E is for Elephant–A to Z Blog Challenge

elephantE is for Elephant

Symbols in Stories from Around the World

The mighty elephant with both its strength and size naturally is a symbol for power.

Known military strategists such as Alexander the Great and Hannibal have had themselves represented by the elephant.  Many African tribes viewed the elephant as royalty and so the image is carved or woven into many clothes or tools.  The Greeks and the Romans saw more than power in these massive beasts.  Elephants balanced that power with prudence.  For the Romans, elephants were used during the parades after a conquest or triumph.  As for the Greeks, the longevity of elephants brought the idea of wisdom.  Athena, the goddess of wisdom, at times wore an elephant-scalp as a head-dress.

Elephants seem to have everything going for them as they are big, powerful, and respected.  Oftentimes these same amazing animals are the target of tricksters.  These tricksters are typically seen as weak or disadvantaged in some way.  Rabbit tricks Elephant into a tug-of-war with Whale when Elephant thinks the actual opponent is Rabbit.  Anansi fools Elephant into thinking the melon talks when it is really Anansi inside it.  Perhaps it is a little risky to be known to be strong.

Though, while these tricksters put obstacles in the way, elephants are known in Hinduism to be the remover of obstacles.  Most of this view comes from the stories behind Ganesh, a popular God.  This deity has a rounded belly, four arms, and an elephant head.  At one time, Ganesh had a human-like head.  When Ganesh became beheaded, the closest animals was the elephant.  Ganesh came back to life and gained the attributes connected with elephants such as wisdom and as an advocate.  Ganesh also brings good fortune.

Elephants, especially white or albino elephants, are particularly lucky.  Continuing with Hinduism, the King of the Gods Indra rode upon a sacred white elephant named Airavata.  Sometimes Airavata is known as the Elephant of the Clouds as elephants were thought to make the clouds.  Airavata was also King of the Elephants with his five trunks and ten tusks.  These trunks could reach into the watery underworld, suck up the water, and then create the clouds filled with rain.  Elephants brought life from death (underworld).

In Buddhism, elephants bring about peace with that power.  Before Buddha’s birth, his parents Maya and King Suddhodhana were without children for 20 years.  Then, while Maya slept, she saw herself taken away into the Himalayas and saw a white bull-elephant.  This elephant held a white lotus flower, walked around her three times, and entered her womb through her side.  Maya awoke and was with child and eventually gave birth to this reborn elephant-turned-human.  Buddha then taught the Eightfold Path of Buddhism that leads to wisdom, calmness, knowledge, enlightenment, and release.

For Christians, the elephant sometimes signified Christ and the ivory tusks reflected purity and perfection.  Though, there are usually 12 more elephants to symbolize the 12 prophets of the Old Testament that also connect with the Law of Moses.  When Christ comes and fulfills the Law of Moses, He Is the smallest elephant that can raise people from sin while the 12 prophets could not raise people from sin.  Yet, the elephant could also represent the sinner as its rough skin was like that of the stubborn sinner.  At other times, the elephant could symbolize chastity as the bull-elephant   remained celibate while its mate was in gestation.

Some stories with elephants (some mentioned already):

  • “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” folktale from India, six blind men feel a different part of the elephant and disagree on what is really before them
  • “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling (before Disney), several fables and stories though there is Hathi, a bull-elephant, who is powerful and respected though never rushed into things though can be vengeful at times
  • “Dumbo, the flying elephant” by Helen Aberson (before Disney), Dumbo is a midget elephant—not a baby elephant—and wishes he could fly away from the circus and is encouraged by Red the Robin to see Owl the Wise One on what to do
  • “Pumpkin” story from Zimbabwe retold by Alexander McCall Smith, elephants are to be feared as they trample through the pumpkins and a boy needs to think how to scare away the elephants without being killed
  • “Anansi and the Talking Melon” from many African tribes, Anansi the spider-man trickster, wants to insult the animals so hides inside a melon and convinces the animals that it is a talking melon
  • “How Rabbit Fooled the Elephant and the Whale” from the Bahamas, rabbit wants to prove how smart he is and challenges both elephant and whale to a tug-of-war though both of these massive creatures think they are pulling against rabbit rather than each other

What stories do you know that involves one or more elephants?  Please comment below and share with others of this post.

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