Elephant – Earth’s Gentle Giant by Judith Shaw

Elephants amble along through forest and savannah in unity with each other, generally causing no harm. They have long symbolized intelligence, power, wisdom and loyalty. 

Elephant – Earth’s Gentle Giant by Judith Shaw

The largest land animals on Earth, elephants are members of the order Proboscidea, originally consisting of 160 species. Fossil records indicate that these beings existed 55 million years ago. About 6 million years ago elephants and woolly mammoths evolved from a common ancestor into a unique family, Elephantidae is the sole surviving family of the order with only three species currently extant – African bush, African forest and Asian elephants. Our ancient ancestors depicted elephants in cave art.

By Valroe at English Wikipedia 

Strength, Power, Protection, Majesty

In African and Indian culture Elephant is revered as a powerful, majestic being. African elephants weigh up to 7 tons; the smaller Asian elephant weighs up to 5. 

By Dariusz Jemielniak – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Besides elephant’s huge size, its most distinguishable feature is its trunk which can exert great force or perform delicate tasks. Elephant’s trunk is its nose and upper lip, providing an excellent sense of smell – even the ability to smell water up to 12 miles away. 

Their fearsome looking tusks are upper incisor teeth emerging from their skulls. They have multi-uses – as a digging tool, as a weapon and for males to attract females.

Elephants can be dangerous at times. During the life stage of musth, male elephants experience a huge increase in testosterone levels enabling them to compete in mating. They become extremely aggressive to anything or anyone who crosses their path. 

By Jeyathees – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Elephants take care of their own, endangering themselves if necessary to protect their calves and herd.

4,000 years ago elephants were used as beasts of burden in the Indus Valley.

Hindu creation myth depicts four elephants supporting Earth while standing on the back of a turtle all surrounded by the Ouroboros

Views of India from an atlas by the geographer Thunot Duvotenay (1796-1875) 
Indra and Airavata

According to Hindu legend, Indra – Protector Thunder God – desired a mount. Creator God Brahma agreed to help and sang seven sacred hymns over the broken egg shell from which Garuda, the immortal bird-god of power and wisdom, was hatched – thus creating Airavata, Indra’s sacred white elephant.

By the middle of the first millennium BC, elephants – particularly albino ones – had become the mounts of kings and symbols of royal power. They were used in warfare and for sacred ceremonies and processions.

Chinese emperors placed elephant statues in front of their palaces for protection.

In Feng Shui philosophy, elephant statues with raised trunks and standing on their rear legs offer power and protection.

Mammoths, now extinct, were the only Elephantidae to exist in North America. They were revered by the Indigenous people as symbolic of strength, wisdom and good luck. 

Intelligence, Wisdom, Memory, Peace, Patience

With a brain size of 11 pounds and a total of 300 billion neurons – at par with the interconnectivity of a human brain – elephant is one of Earth’s most intelligent animals. 

Scientists attribute elephant’s longevity – a life span of around 70 years –  in part to its excellent memory. A Tanzanian study conducted during a long drought illustrates this. Two herds led by older matriarchs led their herd out of the afflicted area to water and survival. The scientists surmised that the elder females, who had survived a drought from 30 years previous, remembered that water source.

Elephants are skilled tool users and appear to have a sense of self. In a recent study, an elephant, while looking in a mirror, repeatedly touched an “X” scientists had painted on her face, indicating an awareness that the reflection was in fact herself.

Though huge and powerful elephant is slow to anger – choosing peace and harmony over destruction and domination. 

The Buddha, known to embody perfect wisdom, is often referred to as an elephant. It is told that Queen Maya, the Buddha’s mother, dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb at the moment of conception. He was born as the prince Siddhartha until he reached enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. 

Bharhut, c. 100 BC. Indian Museum, Calcutta By G41rn8 – Own work

Numerous African legends link Elephant with wisdom. In some, Elephant as the King of Animals, resolved disputes among other animals.

Loyalty, Family, Unity, and Friendships

Elephants live in tight-knit groups called herds. Females stay with their birth herd until death. A herd, led by a matriarch, has a large home range, often roaming 30 – 50 miles per day searching for food and water.

By Lioneljay – Own work

Male elephants usually leave the herd upon reaching sexual maturity by age 11 – 14. They either roam alone or join loosely formed bachelor herds. Males begin to mate at around age 30 and might briefly join a matriarchal herd for that purpose. 

Elephants are very communicative, using soft chirping sounds, loud trumpets and low-frequency rumbles undetectable to the human ear, as well as non-verbally with nudges, kicks and body movements.

By Dariusz Jemielniak – Own work

Elephants experience complex emotions, solve problems cooperatively, and are very empathetic – offering support and comfort when another is upset.

Scientific observations on their cooperativeness note how well they deliberate, make group decisions and hold community celebrations with loud trumpeting, lifting of heads, bumping tusks and intertwining their trunks. 

Scientists have observed elephants’ loyalty and empathy on many occasions. Joyce Poole, co-founder of Elephant Voices, once saw three young males struggling together over a dying matriarch, using their tusks to lift her up. Another group, on passing an elephant skeleton, approached cautiously and then caressed the bones with their trunk and feet. 

When an elephant exhibits signs of anxiety, others in the herd will rush to its side with soft chirping noises – stroking and caressing the one upset. They often put their trunk in another’s mouth – ultimate sign of love and trust.

After a two year gestation period, elephants become devoted mothers. When their calves are teething they change their diets to include anti-inflammatory plants.

Stone Ganesh at Gokarnashwar Mahadev Temple, By Suraj Belbase – Own work

The Hindu God, Ganesh – elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles – is revered by almost all castes and seen as the embodiment of compassion, loyalty and wisdom. Ganesh can also place obstacles in one’s path, stimulating self-growth and wisdom.

Perhaps these many similarities with human behavior led various African tribes to view Elephant as a close companion to their ancestors. 

The Ashanti of Ghana believe elephants to be reincarnations of deceased chiefs.

The Yao of Tanzania believed that the first human emerged into the world carrying an elephant on his shoulders. This elephant taught him all animals’ natures, hunting skills and gifted wild honey. After finding his wife in the land of elephants, they became the Yao’s primordial ancestors.

Good Luck, Fertility

By Jakub Hałun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

In addition to protection, elephant statues – known as “elephants of many blessings” – were placed in front of palaces, temples and front doors for good luck. 

Elephant’s association with fertility comes in part from Airavata’s connection to Indra and life-supporting rain. While riding atop Airavata, Indra threw his thunderbolts at the dark, rain clouds, – often portrayed as a herd of elephants. Airavata was called a “rain cloud” who walks on Earth and is often depicted flying in the sky like a white cloud.

To ensure good fortune, some parts of Asia still practice religious ceremonies honoring Elephant with offerings and ceremonial dressing. 

The popularity of elephant-headed Ganesh as Remover of Obstacle, resulting in good fortune, spread beyond India to Southwest Asia, China and Japan. 

Japanese Buddhists honor the deity, Kangiten, who is sometimes depicted as an embracing man and woman, both with elephant heads. Also depicted as an elephant-head man, Kangiten – whose blessings bring fertility – symbolizes marital affection.

Divinatory

Elephant highlights your own strength and power and calls you to use those qualities for bettering yourself and your community. Elephant reminds you that patience is required on the road to peaceful co-existence. Elephant’s appearance might be a call to step more fully into the role of protector or to seek out protection if you are feeling vulnerable.

Elephant stimulates your intellect and consciousness of your true self. Elephant gifts you with the power of memory – the ability to apply recollections of past experiences to present day problems. These qualities combine, giving you the wisdom to make right choices. 

Elephant – loyal and committed to family – awakens in you the understanding of our deep bonds with others and the interconnectedness of life. Elephant helps – remove obstacles after they have provided a tool for self-growth – call forth good fortune – maintain a fertile inner and outer world – reconnect you to the wisdom of our ancestors. 

Sources: Animals Network, Conservation International, Scientific American, Britannica, National Geographic, Fauna & Flora International, Discover Wildlife, Encyclopedia.com, Owlcation, Shikhazuri, Mythology.net, Academia, Basic Chinese Horoscope, UniGuide

Post Script: WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) reports “African elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 12 million a century ago to some 400,000. In recent years, at least 20,000 elephants have been killed in Africa each year for their tusks. …. Today, the greatest threat to African elephants is wildlife crime, primarily poaching for the illegal ivory trade, while the greatest threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss, which results in human-elephant conflict.” Visit WWF to see how you can help.

Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck from Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Wisdom. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.



Categories: animals, Earth-based spirituality, Folklore, General, Myth

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Such a beautiful painting Judith!… elephant with lotus – it fits. I did not know that elephants ever existed on this continent -I do know that these gentle matriarchal creatures care deeply for one another… they not only have large brains but have huge bodies – and my sense is that in our Androcentric culture we dismiss the intelligence of the body of these creatures…. only the brain matters even though recent research indicates in humans and animals that (intelligent) intuition/sensing feeling have a powerful presence in any animal’s body… one gift all animals possess is the ability to use their brains and bodies to make their way in this world…We could learn a lot if we could begin to trust our bodily senses to lead us too.

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    • That’s a great point Sara. I know that the HeartMath Institute does extensive research into the heart as an even more powerful center of intelligence than the brain. Elephants must have huge hearts to support their massive bodies. What a different world it would be if we truly honored our bodies, all others’ bodies and the very body of Earth on which we reside.

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  2. Very interesting! You’ve done a lot of research and taught us a lot. I still remember a visit to the St. Louis Zoo when I was maybe 7 years old. I got to ride on an elephant! It was thrilling. But now, as I look back on that adventure, I wonder what the zoo was doing with its animals. Is selling rides being kind to captive animals? I also once had a friend who was dedicated to Ganesh. She often sent me cards with drawings of him on them. And I’ve recently read online somewhere that, because of poaching, some elephants have evolved to not having tusks. I hope that keeps those sacred animals safe! Bright blessings to you and to them. Thanks for the excellent work you’re doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barbara,
      I’ve read in my research what you said – that some African elephants are evolving without tusks due to the illegal trade in ivory. Both male and female African elephants have tusks whereas only the males have tusks in the Asian elephants.

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      • As we know, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was shut down by PETA a few years ago because of the cruel and thoughtless way the animals, especially the elephants, were treated. I’ve just heard on the news that the circus is opening up again. Without elephants. Without caged animals. Hooray!!!

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        • It is really sad how cruelly elephants have been treated all around the world. But that is great news that the circus is opening again without elephants and other caged animals. Perhaps there is hope for the human species yet to live with compassionate hearts.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for all this research and your beautiful painting. What amazing beings elephants are, and so far beyond us as a species in expressing care and compassion in some ways. You’ve excited my interest in learning more about them!

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  4. I love your animal work and your images that go along with them. I was in Africa a number of years ago and we were in a boat on a river and an amazing “passion play” played out on shore. A pride of lions had isolated a young elephant by the shore. The other elephants had already moved out of sight. Somehow the elephant signaled to his/her companions and then suddenly over a crest the large bull elephants came running to the little ones rescue. I love lions too but it was amazing to see the elephants intimate the lions and create a corridor for their loved one to escape. It was a loving action and beautiful to behold. I do hope the lions found another meal for themselves.

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    • Janet,
      What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s tough world in which life eats life to survive. Lions need their meals too but glad the little elephant calf survived. I’ve been wondering if the bull elephants participated in protection since they live separately from the matriarchal herd but couldn’t find anything about that in my research. Sounds like your experience answered that question of mine.

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      • Hi Judith, I wanted to check with my husband before I answered you. If you are going to use my story as a source, I wanted to be sure I was accurate. He remembers it as I do, as a large herd with many young males in it. And yes, he also remembers the dominant bull roaring back along with others to successfully save the young one. I do have photos of the drama (to triple check) but they are on an external hard drive so finding them could take me some time.

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