by Kerr Houston
Perhaps you find yourself standing before the handsome Coptic ivory carving of the Virgin and Child at the Walters Art Museum. After considering the work at length, you turn to the adjacent placard, which, you find, remarks on the subject matter and the emotional intimacy of the carving and then adds that its “curve corresponds to the shape of the elephant tusk from which it was carved.” Perhaps you’re satisfied with this brief allusion to the work’s material origins, and turn away, towards another piece. Or, just perhaps, you feel a slight sense that something, still, is unaddressed.
You are not alone. Matthew Arnold once argued, famously, that the function of the critic is “to see the object as in itself it really is,” and, like most medieval ivory, the object in the Walters is likely the residue of a planned and directed hunt. It was presumably acquired by hunters in the African savannah, who either trapped or slew their quarry and then severed the tusks, selling them to traders who then transported them to cities such as Baghdad and Constantinople. In ignoring that history, we ignore an important step in the process by which the tusk assumed its current form – and also deny the real possibility that aspects of the production of ivory could adhere to, or inform, the eventual processed material. Or, to phrase it rather more provocatively, in failing to note the history of its production, we arguably do it a further rhetorical violence. We repress, in short, the object as it really is, or as it came to be.
Of course, any attempt to understand that process is bound to be limited by our sources, and early sources on elephant hunts are, frankly, both few and less than fully reliable. Nonetheless, they do give us the beginnings of a picture. Pliny noted in his Natural History that Africans caught elephants by digging large ditches – a practice echoed more than 1,500 years later in Act II, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (where Decius contends that men can be ensnared by flatterers, rather like “elephants in holes, and lions with nets”). The real Julius Caesar, meanwhile, offered a more fanciful account. Claiming that elephants frequently lean against trees when they sleep, he alleged that hunters cut into the trees, so that the animals leaning against them would uproot them and fall to the ground, leaving themselves suddenly vulnerable. Caesar’s account was later repeated by Ambrose, who gave it a wide medieval currency; indeed, it appears in several later bestiaries. Clearly, though, some ivory hunters preferred to stalk their quarry in a more direct fashion. In the 1550s, for instance, William Towerson of London – a merchant who had sailed along the Guinea Coast and bought elephant tusks from the natives – led thirty men armed with pikes, longbows, crossbows, and swords on a hunt for ivory. That may have struck some Africans as overkill; after all, in the 1800s Arthur Neumann observed Ndorobo elephant hunters in East Africa who still relied on long harpoons to lodge poisoned darts in their quarry’s stomach.
Regardless of the technique used, though, it is clear that hunted elephants (that is, elephants pursued for their tusks, rather than elephants trapped to act as beasts of burden) did not always die immediately. In The Lion and the Elephant, published in 1873, Karl Johann Andersson described several traditional methods deployed by the Aggagiers of the Sudan. Aggagier horsemen would sometimes antagonize an elephant, distracting it so that a hunter on foot could then sever the tendon in one of the elephant’s rear legs. The animal would thus be rendered immobile, and could be pierced with javelins and lances; “he then falls to the ground,” concludes Andersson, “and expires from lack of blood.”In the absence of horses, the Aggagiers altered their method. On foot, they would approach their prey in the late morning (when the elephants were typically resting), and then, with a sword, attempt to sever the animal’s trunk. If done well, writes Andersson, such a wound “causes hemorrhage sufficient to ensure the death of the elephant within about an hour.”
Sword, dart, harpoon: these tools were thus used purposefully and strategically in the acquisition of ivory. That said, medieval consumers of ivory were not necessarily familiar with that process. Indeed, they sometimes offered strikingly naïve accounts of the origins of ivory. For instance, in his Buch der Natur, written in the 1340s, Konrad of Megenburg claimed that the “helfant,” when hunted, would fall down and break its bone, producing the rarity known as ivory. To be fair, hunted elephants did sometimes fall on their tusks, snapping them – Andersson mentions such an occasion – but much more often the tusks had to be sawed from a lifeless corpse. Konrad’s account, in other words, simplifies a complex and often bloody process, ignoring its potentially violent aspect. Now, to be sure, violence is a concept that is dependent upon cultural norms, and subject to evolution; we shouldn’t assume that a medieval familiar with the process of rendering would have thought of the process in such a way. And yet medievals might well have discerned a symbolic depth in, say, the Aggagiers’ severing of the animal’s trunk. After all, Aristotle had argued that the elephant’s trunk was essentially unparalleled in the animal world. “The elephant’s nose,” he claimed in On the Parts of Animals, “is unique owing to its enormous size and its extraordinary strength. For the elephant uses its nose as if it were a hand…” The seizure of ivory, then, involved the severing of the equivalent of a hand.
Aristotle was never alone in proclaiming the uniqueness of elephants. For instance, the Physiologus, a late antique text that formed the basis for many medieval bestiaries, stressed their alleged reproductive habits. Supposedly, elephants were largely chaste animals; when they decided to mate, they traveled east until the female found and consumed a portion of mandrake, and then offered some to her partner. After conceiving, the text tells us, the female elephant sought shelter from her only natural enemy, the serpent, by retreating to a deep pool of water, where she then gave birth. To medieval authors, of course, this story evoked an earlier narrative, and Guillaume le Clerc’s thirteenth-century bestiary is rather typical in its claim that “In these two beasts truly Are Eve and Adam figured.” But in these bestiaries, elephants often do more than merely evoke Original Sin; in an intriguing sense, they are also associated with its repudiation. Where Eve had heeded the serpent, that is, the elephant repels it – and can do so even after expiring. Listen to Guillaume, again:
Of the elephant, I may tell you,
Good is the skin and good the bones;
Who would burn them in fire,
Know that the smell will drive away
All serpents which may be near,
And have poison in them.
The burnt corpses of elephants, in other words, are prophylactic; they are apotropaic.
Did such a set of associations affect the way in which ivory was seen, or perceived? Guillaume’s text suggests that it may have. Indeed, he follows the lines above with the remark that
Of the bones they make precious ivory,
Which they fashion in many a way.
Ivory, he seems to argue, is made of the very material that, when burned, can repel serpents. Such a position is doubly intriguing when we realize that certain medieval ivories portray serpents in very prominent ways. In fact, the Walters owns a relevant example: a Carolingian book cover that depicts the Holy Women at Christ’s tomb, below an image of the Crucifixion. At the base of the cross, a coiled serpent wraps its tongue around the wooden stem. Given its position and the combination of subjects, the serpent represents conquered sin. But the material of which it is carved only intensifies this connotation: ivory, again, was associated with the repulsion of sin. The snake, simply because it is carved in ivory, has already lost.
But so, too, have the tens of thousands of elephants from whom ivory was forcibly taken. Dead, they are now largely forgotten: gone but for their ivory, they haunt (you might say) the backgrounds of medieval bestiaries and of museum wall texts. Or, perhaps, the memories of other elephants. The idea that elephants possess a powerful memory is an old one, and it too appears in medieval bestiaries. Recent studies, in turn, have argued that elephants may recall their own dead. Elephants regularly caress the bones of other elephants, in a process that scientists have compared to grieving, and they have even been known to pause when passing the site upon which a family member died years earlier. Recently, a family of elephants in Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, came upon the carcass of a young female elephant, and began to push dirt and lay palm fronds onto her body – until the warden directed rangers to the carcass so that they could recover the tusks.
The warden, then, disturbs the convened elephants, in order to procure the ivory. And thousands of miles away, we stare at an ivory carving. We gather; we pause for a few minutes; we remember. And the ivory is now, you might say, something both more and less than an elephant’s tusk.
Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore; he is the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (2012), and of several articles on medieval art.