Description Gallery Bibliography Manuscripts Jump to Home page Help Jump to Contents page Jump to Beast Index page Search Previous beast Next beast

Source: Kongelige Bibliotek (Bestiarius - Bestiary of Anne Walsh (Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4║)) Copyright 2003 Kongelige Bibliotek / Used by permission Manuscript description Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4║, Folio 6v



Latin name: Elephas

Other names: Barrus, Elefant, Elephans, Olifant, Oliphans

Persian and Indian soldiers build wooden towers on the back of elephants and fight from there.


General Attributes

Elephants have no knee joints, so if they fall down they cannot get up again. To avoid falling, the elephant leans against a tree while it sleeps. To capture an elephant, a hunter can cut part way through a tree; when the elephant leans against it, the tree breaks and the elephant falls. Unable to rise, the beast cries out, and a large elephant tries to lift it up, but fails. In some accounts, twelve elephants next attempt to lift it, and also fail. Finally a small elephant comes and succeeds in raising the fallen one.

The idea that elephants have no knee joints may be a misunderstanding of, or a conflation with, an account of the elk in Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, repeated by Pliny; see Sources below.

Male elephants are reluctant to mate, so when the female wants children, she and the male travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows. The female elephant eats some mandrake, and then gives some to the male; they mate and the female immediately conceives. The female remains pregnant for two years, and can only give birth once. When it is time to give birth, the female wades into a pool up to her belly and gives birth there. If she gave birth on land, the elephant's enemy the dragon would devour the baby. To make sure the dragon cannot attack, the male elephant stands guard and tramples the dragon if it approaches the pool.

"The cures obtained from [the elephant] are few in number, the principal one being a salve made of ivory, ground up, which is applied to spots and lines on the face and for whitening the teeth. The blood is also to be drunk by those who suffer from haemorrhage" (The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919). If the skin or bones of an elephant are burned, the smoke will drive out serpents.

The elephant's life span is three hundred years. They travel in herds, are afraid of mice, and courteously salute men in whatever way they can. They once lived in both in Africa and India, but now only live in India.

Persian and Indian soldiers build wooden towers on the back of elephants and fight from there.


The elephant and its mate represent Adam and Eve. When they were still without sin in the Garden of Eden, they did not mate, but when the dragon seduced them and Eve ate the fruit of the tree and gave some to Adam, they were forced to leave Paradise and enter the world, which was like a turbulent lake of pleasures and passions. The elephants mated and she conceived, and "gave birth on the waters of guilt." The big elephant represents the law, which could not raise up mankind from sin, nor could the twelve elephants, which represent the prophets. Christ is the small elephant who succeeded to raising the fallen. The burning skin and bones of the elephant represent the commandments of God, which allow nothing evil to enter the pure soul.

Sources (chronological order)

Book of Maccabees (2nd century BCE): Elephants being used in battle are mentioned several times. In First Maccabees 6:34: And they showed the elephants the blood of grapes, and mulberries to provoke them to fight.

Julius Caesar (Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, Book 6.27): There are also [animals] which are called elks [alces]. The shape of these, and the varied color of their skins, is much like roes, but in size they surpass them a little and are destitute of horns, and have legs without joints and ligatures; nor do they lie down for the purpose of rest, nor, if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they raise or lift themselves up. Trees serve as beds to them; they lean themselves against them, and thus reclining only slightly, they take their rest; when the huntsmen have discovered from the footsteps of these animals whither they are accustomed to betake themselves, they either undermine all the trees at the roots, or cut into them so far that the upper part of the trees may appear to be left standing. When they have leant upon them, according to their habit, they knock down by their weight the unsupported trees, and fall down themselves along with them. [The account following this one (6.28) compares the size of another beast to the elephant; this may be the source of the confusion of the elk and elephant.]

Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, book 9, verse 859-861): "Nor does the elephant in his giant bulk, Nor aught, find safety [from the serpent]; and ye need no fang / Nor poison, to compel the fatal end".

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 8, 1-13): The elephant is the closest of all animals to humans in intelligence. It understands the language of its own country, and can therefore understand and obey orders. Elephants are wise and just, remember their duties, enjoy affection, and respect religion. They know that their tusks are valuable, so when a tusk falls off they bury it. Elephants are gentle, and do no harm unless provoked. Females are more timid than males. Male elephants are used in battle, carrying castles full of armed soldiers on their backs. The slightest squeal of a pig will frighten them, and African elephants fear to look at Indian elephants. They hate mice and will refuse to eat fodder that has been touched by one. Their period of gestation is 2 years and [quoting Aristotle] they never bear more than one child at a time. They become adults at the age of 60 years, and live between 200 and 300 years. They love rivers but cannot swim. Elephants constantly feud with the large serpents of India, which can encircle an elephant in their coils. When this happens, the elephant is strangled and dies, but in falling crushes the serpent and kills it. Another way these large serpents kill elephants is by submerging themselves in a river and waiting for an elephant to come and drink; coiling around the elephant, the serpent bites its ear and drains all its blood. The elephant in dying falls on the serpent and kills it. The largest elephants are from India, though Ethiopian elephants rival them in size, being 30 feet high. (Book 8, 15): Pliny repeats the story from Julias Caesar about the elk that cannot bend its legs. (Book 11, 115): The breath of elephants attracts snakes out of their holes.

Aelian (174-235 CE) (De Natura Animalium, Book viii, ch. 17): The elephant's mating is due solely to a desire to perpetuate their family. (Book xiii, ch. 9): Aelian says that the military elephant carries three fighting men on a cuirass, or even on its bare back, one fighting on the right, another on the left, while the third faces to the rear; and at the same time a fourth holds an axe with which he guides the beast just as the master of a ship, skilled in navigation, steers a ship with the helm. (Book xvii, ch. 29): Aelian relates that the king of the Indians, when waging war, is preceded by one hundred thousand war elephants; then there follow three thousand others of the largest and most powerful kind, which have been set apart to charge and overturn the enemy's walls, when the king gives the command; for they overturn them by the tremendous pressure of their bodies. (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919)

Ambrose (340-397 CE) (Hexameron, lib. vi, ch. 5) discusses the reasons why the Creator fashioned some animals with long, some with short necks. 'It is,' he says, 'because those animals which feed by grazing, such as the horse, ox, or camel, need long necks to enable them to reach the ground, whereas lions and tigers, which are flesh-eaters, have no need of long necks, as they seize their prey. The elephant has a projecting trunk, because since it is taller than every other animal, it cannot bend down to feed. Therefore it makes use of its trunk both to gather its food and to pour copious draughts of water down its throat; for that reason its trunk is hollow, enabling it to suck up whole ponds of water necessary to quench the thirst of so huge a beast. Its neck, it is true, is smaller than so bulky a body would lead us to expect, but if it were otherwise it would be more burdensome than useful.' Ambrose then repeats the popular tale that the elephant does not bend its knees, his view being that it has need of rigid legs like pillars in order to support so great a fabric of limbs. The result is that it cannot lie down, and he describes how tame elephants 'are propped up with great beams, so that when asleep they can to some extent recline without danger of falling. But wild elephants, which lean against trees when rubbing their sides or sleeping, not infrequently fall down by the tree giving way, and there they lie and perish, or betray themselves by trumpeting, so that the hunter comes up and kills them. And the hunters take advantage of this habit to cut a slit partly through the tree, so that it gives way under the elephant's weight, and so they are captured.' He then proceeds to draw a comparison between the elephant and an excessively high building which is likely to fall, and says that if we build them so because of their beauty or height, so ought we to approve these qualities in elephants, because they serve a great purpose in war. And then follows a vivid description of a battle in which elephants are employed. He styles them walking towers and explains how everything goes down before their onset. Like the high buildings mentioned, elephants are supported on very firm foundations, and it is owing to their legs being in proportion to their size that they are able to prolong their life to 300 years or more. 'So their joints are close-set, but in the case of men, if they stood long or ran very fast, or continually walked about, how soon would their knees and the soles of their feet ache! 'He compares their tusks to natural spear-points, and says that whatever they roll up in their trunk they break and whatever they trample under-foot they crush the life out of as if it were crushed by the fall of a building. After further observations about their habits, he concludes by pointing to elephants as an object lesson to us that nothing superfluous has been created; 'and yet this beast of so great size is subject to us, and obeys the commands of man.' (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919, p. 3)

Eustathius (fl. c. 450) (Hexameron, lib. ix, ch. 5) gives many details of the elephant's anatomy, especially its trunk and legs, maintaining with Ambrose that its legs could not support its weight if they had joints. He alludes to the use of elephants in war, calling them 'towers of flesh placed in the front of the battle-line, or like living mountains opposed to the enemy.' Further, that 'God ordained the elephant, so vast in size, to be subject to man, so that it might understand whatever it is taught, and submit when it is struck, showing clearly by this that all things have been subjected to us, because we have been made in the likeness of God and may not only observe his incalculable wisdom in the biggest of animals, but also in the smallest reflect on his wonders.' And after reciting various instances of natural phenomena in evidence, he concludes: 'one is not so greatly amazed at the vast size of the elephant as at the mouse which is such an object of fear to the elephant.' (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919, p. 4)

Cassiodorus (c. 485 - c. 585 CE) (Variarum, lib. x, ep. 30): The living elephant, when it is prostrate on the ground, as it often is when helping men to fell trees, cannot get up again unaided. This is because it has no joints in its feet; and accordingly you see numbers of them lying as if dead till men come to help them up again. Thus this creature, so terrible by its size, is really not equally endowed by Nature with the tiny ant. That the elephant surpasses all other animals in intelligence is proved by the adoration which it renders to Him whom it understands to be the Almighty Ruler of all. Moreover it pays to good princes a homage which it refuses to tyrants. It uses its proboscis, that nosed hand which Nature has given it to compensate for its very short neck, for the benefit of its master, accepting the presents which will be profitable to him. It always walks cautiously, mindful of that fatal fall [into the hunter's pit] which was the beginning of its captivity. At its master's bidding it exhales its breath, which is said to be a remedy for the human headache. When it comes to water it sucks up in its trunk a vast quantity, which at the word of command it squirts forth like a shower. If anyone have treated it with contempt, it pours forth such a stream of dirty water over him that one would think a river had entered his house. For this beast has a wonderfully long memory, both of injury and of kindness. Its eyes are small, but move solemnly. There is a sort of kingly dignity in its appearance, and while it recognises with pleasure all that is honourable, it seems to despise scurrilous jests. Its skin is furrowed by deep channels, like that of the victims of the foreign disease named after it, elephantiasis. It is on account of the impenetrability of this hide that the Persian Kings used the elephant in war.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:14-16): The elephant takes its name from the Greek word for "mountain" (lophos) because its body is large like a mountain. This beast is useful to the military; Indians and Persians fight from wooden turrets placed on the backs of elephants, and shoot arrows from there. Elephants have a strong memory and intelligence, travel in herds, are afraid of mice, greet the sun with movements of their bodies, and live three hundred years. They give give birth, after a gestation period of two years, to a single child at a time. They give birth in secret and send their young to water or islands to protect them from their enemy the dragon, which kills elephants by binding them. Elephants once lived in Africa and India, but now only live in India.

Aberdeen Bestiary [c. 1200 CE]: "Whatever elephants wrap their trunks around, they break; whatever they trample underfoot is crushed to death as if by the fall of a great ruin. They never fight over female elephants, for they know nothing of adultery. They possess the quality of mercy. If by chance they see a man wandering in the desert, they offer to lead him to familiar paths. Or if they encounter herds of cattle huddled together, they make their way carefully and peacably lest their tusks kill any animal in their way. If by chance they fight in battle, they have no mean [intent to] the wounded. For they take the exhausted and the injured back into their midst."

British Library Harley MS 3244 [c. 1260 CE] (The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce (p. 5-7) translation, with such adjustments as the texts of other Latin manuscripts may suggest): 'There is an animal, which is called "elephant," which possesses no desire for sexual intercourse. The Greeks imagine that it is called "elephant" from the great size of its body, because it resembles a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called "Eliphio." But among the Indians it is called "barrus" from its trumpeting. So also its trumpeting (is called) "barritus" and its teeth "ebur." Its snout is called "promuscis," because it puts food into its mouth with it; and it is like a snake and is guarded by a rampart of ivory. No bigger animal is to be seen. [They say that these creatures were called Lucanian oxen by the ancient Romans; oxen because they knew no bigger animal, Lucanian because Pyrrhus used them first in Lucania in battle against the Romans; for this kind of animal is suitable for war.] For the Indians and Persians, stationed in wooden towers placed upon them, fight with darts, as if from a wall. They are possessed of a vigorous intelligence and memory. They move about in herds [they salute with such movements as they are capable of], are afraid of a mouse, and are disinclined to breed. They bring forth after two years (gestation), and they do not produce young more than once, and then not several but only one. They live 300 years. Now if the elephant wishes to beget children it goes to the East to paradise; and there is a tree there which is called Mandragora, and it goes with its female, who first takes of the fruit of the tree and gives it to her male. And she beguiles him until he eats, and immediately she conceives; and when the time for bringing forth has come, she goes into a pool so deep that the water comes up to the udders of the mother. But the (male) elephant guards her while giving birth because of the dragon which is the enemy of the elephant. Now if it should find a serpent it kills it, trampling it underfoot until it is dead. The elephant is a source of terror to bulls but fears the mouse. It has such a nature that if it has fallen down it cannot get up. Now it falls down when it leans against a tree to sleep, for it has no joints in its knees. Then the hunter makes a cut partly through the tree, so that the elephant when it has leant against it may fall down together with it. But as it falls, it cries out loudly, and at once a great elephant appears, but is not able to lift it up. Then both cry out, and there come twelve elephants, but they are not able to raise that which was fallen. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up. Now the little elephant has this nature that, where a fire is made of its hair and bones, no evil thing will come nor dragon. Now elephants break whatever they roll up in their trunks, and whatever they tread upon is crushed as it were by the fall of a vast building. They never fight about the females, for none of them have promiscuous intercourse. They have the good quality of gentleness. Indeed should they chance to see a man wandering in the desert, they offer themselves as an escort to the high road; or if they should fall in with a flock of sheep, they make the way clear for themselves gently and quietly with their trunks, lest they should kill with their tusk any animal that comes in the way. And when they happen to be engaged in battle with a band of enemies, they take no small care of the wounded, for they place the tired and wounded in the middle.'

St Antony of Padua [12th-13th century CE] (Sermons): Penitents are compared to elephants. And rightly are penitents set forth by elephants, in whom exists the virtue of clemency; for, if they see a man wandering through the deserts, they afford him their guidance till he reaches a road that he knows; or, if they meet with herds of cattle, they make a way for themselves with their kind trunk. The oldest leads the troop ; he that is next in age urges forward those that follow. When they are about to cross a river, they put the smallest elephants in front, lest the larger ones should wear away the path through its bed, and should make the river deeper by pressing down the shallows. The virtue of clemency in just men, is like this. They bring back an erring brother into the way; among cattle, that is, among simple folk, they make, as it were, by the kind and pleasant trunk of their deeds, a way, by which they may pass through unhurt; by example and word, they are the leaders of others; and, when about to pass through the river of this life to their country, they send the smaller ones before them; because they are pitiful and compassionate to beginners, who have not yet attained to the full strength of holiness. (MediŠval preachers and mediŠval preaching: A series of extracts, translated from the sermons of the middle ages, chronologically arranged; with notes and an introduction (London, 1856) Neale translation)

Albertus Magnus [1193-1280 CE] (De Animalibus, lib. xxii, tract. 2): Albertus gives an interesting description and explanation of the jointless legs. He says that elephants' legs are large and almost the same size from top to bottom. like pillars; and although their foot is really divided, yet nature has joined their toes together in order that the foot may be made stronger thereby; and from this cause too they are said not to have joints in their legs below the knees. But they really have joints, though they are not supple but stiff, and therefore they are thought not to have them by the ignorant; for if they had not got joints in their legs, they could not walk in the ordinary way. (from The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919)

Westminster bestiary [c. 1285 CE]: In addition to the standard legend has at the end: 'Alexander frightened these beasts away from his camp by the grunting of swine. The dragon drinks the blood of the elephant for the purpose of cooling his burning intestines.' (The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, p. 8)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 18): Between elephants and dragons is everlasting fighting, for the dragon with his tail bindeth and spanneth the elephant, and the elephant with his foot and with his nose throweth down the dragon, and the dragon bindeth and spanneth the elephant's legs, and maketh him fall, but the dragon buyeth it full sore: for while he slayeth the elephant, the elephant falleth upon him and slayeth him. Also the elephant seeing the dragon upon a tree, busieth him to break the tree to smite the dragon, and the dragon leapeth upon the elephant, and busieth him to bite him between the nostrils, and assaileth the elephant's eyen, and maketh him blind sometime, and leapeth upon him sometime behind, and biteth him and sucketh his blood. And at the last after long fighting the elephant waxeth feeble for great blindness, in so much that he falleth upon the dragon, and slayeth in his dying the dragon that him slayeth. The cause why the dragon desireth his blood, is coldness of the elephant's blood, by the which the dragon desireth to cool himself. ... Among beasts the elephant is most of virtue, so that unneth among men is so great readiness found. For in the new moon they come together in great companies, and bathe and wash them in a river, and lowte each to other, and turn so again to their own places, and they make the young go tofore in the turning again; and keep them busily and teach them to do in the same wise: and when they be sick, they gather good herbs, and ere they use the herbs they heave up the head, and look up toward heaven, and pray for help of God in a certain religion. And they be good of wit, and learn well: and are easy to teach, insomuch that they be taught to know the king and to worship him, and busy to do him reverence and to bend the knees in worship of him. If elephants see a man coming against them that is out of the way in the wilderness, for they would not affray him, they will draw themselves somewhat out of the way, and then they stint, and pass little and little tofore him, and teach him the way. And if a dragon come against him, they fight with the dragon and defend the man, and put them forth to defend the man strongly and mightily: and do so namely when they have young foals, for they dread that the man seeketh their foals. And therefore they purpose first to deliver them of the man, that they may more securely feed their children and keep them the more warily.... Elephants be best in chivalry when they be tame: for they bear towers of tree, and throw down sheltrons, and overturn men of arms, and that is wonderful; for they dread not men of arms ranged in battle, and dread and flee the voice of the least sound of a swine. When they be taken, they be made tame and mild with barley: and a cave or a ditch is made under the earth, as it were a pitfall in the elephant's way, and unawares he falleth therein. And then one of the hunters cometh to him and beateth and smiteth him, and pricketh him full sore. And then another hunter cometh and smiteth the first hunter, and doth him away, and defendeth the elephant, and giveth him barley to eat, and when he hath eaten thrice or four times, then he loveth him that defended him, and is afterward mild and obedient to him. I have read in Physiologus' book that the elephant is a beast that passeth all other four-footed beasts in quantity, in wit, and in mind. For among other doings elephants lie never down in sleeping; but when they be weary they lean to a tree and so rest somewhat. And men lie in wait to espy their resting places privily, for to cut the tree in the other side: and the elephant cometh and is not aware of the fraud, and leaneth to the tree and breaketh it with the weight of his body, and falleth down with the breaking, and lieth there. And when he seeth he may not help himself in falling he crieth and roareth in a wonder manner: and by his noise and crying come suddenly many young elephants, and rear up the old little and little with all their strength and might: and while they arear him with wonder affection and love, they bend themselves with all their might and strength. ... Also there is another thing said that is full wonderful: among the Ethiopians in some countries elephants be hunted in this wise: there go in the desert two maidens all naked and bare, with open hair of the head: and one of them beareth a vessel, and the other a sword. And these maidens begin to sing alone: and the beast hath liking when he heareth their song, and cometh to them, and licketh their teats, and falleth asleep anon for liking of the song, and then the one maid sticketh him in the throat or in the side with a sword, and the other taketh his blood in a vessel, and with that blood the people of the same country dye cloth, and done colour it therewith. [Compare the account of the unicorn.] (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Sir John Mandeville [14th century CE] (Travels, chapter 21): And [the king of the isle called Calonak] hath also into a 14,000 elephants or more that he maketh for to be brought up amongst his villains by all his towns. For in case that he had any war against any other king about him, then [he] maketh certain men of arms for to go up into the castles of tree made for the war, that craftily be set upon the elephants' backs, for to fight against their enemies. And so do other kings there-about. For the manner of war is not there as it is here or in other countries, ne the ordinance of war neither. And men clepe the elephants WARKES. (The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1900) Macmillan edition of 1900)


The early drawings of the elephant are highly inaccurate; other than that the beast had a long nose and tusks, the illustrators knew little of it. Most pictures show the elephant with two tusks pointing either up or down; some show four tusks, two up and two down. Later illustrations are more accurate, after elephants had been brought to western Europe as gifts for royalty. An accurately carved elephant is found on a misericord in Exeter Cathedral, England, probably from the third quarter of the 13th century.

The most commonly illustrated themes are the dragon attacking the elephant, generally with the elephant wrapped in the dragons coils; the female elephant giving birth in water, with the male standing guard and the dragon nearby; and the elephant with a "castle" on its back, full of armored soldiers. All elements of the elephant birth sequence are shown in British Library, Sloane MS 278 (f. 48v), where there are three adult elephants, a baby, a human-shaped mandrake in the foreground, and a threatening dragon to one side. The Queen Mary Psalter (British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 100v), shows an elephant fighting with a unicorn.


"The heraldic treatise of Sir William Comings, Marchemont Herald of Scotland and Lyon King of Arms, dated 1494 [British Library Harley MS 6149] ... gives the symbolic interpretation, which is applied to the knight who first bore the device: 'The eliphant yat is callit barro be yaim of ynd for his cry is callit barritus of wham ye teith ar ywoir & for gueulle has growing ande amang al ye othir bestes he is ye maistir of body and of vertu. Ande yairfor yai of medee and of perse puttis upon yaim toures de bost in ye whilkis thai fecht ande ar of gud understanding ande of gude memour and ganges togidder in gret cumpany when yai gang in forestes ande in wateres. And ganges faner in secret places and lewis yair fans in ye place whar thai fane at yai be nader tane nader dragonys and bores thair fans two yeres or yai fane thaim. And liffes iiic yheres as sais ysodre. And signifies he yat first bur thame in armes has voce & name terrible & wes of strang figour in his face gret of body & of vertu berand gret birdinges and man of gret mynd and understanding. And in his dedes in wattir and in land starklie cumpaingnit with follres of his estate. And his generacioun wes born ii yheres & vas of lang lif and his generacioun wes langlestande ande worthy of memour and yis may suffice of bestis to say. And gif it war demandit of yaim yat ar nocht heir men may get ye significacioun in ye buk yat spekes of propirteis ye whilk may be gottin in mony places.' " - The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art (London, 1919) Druce, 1919, p. 68-69

Description Gallery Bibliography Manuscripts Jump to Home page Help Jump to Contents page Jump to Beast Index page Search Previous beast Next beast