The Epiphanius account of the elephant is a rather confused combination of the elements from the standard story.

The usual Physiologus chapter on the elephant says that they have no knee joints and so cannot bend their legs; if they fall, they cannot get up unless helped. They are free of wicked desire for sex; when they wish to produce children, they go to the east near paradise, where a plant called mandrake grows. The female first takes some of the plant, then offers it to the male and persuades him to eat it. Becoming aroused from the action of the plant, they mate and the female immediately conceives. When it is time for her to give birth, for safety from their enemy the serpent (or the dragon) she enters a body of water up to her teats, and there gives birth, while the male stands guard on shore. The young elephant swims until it finds its mother's thighs and suckles from her teats.

The Epiphanius text says that the elephant is the largest animal. It has a long nose, with which it strikes any animal that attacks it. It also uses this nose to obtain food and drink; since its knees do not bend, it cannot feed itself in any other way. The female elephant seeks a plant called mandrake; when she tastes it she becomes aroused with lust. She offers the plant to the male, who also becomes aroused, and they mate. When it is time for the female to give birth, she enters a pond or lake until the water reaches her teats, and there she gives birth. She does not give birth on land because she is unable to bend her knees and so could not lift up the newborn elephant.

The interpretation says that the elephants represent Adam and Eve; the first parent Adam did not disobey by taking of the forbidden tree, but Eve gave it to him. When they ate they transgressed against God and gave birth to sin in paradise. This is similar to the standard interpretation, which is that while Adam and Eve were still innocent in the garden, they had no knowledge of or desire for sex, but when Eve ate of the tree and persuaded Adam to eat as well, their lust was aroused; for this act they were expelled from paradise.

The elephants in the van der Borcht copperplate engraving below are standing near water, just visible in the lower right corner. The female is offering a plant to the male; he is reaching for it. The plant does not have the humanoid appearance often attributed to the mandrake.

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In the woodcut below (from the Rome, 1577 edition) the female elephant (right) has gathered the mandrake plant but is not yet offering it to her mate, who stands at the edge of the water. The shape of both elephants is very similar to the van der Borcht engraving.


Properties of the Elephant