Athene & the Elephant

(This just sort of came to me a couple days or so ago, and so I wrote it down. As best as i can tell, I can’t connect it to ancient ideas and [dare I say?] beliefs, so take this as you will. Though, by sheer coincidence, just before posting this, I took a chance on a search for ‘elephant athena”, and found this –interesting, eh?)

Hermes watched carefully as Alexandros of Makedon followed his own gilded thread of fate into India, and just then, Athene peered over His shoulder.

“Ah, my sister, I was just watching, wondering if he was going to make it. It is better than a play, to me.”

“The Dread Sisters are never wrong, though. I hear that even if They ever are, They have ways of fixing it so that only the Protogonoi would know, and few Olympians would ever suspect.”

“It’s still fun to watch, when I haven’t anything better to do. It’s like the mortals with their mythology, telling Our stories, even the same way, and knowing how it’s going to end, well, watching it on stage is different from knowing the outline of the plot.”

“Fair enough, dear half-brother.” She took down Her helmet and adjusted a pin holding her hair together. “So, when Our people make contact with the Hindu people, they’re going to make some associations.”

“When will they learn that other gods are individuals?”

“They feel it’s complimentary, Hermes. ‘The Gods of Hellas are the Gods of civilisation,’ ergo, even civilised people outside of Hellas worship the same Gods, just with local names. Or so goes the logic, at least.”

“This political turn is starting to bore me. Which animals only previously know to the Hindu people do you want?”

Without hesitation, Athene pointed to the elephant.

“Oh, that’s not what I expected. I mean, the owl is stealthy and patient, and it hunts. That pachyderm is big and tramples the foliage, and all it eats is foliage. It was also relatively easy for them to tame.”

“This is all true, but it’s certainly the wisest creature on this continent, after mankind.”

“And you say so, because?”

“It’s tamed because it wanted to be. It’s big, but only violent when provoked beyond reason, because it knows that’s the only time it needs violence. In the wild, when it is allowed to behave naturally, it is the only beast that truly knows to honour the gift of life the gods have given all tribes of man and beasts –just look.”

Athene pointed Hermes to a small tribe of elephants in the jungle, carefully having laid a burial mound over their matriarch, now stood vigil. Infants of the pack wailed -like Greek women at a funeral. Each animal waited its turn to take a little water before returning to the three day vigil among the elephant burial grounds. She then pointed out another pack of elephants outside a small village in Africa, in a region of the continent yet unexplored by Hellenes; the village had just been visited by a fearsome storm, and a man and his dog who had been unshielded by a house, lay dead, and the elephants covered him with a burial, out of respect.

“It’s a simple form of religion,” the grey-eyed and unowned one pointed out, “but for a creature so far from man’s genetic material, they have been granted the wisdom to know the gods, and so not only do I favour them, but I believe our father will, as well.”

“But what gods do they honour?”

Athene thought for a moment, and then suggested, “they clearly honour the gods of the earth, and of intelligence. They cannot speak the names of these gods, so they could never ask the gods their names. They know only some basic vocabulary of any language of man, so formulating a question on paper or in the mind is outside their abilities. They therefore honour whatever gods will accept them. The Hindu people treat them with honour, so those amongst the Hindu honour Hindu gods. Those there, amongst the Maasai, if the elephant is tame, it worships the Maasai people’s gods. Why should they be any different from human beings? There are several species of elephant, with dozens of tribes, each.”

“You were able to see all that?”

“Of course. My vision is finely attuned to scouting out the wisest creatures, and the wisdom of these creatures is like the brilliance of the sun when compared to the twinkle of a star.”

“Stars are really whole galaxies, just as the humans see them from Gaia, you know?” Hermes pointed out.

Athene slapped the back of His head in that sisterly way, and said, “I know that. It’s the metaphor that’s important —and you know that, too,”

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7 thoughts on “Athene & the Elephant

  1. What a lovely fable – I am a big fan of both Athena and Elephants (well, especially elephants), as you could see from my drawing. (Ha.) I did a series for a while of fine art, with elephants – and this wasn’t exactly one of them, but grew out of that, and I also have a children’s book involving elephant paintings – 1 Missisissippi. At any rate, thanks much. k.

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  2. A truly lovely fable!

    Though, technically, the Greeks associated elephants with Pan and Helios. Specifically dedications were made to Pan of the Mountains by groups who hunted the creatures in central Africa when the Ptolemies were forced to seek a new source of elephants after the Seleukids closed off the trade routes in India. There is also this anecdote which dovetails nicely with your story:

    “Elephants do obeisance to the rising sun by lifting their trunks like hands to face its beams, and that, you see, is why they are beloved of Helios. Let Ptolemy Philopator be a trustworthy witness to the fact. With the aid of the god he overcame Antiochos, and in sacrificing for his victory and to propitiate the Sun he not only offered sacrifices on a magnificent scale but even went so far as to offer four of the very largest elephants as victims, paying homage, as he supposed, to the god by this very sacrifice. But a vision in his sleep troubled him: the god seemed to threaten him for this unusual and strange offering. And he in his fear caused four elephants to be made of bronze and offered them to the god in place of those he had slaughtered, hoping to placate him and ensure his favor. Elephants for their part worship the gods, whereas mankind is in doubt whether in fact there are gods, and if there are, whether they take thought for us.” – Aelian, On Animals 7.44

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    • Of course, that’s strictly within the Ptolemaic cultural sphere — I have no idea who the Seleukids, Antigonids and the Hellenistic dynasties of Baktria and India associated elephants with.

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      • Even so, the cow and the stag are associated with how many deities? And don’t get me started on a certain group of fruits in the rose family! But yes, I liked that quote from Aelian.

        They’re truly fascinating animals, and their death rituals intrigue me; especially considering that it’s been noted that they’ll extend this to humans who live around them, and occasionally dogs that live with people who live around elephants –but it’s not been noted as extending to any other animals. It’s clear that they can recognise equal or greater intelligence in people, and they clearly discern that humans see something valuable in certain individual dogs, so sure, they’ll extend this kindness to them, too.

        As much as I love me some Mark Twain, I have to take issue with his assertion that man was the only religious animal –but then, he didn’t study these things.

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        • LOL no kidding. It’s a little ridiculous how many gods are associated with certain animals. I just figured you’d be interested in knowing there was a precedent for the Hellenic gods/elephants. Whether or not the ancients made the Athene/elephant association it makes perfect sense to me, considering those creatures nobility and intelligence.

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          • Well, I thought there might’ve been some kind of association, given how far the ancients had spread, I just couldn’t find anything specifically linking Athene to elephants, and for some reason, it just made sense that She’d want them because She liked them –they’re intelligent, those who’ve lived amongst them tend to consider them very wise, they’re excellent at communicating with humans, and (best of all, at least as I figure Athene might be concerned) in the wild, they form tribes that seem universally matriarchal. After all, they are freaky-smart for an animal that doesn’t fuck for pleasure (which is an honest correlation amongst other non-human animals typically regarded as “most intelligent”, that they seem to engage in sex for reasons other than procreation or to display dominance), and they do have these little rituals that are spread through each continental species group that’s really best theorised as something like a religion amongst them. It’s fascinating!

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