How Artists In The Middle Ages Drew Elephants They Had Never Seen

During the Middle Ages, the nobility of Europe was obsessed with the tales of exotic animals brought back from travelers returning from the Crusades. As stories of strange beasts like camels, lions, and leopards delighted the common folk, those who had money to spare ordered custom items, such as vases, silverware, or shields, embellished with designs based on these unimaginable monsters. King Henry I even maintained a small bestiary of animals gifted to him by various diplomats from all over the world.

At this time in European history, elephants were a rare, but not totally alien, presence. Alexander the Great captured them when he invaded India, eventually adopting four elephants as his personal guard and becoming renowned for wearing an elephant-design headdress. The tales of Hannibal crossing the Alps on his legion of elephants are still taught in history books to this day. Elephants were a common fixture in the circuses of ancient Rome, and as conflict brought the Romans into regular contact with the armies of northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent, the gargantuan beasts went from something of legend to something of common lore.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants largely disappeared from the European mythology and, once more, became almost mythological in scope. However, as European involvement in the Middle East increased again through the Crusades, Europe entered a second age of elephant obsession.

As the kings and queens of Europe began to collect these tusked mammals again, they became popular among the lay folk as well. And, as the demand for illustrations of elephants grew, so too did an abundance of illustrations based solely on descriptions of the elephants from those lucky enough to have seen one in person. As anyone who has played telephone can tell you, this isn’t the best way to pass information along. Because of this, we have many drawings of elephants from that period that wouldn’t fool even the least savvy animal lovers among us.

It’s odd that the person describing this elephant favored their description of its hair over its massive ears.

British Library

These elephants, with their alabaster skin, aren’t much larger than horses and seem to be capable of using their trunks to inhale large objects.

Wikimedia Commons

While bulky devices were attached to elephants to carry large numbers of soldiers on them, we doubt any elephants in that period looked as much like an anteater as this one does.

Wikimedia Commons


This rendering of an elephant also glosses over the ears, but even more confusing is that a dragon is being used for scale. That lizard is huge!

History of Graphic Design

This image gets a lot about elephants right, from the scale to the tusks to the ears to the color, but then the artist just had to go and throw in a flying dragon for some Middle Age flair!


Sure, elephants were used for troop transport since the 3rd century B.C.E., but we doubt an elephant that’s barely larger than a man could carry this many soldiers.


An elephant’s trunk is certainly one of its most distinctive features, which may explain why this artist favored it over all of the elephant’s other unique traits.


Somebody make an appointment at the spa! While this picture gets a lot right, there’s something severely off-putting about that wad of greasy back hair cascading down the elephant’s shoulders.

Lazer Horse


With legs twice as tall as the treetops and no neck to speak of, this elephant is a fearsome beast that you would be able to see from miles away. But, based on this illustration, we doubt anyone actually laid eyes on it.

Professor Sarah Peverley

Somebody call a dentist! This elephant is all tusk and not much else. With spindly little legs like that, we’d love to see this elephant try and carry a whole bunch of troops.


Big ears? Check. Long trunk? Check! Forward-pointing tusks? Check, check, check! This elephant looks pretty accurate compared to some of the others on the list, but its ability to carry so many humans in such a towering structure is pretty questionable.

Footnoting History

This illustration depicts the elephant given to Henry III as a gift by Louis IX of France. Kept in the Tower of London, this elephant enjoyed sumptuous cuts of steak every day until it died from drinking too much wine. Not a great way to treat a pet!


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H/T: Sunny Skyz

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