I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
All over the world, elephants symbolize wisdom, good fortune, and strength, attributes that are reflected in folk tales and mythologies. Everywhere, elephants are viewed with great affection and sometimes with reverence.
Kenyan Elephant Mythology
To the Kamba people of Kenya, elephants are symbols of power and intelligence, and they tell the story of how they came to roam the African continent.
A poor man sought advice from a wise man about how he could become rich. The wise man said you can have a flock of sheep, but the poor man said shepherding sounded like too much work. For the same reason, he rejected the idea of owning cattle. Finally, the wise man gave him an ointment and told him to apply this to his wife’s upper canine teeth.
Before long, the woman’s teeth grew into tusks that the man removed and sold for a good price in the market. However, the man’s wife saw her body grow large and her skin become thick, wrinkled, and grey.
She ran off into the forest and gave birth to several elephant children; she passed on the intelligence of humans to her offspring.
Another Kenyan story says that the symmetry of creation was shattered by humans. Elephants, thunder, and humans lived on Earth, but the huge differences among them led to conflict. Weary of the squabbling, thunder left Earth and took to the sky.
Elephants believed they could get along with humans, but they were wrong. Man shot the elephant with a poisoned arrow and, as the animal lay dying, it called to thunder to save him. But thunder said no; the elephant was being justly punished for being so naïve as to trust the human.
Man went on to make more poisoned arrows with which to kill more animals and to dominate Nature.
More African Elephant Folklore
In South Africa there is a story told to children about how the elephant got its trunk. He started out with a small nose and was quite happy with it.
One day, he was drinking from a river when a crocodile leapt out of the water and seized him by the nose. The huge croc tried to pull the elephant into the river and the huge elephant dug in its heels. The battle lasted for hours and as time passed the elephant’s trunk was stretched longer and longer.
The crocodile tired first and let go of what he hoped would be a massive dinner. At first, the elephant was unhappy with his elongated nose, but then saw its advantages. He could reach food high up in trees and he could drink without having to kneel down. All the other elephants saw how useful a long snout was so they went to the river and goaded the crocodile into a nose-stretching fight.
Some Indigenous Africans refer to the tusks of elephants as “wisdom sticks,” and say these allow the animals to know when and where they will die. This gives rise to the myth of the “elephant graveyard,” a place where large numbers of elephant skeletons are found. There are places where concentrations of elephant bones have been found but experts say these are likely the result of an illness striking a herd or some other natural phenomenon.
Ganesh, the Hindu God
According to Hindu mythology, the great god Shiva was startled to find a young boy standing near his home. Pulling his sword, Shiva decapitated the child and suffered immediate remorse. He dispatched his soldiers and told them to bring back the head of the first animal they found; it was an elephant. Shiva attached the elephant’s head to the boy, breathed life into him, and recognized him as his son.
For Hindus, Ganesh is the embodiment of compassion, loyalty, and wisdom. He is also believed to be able to remove obstacles so he is prayed to before any event, such as a marriage, to ensure that everything proceeds smoothly.
Ganesh can also place obstacles in front of people whose behaviour needs to be changed.
Despite being revered as sacred animals, elephants in many Indian temples are cruelly abused, as revealed by Sangita Iyer in her 2016 documentary, Gods in Shackles.
Characteristics of Elephants
The size of pachyderms has led many societies to associate them with strength and power. The intelligence of the animals leads them to being characterized as wise, although some European cultures have viewed elephants as lazy and dim-witted.
In the story of Noah’s Ark, elephants don’t come out looking good. They broke into the food store and gorged themselves, growing so big they threatened to capsize the Ark. God intervened and hid a mouse in a cabbage. When the elephants started to eat the cabbage, the mouse jumped out scaring the elephants who ran to the other end of the Ark, restoring balance. (Spoiler alert: contrary to popular belief, elephants are not afraid of mice).
Although elephants never existed in North America, Indigenous people hunted mammoths and saw them as emblematic of strength, wisdom, and good luck. Worldbirds.org adds “These large animals also became the symbol of strength, fertility, virility, and sexual energy.”
Chinese legends repeat the depictions of elephants that crop up all over the globe: wisdom, good fortune, strength, peacefulness, and prudence. In Beijing, the Spirit Way leads to Ming dynasty tombs with stone animals and mythical beasts lining the road, among them elephants. By an old superstition, some Chinese women place stones on the backs of the elephants in the belief this will help them have a male child.
- African elephants have much larger ears than their Asian cousins.
- Elephants are herbivores and they eat up to 150 kg (330 pounds) of food each day.
- There are an estimated 415,000 African elephants alive today in the wild; that’s just ten percent of the population that existed a century ago. The slaughter has taken place to feed the ivory trade.
- In India, the destruction of habitat because of population growth has disrupted elephant migration routes and brought the animals into conflict with people. The BBC reports that “Elephants kill about 500 people each year in India, according to estimates.”
- “8 Things You May not Know about Ganesh.” CBC Kids, undated.
- “Four Depictions of Elephants as They Appear in Religion and Myth.” Helena Williams, The Independent, December 19, 2013.
- “African Myths & Legends about Elephants.” Africanroadtravel.com, May 5, 2011.
- “Elephant Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens).” Garth C. Clifford, worldbirds.org, November 12, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on November 30, 2020:
This is an education. Thank you for your contributions to my self-improvement.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 25, 2020:
An interesting and enjoyable read, Rupert. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and display real emotions. Thank you for sharing.
Ann Carr from SW England on November 25, 2020:
I love elephants. They seem to have emotions too, like grieving after the death of one of the herd. They are so majestic and I can understand why they are revered.
Your articles are refreshing in their originality and detailed information.