folklore

The elephant is set apart from other creatures by its immense size, its enormous tusks, and above all, its prehensile trunk. Rough as the skin of an elephant may appear, the trunk has such fine coordination that it can be used to pick flowers or lift small coins.

But this strange, paradoxical nature has made people identify intensely with the elephant, since the animal seems to share with humans an alienation from the natural world. Cicero wrote in the first century B.C. that “although there is no animal more sagacious than the elephant, there is also none more monstrous in appearance” (book 1, section 97). No other animal has been so intensely and consistently anthropomorphized. The eyes of an elephant are disproportionately small and on opposing sides of the head, but the folds about the eyes give them enormous expressiveness. Their gaze can be so intense that one popular book on ani-mals in the late twentieth century was entitled When Elephants Weep, despite the fact that crying is a human trait that elephants do not actually share.

Pliny the Elder spoke for many when he said the elephant was the animal “closest to man as regards intelligence” and added that “the elephant has qualities rarely apparent even in man, namely honesty, good sense, justice, and also respect for the stars, sun, and moon

” (book 8, chap. 1). One traditional description of humanity is “homo religiosus,” but elephants, according to tradition, share even the religious impulse. Pliny wrote that elephants would come down from the mountains of Mauritania to bathe in the river Alimo and pay homage to the moon. This theme was frequently repeated in Christian Europe, where the religious impulse of elephants was regularly praised and their paganism ignored. In the latter eighteenth century, Marcel LeRoy, forester to the king of France, wrote that “many authors say this animal is lacking in nothing but the worship of God, while others accord it that virtue as well” (vol. 3, p. 99). Even today, the debate as to whether elephants are religious has not been entirely resolved. For centuries, elephants have been said to bury their dead, and researchers in the latter twentieth century confirm that they at least cover their dead with vegetation.

Most of our elephant lore comes from India, where the elephant may have been domesticated as early as the middle of the third millennium B.C. According to the Indians, after the sun had been hatched from a cosmic egg, the god Brahma took the two shells in his hands and began to chant. Out of the shells emerged the elephant Airavata, which later became the mount of the god Shiva, followed by fifteen other cloud elephants. They and their progeny could fly about and change their shape at will. One day, however, the young elephants on earth became too boisterous and disturbed the sage Palakapya, who cursed them and relegated them to the ground. Up through at least the nineteenth century, elephants continued to be accorded superhuman abilities, including total recall and life spans of centuries. But even as these ideas have been debunked, remarkable new qualities of elephants have been discovered. People had long puzzled over the social cohesion of elephants, and in the 1980s researchers discovered they communicate with ultrasound-that is, by means of frequencies inaccessible to the human ear. Among the most beloved deities of the Hindu pantheon is Ganesha, the mischievous god of wisdom, who has a human body and an elephant head. He is usually depicted riding on a rat and has a potbelly and a broken tusk. There are many stories that explain his origin and odd appearance. According to one, when the god Siva was away, his consort Parvati was lonely and desired a son. She covered her body with scented lotion, rubbed off the dirt, formed it into a young man, and directed him to guard her home. After a while Siva returned and demanded admittance. The young man refused to let him pass. A fight ensued and Siva beheaded his adversary. When she saw what had happened, Parvati was so furious that she threatened to destroy the entire world if Siva did not restore her son to life. To do this Siva needed another head, so he sent his servants in search of one. They came upon an enormous elephant, decapitated the animal, and returned to their master, who placed the head of the elephant on the body of the young man.

C for Complex

Artwork Comments

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