Towards the end of his admirably cantankerous life Gore Vidal ordained the essay as the only literary genre that would survive the twenty-first century with a decently-sized readership. (This kind of apocalypticism seems to be in vogue amongst American literary élite. Harold Bloom and Philip Roth have been predicting the end of the novel for at least the last two decades). Recently I have been asking my friends what they made of Vidal’s comment and one told me that he regarded George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” as the pre-eminent example of the genre. After scuttling off to read it, I began to wonder when the figure of the elephant made its first appearance in Western literature and how it had been treated by the ancients.
The trail, it seems leads back to the fountainhead. Homer’s Iliad has the earliest recorded use of the word from which our word “elephant” derives: ἐλέφας. In its fourth book Pandarus shoots an arrow at Menelaus, wounding him and thus sabotaging any remaining chance for the peaceful return of Helen of Troy. In one of Homer’s most memorable similes, the blood streaming from Menelaus’s thigh is likened to the ivory cheek-ornament of a horse’s bridle:
“And straight away the darkening blood flowed from the wound –
As when a woman in Caria or Maeonia takes ivory (elephas)
And stains it purple to be a cheek-piece for horses;
And it lies stored up in a chamber; though many knights
Long to bear it on their horses, it remains a treasure (agalma) of the king,
An adornment (kosmos) for his horse, a glory (kudos) for its driver –
So your thighs, Menelaus. were stained with blood
And your noble (euphuees) legs beneath, with the fair (kala) legs below.
There is no Hannibal-esque deployment of elephants in the Iliad or the Odyssey but the aforementioned ivory is referred to ten times in the two works. It is strange to think that the first intimation of an elephant in our surviving literary corpus is when the skin of literature’s most famous cuckold is likened to ivory. So striking is this image of the blood-stained skin of the king of Mycenae that George Chapman (Homer’s first English translator) dispenses entirely with periphrasis of a simile and renders the line as an arresting metaphor:
“Yet forth the blood flow’d, which did much his royal person grace,
And show’d upon his ivory skin, as doth a purple dye…”
(Iliad 4.159-160, Chapman’s text)
In Chapman’s translation Menelaus has effectively metamorphosed into an elephant. Would it be too glib to say that Chapman transforms Menelaus into literature’s first elephant for his largely Greekless Elizabethan audience?
At any rate when do the actual elephants start to crop up? The best I can come up with is that at some point between when Homer wrote the Odyssey (c. 700 BCE) and Herodotus wrote his Histories (c.440 BCE) the meaning of the word ἐλέφας changed from “ivory/tusks” to “elephant”. Whenever Hesiod or Pindar used the word they did so in the Homeric way. (On such occasions they are more or less quoting their great predecessor). The decisive shift comes with Herodotus, the Father of History (or the Father of Lies if you’re in a Plutarchian mood), who in the third part (known by us as the Thalia) of his foundational history of the Persian War launches into a description of Ethiopia:
“The furthest inhabited country towards the south-west is Ethiopia; here gold is found in great abundance, and huge elephants (ἐλέφαντας ἀμφιλαφέας), and ebony and all sorts of tress growing wild; the men, too, are the tallest in the world, the best-looking, and the longest-lived.” (Histories III.114)
So elephants enter Greek literature as the inhabitants of an Edenic world to the south, populated by ageless towering Adonises! However the world of Book III is far from being pre-lapsarian as it details the violent attack of Cambyses II of Persia on Egypt and the eventual defeat of the Egypt’s king, Psammetichus III. Earlier in the book Herodotus describes how those Ethiopians who were unfortunate enough to be near the Egyptian border were forced to pay taxes to the Persians, among which were “ἐλέφαντος ὀδόντας μεγάλους εἴκοσι” (“twenty great elephant tusks”, III.97). These two mentions of elephants (there are others) are intriguingly contrastive: one depicts the elephant as a symbol of paradisal bliss and bounty; the other represents the elephant as means of fulfilling one’s obligations to a despotic invader. The elephant is no longer “the glory of its driver” (as in Homer) but has been reduced to a mere unit of commercial exchange. Gone is its glory. Sic transit gloria! Such is the difference between epic poetry and history. Indeed I believe that many of the differences between Homer and Herodotus could be spun out of how each treats the word ἐλέφας.
Elephants are fleetingly referenced by both Plato and Aristotle and later by Caesar, Lucan and, of course, Pliny the Elder who had something interesting (if not accurate) to say about everything. But perhaps such musings are for another day and another blog.
Chapman, George, trans. Chapman’s Homer: The Iliad. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967.
De Selincourt, Aubrey, trans. Herodotus: The Histories. Ed. John M. Marincola. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Orwell, George. Essays. London: Penguin Classics, 1994.