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Why Did Medieval Artists Give Elephants Trunks That Look Like Trumpets?

In medieval bestiaries, we are liable to see real but exotic animals illustrated alongside fantastical creatures like unicorns and centaurs. The real beasts are often depicted inaccurately, which we often attribute to the fact that the artist had never seen a real specimen, but worked from descriptions from those who had. However, there were many depictions of elephants that showed the same inaccuracy: a trunk shaped like a trumpet. Could those artists possibly be copying the ideas of earlier artists? Where was the first depiction of an elephant with a trumpet nose?   

One of the mysteries of the bestiary form is what the first one looked like. The tradition is usually traced back to the Physiologus, a book that no longer exists. It’s thought that it was written around the 2nd century A.D., in Alexandria, by a scholar working in Greek, and much of what’s known about it is derived from later translations into Latin. It would have contained the descriptions of a selection of animals, perhaps 50 or so, and relied on the standard works of natural history of the time, including Aristotle’s History of Animals and Pliny’s Natural History.

The thing about that book is that the animals weren't just described- they were used as allegories for "the ways of God, of Man and of the Devil.” The story it told of elephants was about sex. While the trunk shape is never fully explained, the search for the answer is quite interesting, as you'll find at Atlas Obscura.


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