Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Elephant

It is very interesting how old myths and folk tales from thousands of years ago can develop into common 'facts' we all know and accept in modern times. One such example is the elephant, which has been misunderstood for thousands of years.

I recently read a very interesting article on historical misconceptions about the elephant, which I have summarised below.

Elephants were named after Japan's 4th emperor, Emperor Itoku. Rumour had it that his nose was so long he could swing it like a lasso, throw it into the river and drink via his nostrils. Whilst this was one of his greatest attributes, it would also prove to be his downfall; when the current was surprisingly strong in the winter of 476 BC, his nose became trapped in the powerful movement and he was swept off, never to be seen again.

In the song “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh, elephants wear tuxedos and are blue. Fantastical, but unimaginative compared to what European natural historians used to believe about the elephant. These misconceptions persisted despite many scholars and ordinary citizens knowing otherwise! 

Some argue that misconceptions about the elephant are reasonable seeing as they come from Africa and Asia, and Europeans simply didn’t have enough contact with the animals to inform their judgements. The reality, though, is that the elephant has an old (and brutal) history in Europe.

One such misconception is that elephants have no knees. However 17th century historian Sir Thomas Browne noted that even the ancient Greeks knew that elephants had knees. Western armies first fought elephants at the Battle of Gaugamela in present-day northern Iraq in 331 BC, between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia. War elephants were an incredibly effective weapon in ancient warfare - if you could manage to feed them and keep them from stepping on your own soldiers. But Alexander overcame the Persians, captured their elephants, and sent the beasts back to Greece. Having seen elephants for themselves, the Greeks had no reason to doubt their possession of knees.

Indeed, Aristotle’s description of the elephant is incredibly descriptive, and he is certain that they had knees. During the Roman Empire, most citizens knew elephants had knees because they attended gladiatorial games to watch the cruel slaughter of the animals hauled in from Africa. In fact, in his encyclopedia Natural History, Pliny the Elder specifically mentions the elephant’s knees when recounting a battle in Rome’s Circus between 20 elephants and a number of men: “One of these animals fought in a most astonishing manner; being pierced through the feet, it dragged itself on its knees towards the troop, and seizing their bucklers, tossed them aloft into the air: and as they came to the ground they greatly amused the spectators, for they whirled round and round in the air, just as if they had been thrown up with a certain degree of skill, and not by the frantic fury of a wild beast.”

Yet even after Pliny and Aristotle made it clear that elephants had knees, the idea spread again after the fall of the Roman Empire thanks to the Physiologus, which was written between the second and third centuries AD. It says “The elephant has no knee joints enabling him to sleep lying down if he wanted to”. However by the 13th century this was being challenged. Albertus Magnus, for instance, noted that the elephant wasn’t missing knees - it just had stiff joints in its legs, necessary to support its weight.

The Physiologus also introduced several other other fanciful elephant “facts” that came from the ancient world. The book describes how when elephants want to conceive, a male and a female must head “to the east near paradise,” where they’ll find the mandrake. This plant’s root has a long history of being used by humans as an aphrodisiac, though as a member of the nightshade family it contains powerful toxins that can kill in high doses. The elephants supposedly eat some of it, and “the female immediately conceives in the womb.”

According to the Physiologus the elephant's eternal enemy, the serpent, would try and snatch up baby elephants. Pliny refers to it as a dragon: "this fiend is perpetually at war with the elephant,” he writes, “and is itself of so enormous a size, as easily to envelop the elephants with its folds, and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both; the elephant, vanquished, falls to the earth, and by its weight, crushes the dragon which is entwined around it.” In the Physiologus, the serpent seems decidedly smaller, as the male elephant “kills it by trampling on it until it dies.”

Pliny also wrote that elephants “hate mice and will refuse to eat fodder that has been touched by one”. As a researcher of elephant behaviour in 2011 said “In the wild, anything that suddenly runs or slithers by an elephant can spook it. It doesn’t have to be a mouse—dogs, cats, snakes or any animal that makes sudden movements by an elephant’s feet can startle it.”

This is because they have incredibly poor eyesight, relying instead on a highly developed sense of smell. Venomous snakes can kill baby elephants, so evolutionarily it they have developed to be cautious about small creatures. In captivity at least, they don’t seem to be the afraid of mice once they've established that they are harmless, and have even been known to stomp on mice scurrying around their pens, according to Gordon Grice in The Book of Deadly Animals.

The phrase 'elephants never forget' is again a myth that many still believe to this day. Whilst elephants have excellent memory, the statement is still an exaggeration. As elephants are nomadic, they have to remember where water and fodder are located - elephants always know how to return to a watering hole they used previously.


Badke, D. (2011) The Elephant. The Medieval Bestiary

Brown, T. (1894) The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. Tuft’s Perseus Digital Library

Curley, M. (2009) Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. University Of Chicago Press

Pliny the Elder. (1855) The Natural History. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. Retrieved from Tuft’s Perseus Digital Library