elephant question

Dominique.Thillaud thillaud at UNICE.FR
Sun Mar 22 17:11:39 UTC 1998

>Why does Indra ride an elephant?

Dear Jacob,
        Excellent question! And quite puzzling from a comparativist point
of view!
        I'm able to propose the trumpeting of the beast, the loudest and
deepest animal cry, well fitting with a Thunder God commonly characterized
by his very strong voice. And I suppose the elephant is here replacing an
other animal don't living in India; if the cry is the key, that inforce my
hypothesis (not yet proved) of the great horned stag of the temperate
forest being early the varSiSTho varSI vRSaH, replaced in Greece by the
lion (see Herakles bearing his hide) but keeping the same name (Gr. lewOn ~
        This leads to a curious fact about the name airAvata wherein rAva
sounds! Does someone could explain the initial "ai"?

        An other puzzling fact is the resemblance between the Greek names
"elephAs" (< *elephant-s), early known by the Mycenian "e-re-pa-te-jo"
(elephanteios = adj. ivory), and "elaphos" (stag).
        The last word is apparently without difficulty, coming easily from
*eln-bhos, compared to Greek "ellos" (fawn) (< *elnos), Lituanian "elnis"
(stag), Welsh "elain" (doe), with the same suffix as vRSabha.
        "elephas" is considered by the hellenist Chantraine as a loan word
(Anatolian?) also loaned by Hittit "laHpash" (ivory tusk). Mayrhofer,
cutting the Greek *el-ephAs, suppose a link with ibha (*H1-bh- ?) and Latin
"ebur" (ivory) but don't explain the Greek el-. Many scholars believe to a
semitic origin but their explanations are very dubious.
        To link "elaphos" and "elephas" could be possible but quite acrobatic.

        Endly, we can't reject absolutely a link with the male power of
Indra, comparing ibha (root of eti?) to RSabha and vRSabha. A great number
of the litterary comparisons involving the elephant show him in rut with
the mada on his temples. The image is so common that we can't avoid to
think at an etymology, true or false, of yabh- by ibha. And we come back to
the stag, also reputed for his virility (see the French expression "bander
comme un cerf"). He is able to have tens of coits in a day, like Herakles
with the fifty daughters of Thespios. What about the elephant?


Dominique THILLAUD
Universite' de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France

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