Elephant - Elephants and Humans - Cultural Depictions

Cultural Depictions

Elephants have been represented in art since Paleolithic times. Africa in particular contains many rock paintings and engravings of the animals, especially in the Sahara and southern Africa. Those of the latter were created by the Bushmen. In the Far East, the animals are depicted as motifs in Hindu and Buddhist shrines and temples. Elephants are often difficult to portray by people with no first-hand experience with them. The ancient Romans, who kept the animals in captivity, made anatomically accurate elephants on mosaics in Tunisia and Sicily. During the Middle Ages, though, when Europeans no longer had access to the animals, elephants were portrayed more like fantasy creatures. They were often depicted with horse- or bovine-like bodies with trumpet-like trunks and tusks like a boar; some were even given hooves. Elephants were commonly featured in motifs by the stonemasons of the Gothic churches. As elephants began to be sent to European kings as gifts, depictions of them became more accurate, including one made by Leonardo da Vinci. However, some Europeans continued to portray them in a more stylized fashion.

Elephants have been the subject of religious beliefs. The Mbuti people believe the souls of their dead ancestors resided in elephants. Similar beliefs existed among certain other African tribes, who believed their chiefs would be reincarnated as elephants. During the 10th century AD, the people of Igbo-Ukwu buried their leaders with elephant tusks. The animals' religious importance was only at the totemic level in Africa. Elephants had a much greater role in the religions of Asia. In Sumatra, elephants have been associated with lightning. Likewise in Hinduism, they are linked with thunderstorms as Airavata, the father of all elephants, represents both lightning and rainbows. One of the most important Hindu deities, the elephant-headed Ganesha, is considered to be on par with the supreme gods of the Hindu triumvirate. Ganesha is associated with writers and merchants, and could give people success and grant them their desires. In Buddhism, the Buddha himself is believed to have been a white elephant reincarnated as a human. In Islamic tradition, the year 570, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, is known as the Year of the Elephant. Elephants were thought to be religious themselves by the Romans who believed they worshiped the sun and stars.

Elephants are ubiquitous in Western popular culture as emblems of the exotic, especially since—as in the giraffe, hippopotamus and rhinoceros—there are no other animals familiar to Western audiences like them. The use of the elephant as a symbol of the US Republican Party began with an 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast. As characters, elephants are most common in children's stories, in which they are generally cast as models of exemplary behavior, and include some of this branch of literature's most iconic characters. Elephants in fiction are typically surrogates for humans and their concern for the community and each other is depicted as something to which to aspire. Many stories tell of isolated young elephants returning to a close-knit community, such as "The Elephant's Child" from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Dumbo and The Saggy Baggy Elephant. Other elephant heroes given human qualities include Jean de Brunhoff's anthropomorphic Babar, David McKee's Elmer and Dr. Seuss's Horton.

Several cultural references emphasize the elephant's size and exotic uniqueness. For instance, a "white elephant" is a byword for something expensive, useless and bizarre. The expression "elephant in the room" refers to an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed. The story of the "Blind men and an elephant" shows how reality may be viewed by different perspectives.

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