How Medieval Artists Saw Elephants: Claws, Hooves, Trunks Like Trumpets, And Castles On Their Backs
Imagine a four-legged beast with no knee joints that cannot lie down and has to sleep leaning against a tree. An animal with a long, skinny trumpet for a nose. A creature large enough that one can build small castles on its back. It lives for 300 years and is afraid of mice. Its mortal enemy is the dragon. It must “travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows” when it comes time to mate. Now draw this thing.
What did you come up with? Chances are, if you actually undertook this exercise, you’d arrive at something resembling the Medieval conception of elephants, found in illustrated manuscripts across Europe. The artists had apparently never seen this creature, but it featured prominently in bestiaries, popular encyclopedias of animals that drew together the work of classical authors and medieval travelers to show how animals symbolize human and divine traits.
These illustrations are composites created from dozens of sources — from Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder to notorious teller of tall tales, Sir John Mandeville. They are creatures of hearsay, “imaginary beings,” as Jorge Luis Borges would call them. Some have cloven hooves or claws and small, pointed ears. Some look more like horses or pigs than elephants.
“Sometimes their trunk was so long it would drag on the ground,” writes Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura. “The trunks and the tusks were most often twisted into surprising shapes.”