Monday, March 28, 2016

Elephant Lore

  The Folklore of Elephants


Elephants are more than just the massive, captivating creatures we see in zoos. These complex social beings, filled with rich lore, have also been the beloved possessions of kings, majestic carriers of royal riders in processions, and valuable assets on both hunting grounds and battlefields.

They have a long and storied presence in Asian mythology, art and culture.

Figures of religious and spiritual significance in the Asian world, here are two examples of their roles:

  • Ganesh, an elephant-headed Hindu deity. Considered to be equal with the supreme gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Often associated with writers, merchants it is said to give people success.
  • Airavata, an elephant ridden by the Hindu god Indra . Linked with thunderstorms, lightning and rainbows.

Since Paleolithic times, these large, magnificent creatures have been represented in art. In the Far East, depictions of this animal can be found in Hindu and Buddhist shrines and temples. Elephants were often difficult to portray by people with no first-hand experience with them.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, when Europeans had little to no access to the animals, elephants were portrayed more like fantasy creatures. They were given horse- or bovine-like bodies with trumpet-like trunks and tusks like a boar; some were even given hooves.

As more elephants began to be sent to European kings as gifts during the 15th century, depictions of them became more accurate, including one made by Leonardo da Vinci.

Here are a few interesting beliefs about this majestic beast:
The Buddha was said to have been a white elephant that had been reincarnated as human being.

Islamic prophet Muhammad was born in the Year of the Elephant.

Ancient Romans thought that elephants worshiped celestial bodies, like the sun and the stars.

The Lan Chang Province (formerly known as the ancient kingdom of Lax Xang) was named The Land of a Million Elephants.

To learn more you can check out the current ELEPHANTS WITHOUT NUMBERS exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This exhibit with runs through June 2016. It explores the central position of elephants in the Indian cultural landscape and their prominent place in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religious traditions. It will also weave in information about how the elephant became a popular subject for Western artists traveling through India in the 1800s.   

Related Information

Monday, March 21, 2016

American Folk Heroes & Heroines

American Folk Heroes

  & Heroines Are Everywhere

American Folk heroes and heroines are everywhere. They are real, fictional or mythological people of the past and of the present. They are people we recognize by name, by personality and by deeds and are often the subject of films, literature, songs, tales and other elements of folklore.

These people run the gamut, from politicians and healers to scoundrels and loners. They are also known by their strengths which can take a variety of forms.

Some are historical public figures. An example of a folk heroine whose live was well documented was Dolley Madison, the 4th First Lady of the United States (President James Madison) who also occasionally acted as First Lady during the administration of the widowed President Thomas Jefferson. She was best known for furnishing the White House and for making it into a gathering place for both Democrats and Republicans. 

One other good example is Amelia Earhart. This aviation pioneer challenged prejudices and financial difficulties to become one of this country’s greatest women pilots. A tomboy, she went against conventional feminine she symbolized what women were capable of accomplishing.

Other folk heroes and heroines were private individuals whose lives were not documented for posterity. However, the work of these people did as much as those more public people to change the course of life for many. A good example of that would be Jonas Salk, the medical researcher and virologist who discovered the first successful polio vaccine in 1962. 

Fictional Folk Heroes/Heroines

And still there are fictional folk heroes and heroines whose deeds and personalities were or are larger than life. These characters reached mythic proportions. Think of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker or Rosy the Riveter who represents the strength and power of American women during World War II. It’s important to note here that these particular characters, while not real people, embody a composite of character traits that we American admire. These traits represent cultural values such as courage, honor, sacrifice and hard work.
Here are a few more examples of real American folk heroes and heroines:

Billy the Kid: He represents both the good and the bad of the Old West. Outside the law he was also brave and stood for individual freedom. He actually lived at a time when men made their own laws and solved their own problems, often with a gun. He took care of himself and was considered by many to be smart; he could read and write and learned to speak Spanish.  Billy the Kid was, above all else, admired because he wasn’t afraid of people who were more powerful than him.

Sitting Bull: He was a Native American leader who did not welcome European intrusions into his way of life. He was an inspirational leader and fearless warrior as well as loving father and a gifted singer. His spirituality gave him faith and insights that have guided many people since. Sitting Bull was credited with never signing a treaty to sell any portion of his people’s inheritance. He was perhaps best known as the man who victoriously led the fight against Colonel Custer’s forces in Custer’s Last Stand.

Most of these folk are not born as superstars. In fact they often begin life as everyday people who are transformed into extraordinary people by significant life events, often in response to social injustice, and sometimes in response to natural disasters. In all cases they are individuals who have found a way to apply their particular character, beliefs and values in order to overcome adversity.
All folk heroes and heroines represent what is possible for the common man or woman; they offer a road map, so to speak, of how to keep moving in the face of oppression or corruption and are often the people we admire most and often aspire to be like.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Self Made Legends

Self Proclaimed Folk Legends

Benedict XIII

Folk legends capture the special qualities a person may have. The traits of these self made legends are then used to convey information about a society’s values and morals.  Over time the facts may become exaggerated. Rarely does a story that is passed from person to person stay exactly as it originally was.

Such is human nature, yes. And such is the nature of sharing folk legends. They often do change to fit a specific time and place in order to make them more relevant. For example, someone who walked six miles in the snow each day to get to and from school may not be believable if told in area where snow no longer falls or where snow never existed.

The fluidity and the creativity of this folklore form allows people to contemporize and make it relevant today.

But what about folk legends that are self-made? These stories are spun by the folk legend him or herself in order to preserve a certain folkloric perspective which is usually ‘heroic’ in nature.  In some ways, these anti folk legends have in fact, become folk legends.

Here are a few examples of such people whose stories about themselves helped to preserve their memories and deeds.


Georges-Eugène Haussmann was also known as Baron Haussmann even though he was not a Baron.  He was said to have helped rebuild Paris into the city it is today replete with boulevards and public space.  His title? It was a nickname he had been given.

It is interesting to note that his achievement, under the direction of Napoleion III was considered impressive in light of the fact that he had no training as an architect or urban planner.


When a Roman Catholic Pope has been sanctioned and someone else claims to be the pope as well, that person is referred to as an antipope. There have been more than 35 such cases; rival factions have used the position to gain political power. Such was the case with Benedict XIII who ‘reigned supreme’ from 1394 to 1422. It was at this time that the church had split.

He had been asked repeatedly to surrender his claim but refused. After his death, another antipope was chosen. However, when the two factions reunited there remained only one pope.

Related Information: 

Benedict XIII