Research Query: Elephants Burying People?

Jacob Adler's picture

Dear Friends,

In Book 2, Chapter 26 of Nishmat Hayyim (Amsterdam, 1651), Menasseh ben Israel writes:

The practice of elephants is similar.  If one of them kills a human being, he does not leave the body until he has cut branches and twigs from the trees of the forest and covered it up and buried it beneath them. 

Does anyone know of possible source from which Menasseh may have derived this idea?


Jacob Adler
University of Arkansas
Philosophy Department
Fayetteville, Arkansas



Categories: Query

Dear Jacob,

1. The sources for such traditions might be (a) oral accounts by European travelers; (b) ancient sources such as Pliny the Elder; (c) encyclopedic works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Regarding (b) and (c), see Pliny's Natural History in Thirty-Seven Books: A Translation on the Basis of That by Dr. Philemon Holland, Edited 1601 (London, 1847-48), vol. 1, Book VIII, chapters I-XI, pp. 3-17, esp. ch. V that deals with the affection of elephants towards human beings (pp. 8-9); Brian Cummings, "Pliny's Literate Elephant and the Idea of Animal Language in Rennaissance Thought," in Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans and Other Wonderful Creatures, ed. Erica Fudge (Urbana, IL, 2014), 164-185; Gaston Basile, "Poliziano’s Elephanti: A Case Study of Miscellanea II. 46," Medievalia et Humanistica, N.S., 43 (2018): 1-43.

For a Jewish traveler who was familiar with Pliny (Meshullam da Volterra, d. after 1507), see David Malkiel, "The Rabbi and the Crocodile: Interrogating Nature in the Late Quattrocento," Speculum, 91, 1 (2016): 115-148.

2. Concerning an elephant that was brought from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to Amsterdam in 1637, see Michiel Roscam Abbing, Rembrandt's Elephant: The Story of Hansken (Amsterdam, 2006); Leonard J. Slatkes, "Rembrandt's Elephant," Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 11, 1 (1980): 7-13. See also R.K. de Silva and W.G.M. Beumer, Illustrations and Views of Dutch Ceylon 1602-1796: A Comprehensive Work of Pictorial Reference with Selected Eye-Witness Accounts (London; Leiden, 1988), 402ff.


Liran Yadgar (Monterey, CA)

For the question of Prof. Jacob Adler: In Book 2, Chapter 26 of Nishmat Hayyim, Menasseh ben Israel writes: "The practice of elephants is similar. If one of them kills a human being, he does not leave the body until he has cut branches and twigs from the trees of the forest and covered it up and buried it beneath them".
Does anyone know of possible source from which Menasseh may have derived this idea?

1. Prof. Liran Yadger collected in his answer quite important sources that might be in the background of the text of Menasseh, but as far as I know none of them says anything about the burial of elephants.

2. Now, in regard to this specific point, it is an interesting case, as usually you have a problem how to explain a wonderous Aggadic element in Menasseh's book, but here the case is different: the fact that elephants bury (or at least it seems to us as burial) is well known in the research of elephants today, and therefore here we are left with the question how could Menasseh know it.

3. Regarding the fact that elephants do "bury" their own dead elephants:
Ronald K. Siegel, The Psychology of Life after Death, American Psychologist 35 (1980): 911–931, is citing (at p. 917), Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, Among the Elephants (I do not have this book), who says clearly: "When encountering dead animals, elephants will often bury them with mud, earth, and leaves. Animals known to have been buried by elephants include rhinos, buffalos, cows, calves, and even humans, in addition to elephants themselves" (Douglas-Hamilton & Douglas-Hamilton, 1975, pp. 240 ff.).
More on the special interest of elephants in the death (as we understand it) and dead animals (and "burial") see: Zeev and Nadav Levi, Etika, Regashot u-Vaalei-Hayyim, Haifa University 2002, p. 158; Ronald Orenstein, Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis, 2013, pp. 24-25.

4. Now, again, the question that remains is how can Menasseh know about it (as far as I know no other rabbinic source is mentioning this fact).
Here there are, I believe, two options.
One: he heard it or read it from a person who was a traveler or a book of a traveler which is not known to us (at least to me).
Two: we can imagine here an interesting fictious imagination of Menasseh (or any book or a person of his time), based on the legend (this legend for itself is half-truth as we know nowadays!) that elephants are burying their dead, and that in several places where they live in groups one can find even cemeteries of elephants.
Even in Arabic Nights, from the 8-9 century, in the story of Sinbad it is told that he, Sinbad, met a cemetery of elephants (see "The book of the thousand nights and one night, John Payne ed., vol. 3, London 1901, pp. 230-231).
On this legend (or half-legend) see also George Frederick Kunz, Ivory and the Elephant in Art, in Archaeology, and in Science, Doubleday, Page and Co., Garden City 1916, p. 407.

Admiel Kosman
Potsdam University