Pieter Van der Borcht  Elephants 1677


Cornelius Corts The Battle between Scipio and Hannibal at Zama 1567

In the Old Testament to the Holy Bible, there is reference to the elephant, but calls it ‘behemoth’. According to Douay’s version behemoth refers to the elephant. ‘Behold behemoth whom I made with thee. He eateth grass like an ox. His strength is in its loins, and his force in the navel of his belly. He setteth up his tail like a cedar, the sinews of his testicles are wrapped together. His bones are like pipes of brass, his gristle like plates of iron. He sleepeth under the shadow in the cover of the reed. Behold! He will drink up a river and not wonder that the Jordan may run into his mouth’. (Job 40:10-18).


An engraving of South African Hottentots trapping an elephant


Anonymous 17th century copperplate showing the tricks performed by Hansken 1655

Hansken (1630-1655) was a female elephant that became famous in early 17th century Europe. She toured many countries, demonstrating circus tricks.

Hansken was born in what was then Ceylon and was brought to Holland in 1637. Her name is a Dutch diminutive form of the Malayalam word aana, meaning “elephant”. Rembrandt saw her in Amsterdam in 1637, and made four sketches of her in chalk.

In the 17th century, it was believed that elephants had very advanced intellectual abilities. Following Pliny, it was thought that the elephant was the nearest to man in intelligence, and that elephants could understand speech, follow orders, and had a sense of religion and conscience. Pliny even reports that an elephant had learned to write words in the Greek alphabet. Hansken did not live up to these expectations, but she could wave a flag, fire a pistol, strike a drum, hold out her front feet, pinch money from pockets, put on a hat, carry a bucket of water, and pick up coins from the ground.


Gesner, Engraving of an Elephant, 1551


Albertus Seba  Elephant 1680

The elephant is only a huge beast, but he is the most worthy that lives on the earth and has the most sense. I want to tell you about a characteristic of his honesty: he never changes females and loves tenderly the one he has chosen, with whom he nonetheless copulates only every three years, and that only for five days, so secretly that he is never seen in the act. But he is seen, however, on the sixth day, on which, before doing anything else, he goes straight to some river in which he washes his whole body, wishing in no way to return to the herd before he is purified.

Saint François de Sales (1567–1622), Introduction à la vie devote


Animal Stall Paul Friedrich Meyerheim 1885

The Roman writer Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79), writing about the elephant says ‘When an elephant happens to meet a man in the desert and merely wandering about, the animal shows both mercy and kindness to him and even points the way out. But, the very same animal, if it sees the traces of a man before it meets the man himself, trembles in every limb for fear of an ambush, stops short, scents the wind, looks around and snorts aloud with rage’.


Jean Alavoine Elephant de la Bastille

The elephant statue shown is the Elephant of the Bastille, a monument that existed in Paris between 1813 and 1846. It was originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon who wanted it to be a symbol of his military prowess.  He intended that it be cast in bronze using cannon captured in battle.  A stairway would allow visitors to ascend one of the elephant’s legs to an observation platform on its back.

It was to be the centrepiece of a large water moat built upon the site where the Bastille had been located. The Bastile had fallen in 1789 and had been demolished, being replaced by a park and square with a fountain with an Egyptian theme, the feature being a woman with water flowing from her breasts.

A model 24m (78 feet) in height was initially built using plaster over a wooden frame. Completed in 1814, the model was protected by a guard named Levasseur who lived in one of the elephant’s legs.  The construction work stopped in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.


In the African fables, the elephant is usually described as too kind and noble, so that he feels pity even for a wicked character and is badly deceived. The Wachaga in Tanzania relate that the elephant was once a human being but was cheated out of all his limbs except his right arm, which now serves as his trunk. He paid for nobility!


Briton Rivière Tiger Hunt 1905

‘The torn boughs trailing o’er the tusks aslant,
The saplings reeling on the path he trod;
Declare his might: our lord the elephant, Chief of the ways of God’.

(Rudyard Kipling 1865-1936)


Léon Benett. An illustration from Jules Verne’s novel The Steam House


Polito’s Menagerie, figure group (mantlepiece ornament), Staffordshire, c. 1830

I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.
Noel Coward


Hokusai, Blind Men examining an Elephant


Kuniyoshi Taishun & the Elephants 1840

The Elephant is Slow to Mate

The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
they wait

for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts
slowly, slowly to rouse
as they loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse

and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.

So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.

Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feast
for the full repast.

They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.

D. H. Lawrence


Max Ernst The Elephant Celebes 1921

Les éléphants sont contagieux.
Paul Eluard


An elephant tractor  Guissény, Bretagne


“Did I ever tell you how I shot a wild elephant in my pyjamas? How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.”

Groucho Marx