Elephants at Sonepur Fair, Bihar, 1952

May 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The annual fall cattle fair at Sonepur draws thousands of buyers and sellers from all over India. Although the sale of elephants is officially illegal, they still change hands.These photos are from a 1952 LIFE magazine photo story.

The Ivory Palisade

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

War Elephant frieze-Hampi

“sicut quadripedum cum primis esse videmus
in genere anguimanus elephantos, India quorum
milibus e multis vallo munitur eburno,
ut penitus nequeat penetrari:
tanta ferarum
vis est,
quarum nos perpauca exempla videmus.”

“We see that in classes of quadrupeds,
above all with snake-handed elephants,
whose many thousands keep India fenced in
 with an ivory wall,
so there is no way 
one can move into its interior—
that’s how numerous those wild creatures are.
Yet we see very few examples of them.”
-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book II

“The ivory wall defending India has been interpreted as 1) a legend referring to an actual wall of ivory or a living barrier of elephants 2) an exaggeration of the practice of using elephant tusks as palings or incorporating them into buildings 3) a metaphorical allusion to the use of elephants in warfare.”
-Robert Brown, Classical Philology, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Oct., 1991) Chicago

Rama going into Battle

Mammoth Bone House

Ivory Wall

Elephants on Plates

May 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Pliny on Elephants and Dragons

May 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Africa produces elephants, beyond the deserts of the Syrtes, and in Mauritania; they are found also in the countries of the Æthiopians and the Troglodytæ as mentioned above. But it is India that produces the largest, as well as the dragon, which is perpetually at war with the elephant, and is itself of so enormous a size, as easily to envelope 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.The sagacity which every animal exhibits in its own behalf is wonderful, but in these it is remarkably so. The dragon has much difficulty in climbing up to so great a height, and therefore, watching the road, which bears marks of their footsteps when going to feed, it darts down upon them from a lofty tree. The elephant knows that it is quite unable to struggle against the folds of the serpent, and so seeks for trees or rocks against which to rub itself. The dragon is on its guard against this, and tries to prevent it, by first of all confining the legs of the elephant with the folds of its tail; while the elephant, on the other hand, endeavours to disengage itself with its trunk. The dragon, however, thrusts its head into its nostrils, and thus, at the same moment, stops the breath and wounds the most tender parts. When it is met unexpectedly, the dragon raises itself up, faces its opponent, and flies more especially at the eyes; this is the reason why elephants are so often found blind, and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery. What other cause can one assign for such mighty strifes as these, except that Nature is desirous, as it were, to make an exhibition for herself, in pitting such opponents against each other?”

From Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book VIII, Ch. 11-12

Tear the Elephant of Ignorance Asunder

May 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Wrathful deities often wear the bloodstained skin of a freshly killed elephant stretched across their backs, which is sometimes referred to as ‘Indra’s skin’. The qualities of wrathful forms which are comparable to the wild elephant are revealed in their symbolic activities of bellowing, crushing, tearing, trampling, and uprooting. The symbolism of the flayed skin refers to the deity ‘having torn the elephant of ignorance asunder’. The elephant, human, and tiger skins which adorn wrathful forms symbolize the destruction of the three poisons of ignorance, desire and anger, respectively.”
Robert Beer, Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. (Boston, 1990)
On the left side of the deity’s body is the head of a flayed, white elephant. Other parts of the skin are visible against the flaming aureole.

Museum technicians cleaning an African elephant skin.

Tibetan rug with flayed elephant.

Large as a snow mountain, the color of the moon…

May 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The rare white elephant was highly venerated as a royal or temple elephant in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. The proverbial white elephant derives its title from the fact that albino elephants were reputedly difficult to control, and much care and expense was involved in their keeping. Annone was a white elephant. 

A Four-Year Old Asian Elephant at the Oregon Zoo

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon has one of the most successful captive elephant breeding programs in the world. Their elephants have been closely observed and meticulously cared for since the zoo began keeping them in 1953. Important discoveries in elephant biology and communication have been made at the Oregon Zoo.
The zoo is home to the four year-old male Asian elephant Samudra, known as Sam and sometimes called Roscoe by his keeper, elephant curator Bob Lee. Sam is about the same age as Annone was when he arrived in Rome in 1514.
Elephants vary considerably in size, depending on genetics, diet and other factors. Judging from the relative sizes of the mahout and the animal in Romano’s drawing, Annone appears to have been quite a bit taller than Sam, or else the men in the drawing are very short. The proportions of head to body size are also different in the two elephants.
Even at 4,000 pounds, a four year-old elephant is still immature. Sam’s mother will still allow him to nurse. He engages contentedly with a ball, kicking, picking it up and throwing it, sitting and rolling his huge body on top of it, in extended periods of pure play like a puppy or a child. It is reasonable to assume that Annone at age four was physiologically similar to Sam, that he had reached the same level of maturity, had the same ability to learn and desire to play.

Elephantasia 2

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Engraving, School of Martin Schongauer, 1500-1550

Etching, Gerard Groenning, 1563

Engraving, Jacob de Fornazeris, 1597-1622

Etching and Engraving, Joannes van Doetecum after Hieronymus Bosch, 1550-1570

Engraving, Georg Pencz, 1539(c.)

Engraving, Diana Scultori after Giulio Romano, 1575

Woodcut, Donat Hübschmann, 1563-1566

Engraving, published by Giovanni Giacomo de' Rossi, 1547-1591


White Elephant on Black

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Etching, Grant Ditzler, 2011, on 22″x30″ Black Arches

Venationes Ferarum, Avium, Piscium

April 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Venatio (plural- venationes), Latin for “hunt.”

Originally refering to the hunting of wild animals for food or sport, venationes evolved into a form of entertainment in Ancient Rome featuring the harassment and slaughter of wild animals in public arenas. Tens of thousands of animals were imported at great expense from across the empire to be killed in front of large audiences at the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. Criminals and prisoners of war were also killed, sometimes by animals, in a display of Imperial power and wealth. Many hundreds, perhaps thousands of elephants were among the slaughtered, some captured in war, others imported for the public spectacle.

The engravings are from the series Venationes Ferarum, Avium, Piscium, by Carel van Mallery after drawings by Jan van der Straet, published in Antwerp in 1596 (or after). These examples are in the British Museum.