World History and the Meaning of Being Human – Myths, Storytelling, and Elephants – by Isabella Restrepo Toro. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

World History and the Meaning of Being Human – Myths, Storytelling, and Elephants – by Isabella Restrepo Toro. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

While thinking about creation myths, I decided to focus on the elephant, an animal very fond to me and my family as it symbolizes what we believe to be is the best qualities of a community. In my research I found that elephants are seen in various places of the world as symbols of abundance, fertility, richness, boldness, strength, wisdom, and royalty. These animals as described as noble, supporting and kind qualities that are seen in many stories about them around the world. For instance the o The Ashanti of Ghana relate that an elephant is a human chief from the past, therefore associating this animals with royalty and even giving the noble burials when found dead.

Three main creation myths were mentioned regarding elephants. One states that Airvata, the first elephant, was born from the twirling ocean. Another, states that Brahma created elephants. However, my favorite and most detailed story about the creation of elephants comes from Kamba, Kenya which tells the story of a poor man that decides to find Ivonya-Ngia, the feeder of the poor, to find the secret to his abundancy. Ivonya-Ngia gives him in return a flask with an ointment and tells the poor man to rub this on his wife’s pointed upper teeth and to sell them once they have grown. As instructed the poor man comes back home and applies ointment on his wife’s canines which over the weeks grow into tusks. The poor man pulls them out and in sells them increasing his richness tenfold. However, the wife’s teeth keep growing longer and thicker, and her body started becoming heavier and greyer everyday, until she decides to go live in the forest where she gives birth to a male elephant. This was the origin of the elephant species and it explains why elephants are as intelligent as people.

Continuing, there are many stories that involve elephants in which they are shown as important figures. To begin with, a legend explains that various elephants support Earth, and that when natural disasters happening such as earthquakes and flooding it is due to an action the elephant is doing. The amount of elephants is not clear but they all agree that they represent the cardinal directions from the Solar System in the galaxy. This story about the elephants regarding their position and movements are all connected to the “Great Milky Way Mother” in which the elephant’s force is seen as emerging from the Milky Way center.

Similarly, elephants have been seen as a symbol in the Buddhist tradition mostly is two tales. The first one explains that Buddha was an elephant with six tusks in the womb of his mother, which according to the Jaina tradition explains why the mother of the twenty-four thirthankars had dreams of an elephant. Buddha is also present in the second anecdote which explains that Buddha incarnated into a white elephant several times. According to one version of the Buddhist story meant to teach that revenge is not a good thing, Chaddanta, a white elephant with a scarlet face and feet and six tusks, one of Buddha’s reincarnations, lived with two wives. One of the wives, Chullasubhadda, gets offended as Chaddanta gives the other a lotus flower and decides to take revenge which ends with the death of both Chaddanta and the other wife.

Also many religions in the Western hemisphere had a deity with an elephants head including Balarama, Skanda and Aiyanar. One of the most well-known elephant symbols in the Hindu religion is Ganesh. One of Hindu story describes that Ganesh was created by the goddess Parvati, as she wanted a son. Her husband, the god Shiva, was travelling when this boy was created and so when he saw the boy he got startled and killed him. Parvati was so enraged and Shiva so distraught, that Shiva asked his soldier to cut the head of the first living creature they encountered, which was an elephant. The story ends with Shiva attaching the elephant’s head to the Ganesh body, breathing life into him and accepting him as his own son.

All of these myths and stories share a few aspects with those we saw in both our first film about people at the Amazon as well as from various communities in our textbook. The biggest difference is that they mostly include a deity or many of them, which is seen in the example previously mentioned from the Hindu stories and in the story about the creation of humans in a dance for their goddess in the film. Also, all of these myths have natural aspects on them, meaning they all have animals or vegetation, to mention a few, to represent certain events and symbolize things important to the people. Similarly, myths in the textbook, the film and those above about elephants, all include humans as a major aspect of them. They all seem to have a human representation on them and teach humanity something about the world. Finally, all of the myths we saw are in a way explaining the connection between humans, the universe, the environment and the gods. A contrasting aspect between the ones mentioned in the movie and the film, and those about elephants in that, they talk about the creation of different things that are sacred to the culture that is the creator of the myth itself.
Founding myths are a universal feature in the human experience as they always show that humans are trying to explain their surroundings through things that they have previously known. The existence of myths in a way makes us human, as it allows us to connect to others through symbols important to a community, therefore allowing us to be part of something larger. It also exposes that humans are multifaceted as while it is a species that can be materialistic and selfish, as shown in the myth with the husband and his long-tusked wife, they are also capable of doing this out of love as shown in the final story about Ganesh. Finally, myths make us humans in the sense that they prove we are teachable not only through its characters, but also through the fact that we still know of them even when decades have passed since they were originated. It is through myths that a community gets a story, a passion and a culture.

References:
Williams, Helena. “Four Depictions of Elephants as They Appear in Religion and Myth.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
“The World Turtle Myth.” Milky Way Mythology- The Origin of Creation Stories. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. < http://www.native-science.net/Turtle_Elephant_Myth.htm&gt;
“African Mythology – Myths and Beliefs from Africa.” African Mythology – Myths and Beliefs from Africa. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2017. <http://www.a-gallery.de/docs/mythology.htm#Elephant&gt;

[From Professor Liang’s Spring 2017 World History I class]


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33 Comments

Filed under History, Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Professor Liang's Classes

33 responses to “World History and the Meaning of Being Human – Myths, Storytelling, and Elephants – by Isabella Restrepo Toro. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

    • Allison Einck

      I learned a lot of new information from this report. I have never researched creation myths regarding elephants. Reading this report and the textbook has made me think a lot about creation myths. At first I was questioning if creation myths explain what it means to be human. I believe they do because it shows humans trying to understand their world around them and how they got to here. For example, the Judaic-Christian belief in creation is explained in the book of Genesis. People have different creation myths and beliefs that help them understand what it means to be human.

    • Evan Wohlert

      Isabella,
      Elephants are creatures I’ve always thought of as wise, but never truly “human-like” until I read your post. This is a very interesting viewpoint on elephants and I completely agree now that elephants are, in fact, human-like. Their caring nature is something I don’t think of very often, but it is definitely there. Politic beliefs aside, I have noticed that an elephant is often used to symbolize the republican voter in American politics in today’s society. Do you think this has some sort of tie back to the creation myths of older civilizations, or some other symbolic meaning that doesn’t relate to older societies? I’d love to know your thoughts and awesome job with the article!
      Evan

    • Tessa Erickson-Thoemke

      Isabella,
      Thank you for sharing this information about creation myths regarding elephants. I find these stories to be so fascinating, and it is incredible that they have continued to be shared over such a long period of time. As Tignor explained, humans have constructed creation narratives for thousands of years (p. 4). I especially loved reading about the myth that elephants support the Earth, and their actions affect what happens on the planet. An elephant’s force “emerging from the Milky Way center” painted such a cool picture in my head! The ways humans attempted to explain the world around them are so interesting to learn about. I agree with you that the existence of myths make us human as we are curious beings trying to understand our surroundings. Great post.
      Tessa

    • Averie Fredrickson-Seibert

      Isabella,
      This was such a fascinating essay. I have never heard of creation myths regarding elephants. It was really interesting to see the variation between cultures regarding their approach to creation myths. For example, in our history class, we just read about how creation myths vary across cultures. The Christian creation story is the basis for much of Western civilization (Tignor et al., 4). Many people use the stories in the bible as a guide to live their own lives. The stories may be different across cultures, but they serve the same purpose; to teach humans valuable lessons.

    • DyAnna Grondahl

      Isa,

      This is a very interesting article. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate the effort you put in to explore this many myths about elephants. It is interesting that humans have had such a universal tendency to tell stories in order to make sense of our surroundings. While we may share some societal norms, but not all, I think it is astounding that such a simple thing as storytelling can play such an intricate role in uniting people.

      Thanks again,
      DyAnna

    • Cole Brenna

      Well, first off, I have never heard a creation story about elephants. That blew my mind. What I wonder is if these stories were invented to create sense of relatability among people in a community. Like you said, through those stories a community gains a sense of culture. I’ve also noticed the use of the elephant for positions of power such as the Republican party in the United States, although I wouldn’t necessarily say that that elephant brings a sense of community anymore lol

  1. Samantha Willert

    Isabella,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Elephants are one of my favorite animals and I really enjoyed reading the myths about them. I had no idea that those myths even existed. I would have to say that the myth about the husband using the ointment to grow his wife’s teeth making her eventually turn into an elephant is my favorite also. I agree that myths allow us to relate important aspects to our communities. They are very important and are passed along through generations.

  2. Kyle Star

    Really enjoyed reading this essay. These myths that you talked about all portray things in our own human life, not not things that we have done, but things that we have heard about or even see.

    I totally agree with what you said about the elephants representing a community, do you think in a community there is also evil that may live in it? I feel that no matter where you go or where you live, somewhere there is sin and evil lying around.

    These myths and stories you brought up were very eye opening to me and didn’t realize how much similar they are to the life that we live in. Love how it showed the culture and passion of the communities.

  3. Catey Swenson

    Isabella,
    I find the elephant to be an extremely interesting creature. As you mentioned, they are oddly human-like in the way that their demeanor changes in response to emotion and their intelligence. There really is no wonder why elephants are so widely represented in cultural aspects like religion especially. I am really glad you included some of the stories of how elephants came to be; I especially enjoyed the story of Ganesh.
    I really like that you said that myths “prove we are teachable.” To add on to your ideas, I remember myths being almost helpful to me when I was a child. There is almost always a moral to the story that teaches the audience how to treat others.
    Thank you for sharing these stories and your ideas about myths!
    Best wishes,
    Catey

  4. Elijah Ortega

    Hello Isabella,
    I have always found great reverence for the elephants as creatures, but I was unaware of the extent Elephants play in many cultures. They are often regarded as being amongst the smartest animals on the planet so it is rightly so that they are so highly admired. I always find great joy in learning of other cultures and hearing the cultural importance of the elephant was quite eye opening for me.
    Thank you for the read.

  5. Phillip truax

    Dear Isabella,
    Thank you so much for sharing this story. i found it interesting how most stories that you shared related elephants to humans. This a very interesting concept, i think should be pertinent when thinking about all animals. if humans where to do this i believe that it would help our society respect the world we live in more.

  6. Hannah Holien

    I did not realize that there were so many creation myths for elephants. I was very intrigued while I was reading this article so thank you for sharing this information! Like you mentioned, humans desire these myths and stories to help connect signs and symbols in our world. I also think that as humans we have an innate curiosity trait and crave answers to things we do not know or understand. Believing in these myths provide us with those answers and that is why we are drawn to them. In the textbook written by Tingor et al, they solidify this idea when they stated, “For thousands of years, humans have constructed, out of their values and available evidence, narratives of how the world- and humans- came to be” (p4). This shows that since the beginning, humans have this drive to make sense of the world around them.

  7. Kasey Kalthoff

    Hi Isabella,
    I really enjoyed your article about elephants and how important their symbol is in our history. I find it interesting how myths and storytelling can become so influential. The mere size of elephants makes them impressive, let alone their intelligence. Our textbook, written by Tingor et al, states, “The ability to draw enabled Homo sapiens peoples to understand their environment, to bond among their kin groups, and to articulate important mythologies.” (p20). It seems that elephants were, and continue to be, hugely symbolized through artistic expression.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Kasey

  8. Natalie Johnson

    Hi Isabella,
    Elephants are also a very special animal and symbol to my family as well. When I was younger my sisters received a small gold elephant as a symbol of strength from my parents as a reminder of that value. It is interesting to me to see how the values come about things like animals or plants. After reading the first chapter of Words Together, Worlds Apart, it sounds like for millions of years people have come up with myths to place value on certain areas of life. The textbook states, “For thousands of years, humans have constructed, out of their values and available evidence, narratives of how the world- and humans- came to be,” (Tignor 4). This is probably how the values of elephants have come about.

  9. Madina Tall

    Hello Isabella!
    Thank you for the interesting read! The interesting thing about creation stories to me is that it really connects us to our fundamentals. Just as you said, the idea of nature is a key aspect in the creation stories. Myths play a big role in bringing a culture or society together because it’s a story. This is the way we as social animals tend to relay important information. This was very interesting Isabella thank you!

  10. Justice Bauer

    Hello Isabella,
    As soon as I saw that your essay was connected to elephants, it caught my eye because they have always amazed me! I thought that this was a very interesting read, especially because in Professor Liang’s history class, we just read about creation myths in our textbook. I think that these myths are a part of what makes us human. We all believe in different things based off of one animal. This is an amazing quality if you ask me. I really enjoyed the Ivonya-Ngia, feeder of the poor, story and how the male elephant was born from the man’s wife. It is really cool reading and learning about the different creation stories and can be very fun to teach to students. As a future teacher, I would love to explore lesson ideas when it comes to creation stories. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Marissa Mikrot

    Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful myths! Apart from Greek mythology – which I think doesn’t have too many stories relating to animals anyways – I don’t think we’re told enough mythology. Stories with animals in them, as you said, really are teachable for humans in more ways than one. I agree that they teach us valuable life lessons such as forgiving rather than getting revenge. I also believe that growing up believing in these stories creates a level of respect towards nature and animals that is hard to teach with opposing societal values of a one’s self as a priority. I think we have historically lacked this quality and placed greed in its place instead, but that’s a different discussion all in itself.

  12. Ashley DeJuliannie

    Isabella,
    This is such a well-written report. I was able to learn about an aspect of cultural differences I never thought of before. I find it interesting how we can use myths and even elephants themselves to relate to the human condition. Our experience as humans is like none other and it is intriguing to see how previous scholars have gone about understanding it.

    Thank you for the information!
    Ashley

  13. Tamer Mische-Richter

    Creation myths are interesting to me. I attribute fear as the reason why people develop these stories. Today however, I see that these myths are a facet of human history that are not necessarily relevant today. I hold no judgement against those that believe in these myths, but I do not hold them with any truth or fact. Due to the intelligence of Elephants, I can completely understand why they have been used in creation myths. By using intelligent creatures in myths, there is an idea that there is more that can not be explained from the actual myths.

  14. Shelby Olson

    Thanks for sharing! I liked your statement that myths allow us to connect to others through symbols, as I completely agree. I have never looked into the historic and cultural significance of elephants before, but it is very interesting! As I was growing up, my aunt always had small elephant statues in her house. When I would go over to her house while my parents were at work, she would tell my sisters and I that it was good luck if we took an elephant from her house, but we never did. My sisters and I never really understood why, but I think it would be interesting to look into where my aunt got this idea and to see if it has any connection to what you shared in your article.

  15. Grace Macor

    Elephants are such majestic creatures. They are always such a fascinating topic. What I love most about elephants is there ability to feel emotions, similarly to a human. For example, elephants grieve the loss of their family members like humans do. They also visit their ancestors bodies after death, like humans visit grave sites to honor their loved ones. Tignor mentions that humans brains were an adaptation. He also notes that our brains are a large part of what makes us human (2018, p. 11-12). Are elephants complex limbic systems essential to their survival? We can only guess!

  16. Cassandra Mahlberg

    Thank you for this article, Isabella. I also really enjoy the presence of elephants due to their beauty and majesticness. I think it is really interesting that other cultures focus on creation stories even for animals and that these creation stories are so important in forging the connections between humans and other sentient beings. My favorite myth that you explained above is the one about elephants being pillars of the Earth. I think it is really cool that an old story would have some representation of the idea that when elephants do something the Earth itself has a reaction. In the myth you said that flooding and earthquakes could be explained as actions from the elephants, but I think now on a more literal level it is neat to connect to as well. Madina is writing about elephant poaching in Cameroon for her environmental politics project and I think that connects really well to this. If the elephants are lost, the consequences will be large, just like the animals themselves. I think perhaps, that if creation stories about connectivity of all creatures and the Earth are becoming less emphasized in modern culture, we are forgetting the values that came from them. Maybe if we were more intentional about storytelling, we could prevent the catastrophic damages that would come from poaching elephants to extinction.

  17. Dawson Ness

    Hello Isabella,

    Thank you for such a wonderful report. I knew that humans had a few creation myths involving elephants, but I had no idea that there were this many. The range of emotions given to elephants and the ideas that they represent make them such a powerful symbol in mythology. The power of these myths highlight the abilities of the human species to express their ideas. “Their creativity was expressed through language, painting, sculpture, and even music (Tignor pg. 18).” Humans have grown to connect with the world around them in a way that is different than any other species on Earth is currently capable of. Thank you for commenting on this connection to something larger that myths allow us to experience.

    Dawson

  18. Felicity Byrd

    Good afternoon Isabella,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on elephants and creation narratives in relation to humans! Elephants are also one of my favorite animals, I even have a tattoo on my right forearm of an elephant to signify strength and “boldness” as you put it. It is interesting to learn about how one symbolic figure our animal, can have such a great impact in a variety of different ways across cultures and the world. While it can be mostly overall agreed that elephants are symbolic, it is so intriguing to learn about what that means to different people in the world. While to me, an elephant signifies strength and boldness, as you stated-to someone else the elephant can signify riches and royalty, and these differences in opinion originate due to creation narratives. I found your post to be an insightful look into the history of creation narratives and how that history has changed and contributed to the values and beliefs of different people and cultures today. As stated in the book-“Worlds Together, Worlds Apart” by Richard Tignor, “Symbolic activity…enabled humans to make sense of themselves, nature, and the relationship between humanity and nature.” (p.23) and I think your report did a fantastic job analyzing and making a connection between creation narratives and symbolism, and humanity.

  19. Tanner Egelkraut

    Hello Isabella,
    I really appreciate your post about creating myths surrounding elephants. I feel that I knew before reading this that elephants had a major role in many different cultures and religions, but I did not know why or how. Growing up I always viewed elephants as such an interesting animal. This was mostly because of how much intelligence they seem to have. I really enjoyed the myth about how the poor man’s wife turned into an elephant after he rubbed ointment on her teeth. A quote from our text book explains “for thousands of years, humans have constructed, out of their values and available evidence, narratives of how the world— and humans—came to be” (Tignor et al., 2018 p. 4). This shows that earlier cultures also saw an increased intelligence in elephants and sought a way to figure out why. I wonder if and how elephants are used in modern culture. One thing I can think about in particular is the use of in politics. The Republican party uses an elephant as their symbol. Was this used because they viewed elephants as intelligent as well? Unfortunately in this time of anger in politics, people associate the elephant with republicans rather than the majestic animals they are. Awesome post!

  20. Lexie DeWall

    Isabella,
    Thank you for sharing your creation myths surrounding elephants. I have never been aware or heard of creation myths that involve elephants, so I was really intrigued by your stories. It is so cool how you tied in elephants being intelligent people with the story of the women growing tusks and giving birth to male elephant. I also agree that animals play a critical role in our culture, and we are very fortunate to have them. Pastoral nomadic communities remind me of your creation stories. “In the arid environments of inner and central Eurasia, transhumant herding and agrarian communities initially followed the same combination of herding of animals and cultivating crops that had proved so successful in Southwest Asia” (Tignor et al., 2018, p. 45). Connecting animals to culture and creation stories is something people should read more on, because they are very interesting and intelligent species that have similar characteristics when compared to humans.

  21. Brett Radford

    Hello,
    I found your creation myth to be a very interesting one. I like how you and your family have something like this between you guys. These are the first creation myths about elephants that I have ever heard, so its neat to learn some new information. I totally agree with you when it comes to how animals have a critical role in our culture, I love how you’ve connected this myth to communities because of the power these animals have and what elephants symbolize. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Sarah Symanietz

    Hi Isabella,
    First off, yes, it is amazing how creation myths are passed down over generations. I find that these ties to older times help to make connection to our ancestors and truly make us feel human. I appreciated the story about the woman growing tusks and later giving birth to a male elephant. I really does open the idea that elephants are intelligent. It makes me think that they would hold characteristics such as grit, intelligence, honor, and strength. These are also qualities that individuals such as Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty would have been described as: “Although he was known as the “Martial Emperor” because of the state’s many military campaigns, Emperor Wu rarely inspected his military units and never led them in battle…still, he used a stringent penal code to eliminate powerful officials who got in his way” (Tignor 243). One question I have about elephants is, why did they get termed in awkward situations as being in the room? Great stories and post,
    Sarah

  23. Erin Diver

    Hello Isabella,
    Your explanation of elephant’s involvement in various creation myths was thorough and a really interesting read! It really goes to show how vibrant and universal creation myths are. I had always known elephants were sacred in some cultures, but not to the extent in which you explain. One can only hope that the reiteration of these stories and a continuation of teaching respect for nature will help dwindle the effects humans have on them. We’ve seemed to constantly use these intelligent and kind animals for our own gain, whether it be for their skin and tusks, or even back in the Roman era, for war, as stated in World’s Together, World’s Apart, “Hannibal was influenced by the Hellenistic armies in the east who had borrowed the idea of war elephants, and the elephants themselves, from Indian rulers” (Tignor, p. 255).

  24. Lili Tapper

    Isabella,
    I think that creation myths can reveal a lot of a culture and it’s environment. They’re explanations for what is in their environment, and how it got there. There are examples of this in many religions across the world. Using animals to explain religious virtues or lessons. It makes me think of what kind of animals do we have in contemporary culture that are used in similar ways. I think a good example is the snake. The snake has a lot of historical context, but can still be personified, and used to explain religious virtues today. Thank you for the read!

    Lili Tapper

  25. Anna Becker

    Hello Isabella,
    Thank you for sharing with us this interesting and quite educational article.
    I particularly found it interesting as I have a great devotion to elephants, but this article taught me above and beyond what I believed to be true. It is fascinating how we as humans create myths and develop them as they pass from generation to generation; it almost gives us a sense of hope and, to quote your article, the ability to be “part of something larger.”
    I thoroughly enjoyed the myth regarding the man’s wife, it gives context and a story to tell. It is interesting to learn the different stories and myths and how they can relate back to the learning of culture.
    Thank you again,
    Anna Becker

  26. Elizabeth Mirkin

    Isabella,
    This article was very informative and taught me a lot of interesting information. I have always had a love for elephants (they are such a foreign animal to me), so I enjoyed learning a little about the different myths for how they came to be. It’s interesting how so many cultures have unique myths about particular ways of life. And it is also interesting to hear about myths that are completely new to you! My parents grew up telling me Russian myths that I went on to tell my friends, who somewhat made fun of me for how foreign it was to them. It is true that the environment and telling of a myth can explain a lot about ones culture. They are told through generations and spread across the world. It allows us and historians to generate ideas of how our ancestors lived.

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