Elephants can be seen as symbols in many different cultures that date back thousands of years. In Greek mythology, stories were told of giants, creatures who had died and whose bones could be found coming out of the ground from their burial places. These “giants” are speculated to be mammoths and mastodons. Geological events are thought to have destroyed the skulls of the prehistoric elephant relatives. Ancient Greeks, being unfamiliar with the animals, found old bones that resembled human traits and possibly associated them with giant humans (American Museum of Natural History).
The Cyclops is another being that is discussed in Greek mythology, which may have evolved from elephants. “The opening in the center of [the] dwarf elephant skull is where the animal’s trunk attaches. But ancient Greeks may have interpreted the large trunk opening as the massive, single eye-socket of a Cyclops” (American Museum of Natural History).
In South African culture, elephant drawings found in the Cederberg Wilderness Area and made by the San people more than 400 years ago, suggest that the people may have developed a symbiotic relationship with elephants that dates back thousands of years (Paterson, 2007). “The combinations of elephants with zigzag lines and other shapes suggest a stage of San trance performance in which the elephant, a culturally controlled and highly emotive symbol of trance power, was super-imposed upon physiologically controlled hallucinatory forms” (Patterson, 2007).
In European and Asian cultures, elephants were often used in battle. In India, elephants were used in military actions from the mid-first millennium BC.
Little by little these so-called ‘living tanks’ ousted chariots from the battlefield as more and more noble warriors switched their preference, and until the 18th century AD elephants played a substantial part in Indian warfare” (Nossov, p.8, 2008).
In all cultures, elephants portrayed a symbol of strength and power, and they struck fear into the hearts of men and other animals on the battlefield. “Far from being a simple weapon, war elephants, on the one hand, represented a real force, but on the other, were unpredictable and therefore dangerous. For this reason, elephants have always been both cared for and feared” (Nossov, p. 45, 2008). Looking back in American history, the elephant may have been adopted as the Republican symbol because of a common phrase used by soldiers during the Civil War. “Since ‘seeing the elephant’ was slang among Civil War soldiers for engaging in combat, the symbol was a natural choice for honoring successful military campaigns” (Harper’s Weekly, “First use of,” 2008).
The context for the Republican elephant really began as presidential election politics, using “The Third-Term Panic” to show concerns about Ulysses S. Grant running for a third term in office (Conners, 2013). It was a tool for portraying political ideas and issues without the need for words. As the elephant began to be more widely identified, it was no longer used to just portray presidential candidates, and it evolved into the iconic symbol of the Republican Party.
Donkeys have a rich history worldwide. The Bible mentions donkeys frequently and describes them as beasts of burden and transport (Forti, p. 71, 2008). Egyptians and Sumerians used donkeys as pack animals on trade routes (Bryner, 2008). In American history, donkeys have a long history and symbolize the spirit of the pioneers who traveled West to explore the country. Burros, a term for small donkeys, were used by Spanish missionaries traveling to the Americas and were later used by Western prospectors and miners to carry equipment and ore (“Wild horses and donkeys,” 2012). Barry Imler, the U.S. Forest Service National Program Manager for Wild Horses said, “The characteristics that were important in the Old West days are still found in our wild horses and burros a strength, endurance and reliability” (“Wild horses and donkeys,” 2012).
Like the Republican elephant, the context of the Democratic donkey began as presidential election politics, with supporters of John Quincy Adams, who opposed Andrew Jackson in the 1824 election, labeling Jackson as a jackass. Jackson was “a rough-hewn, poorly educated, self-maid frontiersman,” and he rhetorically championed the plain people against the aristocrats. Under him, the Democratic Party represented simple, frugal, unobtrusive government (Jacksonian democratic party). That may explain why Jackson embraced his association with donkeys, being a symbol of the pioneer frontiersmen. An 1837 political cartoon titled “The Modern Balaam and His Ass” showed Jackson riding a donkey and attempting to get it to where he wanted to go. Even though Jackson had been retired in 1837, he was still seen as the Democratic Party’s leader (Lepler, 2010).
The political cartoons of the late 1800s and early 1900s representing the Democratic Party, as well as the Republican Party, were effective because they were easy to twist into different ways. “The donkey can be humorous, tenancies or stubborn; the elephant, stalwart, stable or substantial” (McAllister, 1992). Early cartoons were a major medium for displaying political communication, with subtle meanings placed in to them. Library of Congress researcher Harry Katz said, “By having animal imagery, you can make comments you can’t make in print” (McAllister, 1992).