African Myths & Legends about Elephants
Since we’ve been sharing our experiences in the Addo Elephant Park, we thought we’d share some myths and legends about the African Elephant. Our people regard the elephant with a very deep reverence. The Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for the elephant all mean ‘the forceful one’, ‘the unstoppable one’. In Zulu the name for an elephant is indlovu, from the verb dlovu, which means to ‘crash through’, ‘to pierce savagely’. The fact that the English and the Zulus eventually went to war was directly as a result of the Elephant. The white people led by Dr Hernry Francis Fynn wanted something from Shaka, something he was not prepared to give – Ivory. The Elephant is, in effect, a holy animal to the Zulus much as the cow is to Hindus. King Shaka during his reign from 1816 to 1928 would be greeted with “Wena Wizulu and Wena indlovu” – Shaka was called the “Great Elephant”.
There’s a lot of mythical folklore surrounding these magnificent giants of the bush. A few of these legends are worthy of being recounted, however the origin of these myths have become quite unclear over the years, and no specific tribe of people can be directly credited with them. The most likely source though, would appear to be the Shona, a tribe ancestrally inhabiting the northern regions of Southern Africa. Indigenous people speak about the pair of ’wisdom sticks’ that the elephant carries on either side of his temples. They believe that these sticks enable the elephant to know the time and place of its own death. That is why they believe that very old tuskers are often seen without their herd, preferring to find a hiding place to die, thus maintaining their dignity, as they wish to die alone and in peace. There are also many superstitions as regards to the hunting of elephants by local people. A hunter that sets out nursing a secret grief or grudge, will only wound his prey and will not get a kill. Also, tusk-less elephants will charge and kill those who are guilty of adultery, unless they immediately confess their guilt to the elephant. Thus no hunter will allow others to accompany him, unless he is sure that his companions are not harboring grief or a grudge, or are guilty of adultery. If the hunter meets an elephant with his trunk curled around his head, he will know that some tragedy has struck his home. Should he see an elephant flinging earth over his back he will know that his wife is bathing or swimming, not something that she is supposed to be doing while he is out hunting. Lastly, elephants are believed to swallow a pebble every year, so as to keep a count of their age.
Another myth of the Kamba in Kenya tells how elephants originated. A very poor man heard of lvonya-Ngia, ‘He that feeds the Poor’. He decided to go and find Ivonya-Ngia but it was a long journey. When he finally arrived, he saw uncounted cattle and sheep, and there, amidst green pastures, was the mansion of Ivonya-Ngia, who received the poor man kindly, perceived his need and ordered his men to give him a hundred sheep and a hundred cows. ‘No’, said the poor man, ‘I want no charity, I want the secret of how to become rich.’ Ivonya-Ngia reflected for a while, then took a flask of ointment and gave it to the poor man, saying: ‘Rub this on your wife’s pointed teeth in her upper jaw, wait until they have grown, then sell them.’ The poor man carried out the strange instructions, promising his wife that they would become very rich. After some weeks, the canine teeth began to grow and when they had grown into tusks as long as his arm the man persuaded his wife to let him pull them out. He took them to the market and sold them for a flock of goats. After a few weeks the wife’s canine teeth had grown again, becoming even longer than the previous pair, but she would not let her husband touch them. Not only her teeth, but her whole body became bigger and heavier, her skin thick and grey. At last she burst out of the door and walked into the forest, where she lived from then on. She gave birth to her son there, who was also an elephant. From time to time her husband visited her in the forest, but she would not be persuaded to come back, although she did have more healthy children, all elephants. It was the origin of elephants and it explains why elephants are as intelligent as people.
In Southern Africa there is a tale of the girl who grew up so tall and fat that no man wanted her as a wife because she was accused of witchcraft. She was exiled from her village and wandered into the wilderness on her own. There she met an elephant who began speaking to her politely in good Zulu. She agreed to stay with him and he helped her to find wild cucumbers and other fruits of the forest. She gave birth to four human sons, all very tall and strong, who became the ancestors of the Indhlovu clan of paramount chiefs.
In the African fables, the elephant is usually described as too kind and noble, so that he feels pity even for a wicked character and is badly deceived. The Wachaga in Tanzania relate that the elephant was once a human being but was cheated out of all his limbs except his right arm, which now serves as his trunk. He paid for nobility! The Ashanti of Ghana relate that an elephant is a human chief from the past. When they find a dead elephant in the forest, they give him a proper chief’s burial.
I remember the story of how the Elephant got his trunk, a favorite South African children’s bed-time animal story. The Elephant used to only have a small snout in the Beginning. This didn’t bother him much, in fact he was rather proud of his small nose because it never got in the way of feeding and drinking. Because of his great size, mealtimes were very important to Elephant, and he had to eat and drink a great deal in order to keep his great strength up. However, he did find it uncomfortable, because he had to go down on bended knees to reach anything. One day, Elephant was at the river, and was kneeling down drinking from the fresh water. Crocodile swam past, and saw Elephant at the water’s edge. Crocodile was very hungry, and saw an opportunity for a nice big meal. Crocodile swam stealthily up to where Elephant was, and suddenly lunged out of the water and grabbed Elephant by the nose. Elephant was surprised, and tried to pull away, but Crocodile had a firm grip on his nose. Crocodile used all his weight and strength to try to pull Elephant into the water. However, Elephant was also very strong, and he dug his feet into the bank and fought back. They battled for hours, and with every pull and tug, Elephant’s nose stretched a little more. Eventually, Crocodile became too tired to pull any more, and let go of Elephant. Elephant ran off, with his now very long nose hanging down in front of his feet. He was distraught, and hid in the bush as he was too embarrassed to face the other animals. Soon, Elephant realised that his new stretched nose was more useful than his previously small snout. He was able to reach food and drink without kneeling any more, and could even reach high branches and pull them down to eat the fruit and leaves. All the other Elephants soon realised the benefits of having a long trunk, and one by one they too visited the river and taunted the Crocodile to try and pull them into the water. The Elephants always won the tug-of-wars, and all ended up with lovely stretched snouts, but Crocodile remained hungry. To this day, Elephants have their long trunks rather than a small snout, and Crocodiles have learnt that it is a waste of time and energy attacking Elephants when drinking at the water’s edge.