Pondering the Pachyderm: The Elephant and Its Ivory in African Culture

School Arts, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Pondering the Pachyderm: The Elephant and Its Ivory in African Culture


The Elephant and Its Ivory in African Culture

The only thing more vast than the elephant is the earth.

--A Yoruba proverb

The African elephant--the largest land animal on the planet--stands out as one of the most potent symbols of the animal kingdom. It is distinguished by its size, flexible trunk, ivory tusks, and enormous fanlike ears. African peoples have coexisted with the animal for a very long time and have seen it in its fullest dimensions. They have observed, admired, and sometimes feared its nature. They have paid homage to its size and strength, learned from watching it relate to other animals, and competed with it for food and land. They have also hunted it for its abundant meat, strong hide, hair, bone, and precious tusks.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the elephant has nourished the African imagination. Its image is creatively transformed in African art and literature. The rich and enduring presence of the elephant in African art reflects as much about human society as about the animal itself.

The Image of the Elephant

When elephant steps on trap, no more trap.--An Akan proverb

The image of the elephant appears on some of the most important ritual objects used in ancestor veneration, masquerades, and rites of passage. Yet it also adorns humble domestic objects (combs, food bowls, heddle pulleys) and commercial products (beer, detergent, and postage stamps). Sometimes the elephant is depicted in isolation, other times it is part of a complex scene.

African interpretations of the elephant vary considerably. The Akan proverb cited above, for example, praises the invincibility of the beast, but suggests also the prominence of the chief--a frequent allusion in the expressive cultures of West Africa. Other African peoples focus on its longevity and stamina, its mental capacities--intelligence, memory, clairvoyance--or its social qualities--group cooperation and loyalty. The object bearing a representation of the elephant is often thought to be symbolically infused with the animal's attributes.

Although it has been over two hundred years since the Akan peoples, (of coastal and forest areas of southwest Ghana) have coexisted with the elephant, the symbolic image of the pachyderm continues to inform their visual and verbal arts. Representations of elephants on musical instruments, chiefly regalia, and goldweights celebrate the might of the beast and simultaneously praise the implied powers of chieftaincy. Often such images call forth sayings that likewise commemorate the chief and praise his preeminence.

The elephant may also serve as a literal and metaphorical foundation, as in the drum (centerspread) made by renowned carver, Osei Bonsu, in the 1930s, for an ntan musical group. As the principal drum of an Akan band, the drum is seen as female and known as the "mother of the group." It is richly embellished with proverbial images of animals--crossed crocodiles, hornbill and snake, and a horse and rider. The elephant itself carries the drum on its back and represents the ntan group which supports the music of the town

For the Bamana peoples of Mali, images of the elephant and other bush animals, appear in the masks and puppets of youth association masquerades that celebrate the prowess of the hunter and are danced at the beginning of the hunting season. Distinctive attributes (large ears, trunk, and tusks) of these brightly painted wooden masks identify the character as an elephant, and the masquerader's slow and ponderous movements reinforce the animal's identity for the audience.

Elephant as Material

The physical body of the elephant can also communicate some of the same messages as visual representations of the animal. The ivory, hide, hair, bone, and callus of the animal provide raw material for many objects, from the ceremonial to the utilitarian. These materials are likely to be used in a leadership context, for they often connote status and power. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Pondering the Pachyderm: The Elephant and Its Ivory in African Culture
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.