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Gilded Elephants


Today, a visitor to the the gallery asked me why I had a gilded elephant hanging in the gallery.

While in Copenhagen a few years ago, I went to visit Rosenborg Castle, where the Danish crown jewels are kept. To my astonishment, the Danish crown jewels are full of elephants! The Danish Crown Jewel collection was started in 1746 by Queen Sophie Magdalene (My daughter also happens to be named Sofia Magdalene; I had no idea idea I was naming her after an 18th century Danish queen!). Sophie, rather melodramatically writing her will after the death of King Christian VI because she expected to die shortly of grief, determined that her jewels forever more should belong with the Danish crown. I was pretty certain that the last elephants seen in Scandinavia would have been wooly mammoths who disappeared at the start of the Holocene. I was puzzled, and curious to understand the connection. In the 17th century, Tharangambadi, a town of 24,000 Tamils in India, was ‘rented’ by the Danish government (apparently willingly) to create a fort with the purpose of exporting pepper to Denmark. For over 200 years the Danish East India Company controlled this town, until selling it to the British Empire in 1845. I doubt the ‘sale’ of their rental property to the British was as readily agreed to by the Tamil residents. It was about the same time as the establishment of this 17th century colony in India, that the Danish Regency created the Order of the Elephant, Denmark's version of the Knights of the Round Table. Capped at less than 100, the only time a seat comes up is when a current holder of the Order of the Elephant dies, and returns their elephant insignia. The Order of the Elephant continues today, and is mostly comprised of European royalty and statesmen. Personally, I think the Norse veneration of the elephant goes much farther back in time. Consider Hannibal’s crossing of the Swiss Alps with 37 war elephants in 218 BC, as he marched the Carthaginian army to war (ultimately unsuccessfully) against the Roman Empire. Loser or not, Hannibal is still considered one of the greatest war strategists of all time, and the story of his journey is legendary. The Vikings themselves were regularly visiting Constantinople, the geographic meeting of eastern and western trade routes, attracted by the stories of great wealth (makes sense as they liked to pillage and plunder). In 860 they attacked Constantinople, unsuccessfully, and abruptly abandoned the battle to get home before winter (I can't help but think of bullies out terrorizing the neighbourhood being called home for dinner). Rumour has it they tried again in 907. In 941, they tried a third time, disastrously; the description of the battle reads like Blackwater Battle from Game of Thrones: iron chains draped across rivers, Greek fire projectors, and flaming, fully armoured warriors leaping into the river and sinking to their deaths. In 987 the Vikings were personally invited to come back by Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who created the Varangian Guard, as he was so impressed by their skills. Ironically, they proved more loyal than Basil II’s Greek Guard, and were amply rewarded for their efforts with the gold and silks they’d been trying to steal for the previous 100 years. The Varangian Guard fought in every Byzantine campaign until Constantinople was captured in 1204. Runes (the Viking Alphabet) are carved into the marble walls of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. While the Vikings might have been loyal to the Emperor, apparently they weren’t above a little vandalism…'Ragnar was here’. More than a decade ago, I woke up from a dream, chanting, “Remember Constantinople! Remember Constantinople!” In the dream, I was the wife of a Viking warrior, and I was very distressed by the fact that my husband had made a deal with the locals. I was terrified, and certain that we were being bamboozled and betrayed. I am embarrassed to say that in my ignorance, I had to look up Constantinople, I didn’t even know where it was. Istanbul! Vikings in Istanbul? Yup. In 2020, they found the remains of the village. So... all of that is to say that I have a particular affinity for gilded elephants, and that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.



Image: Kristina Campbell, "Viking Goddess Frigg and her Elephants".

References if you are interested in learning more: https://www.kongernessamling.dk/en/rosenborg/the-danish-crown-jewels/ https://www.history.com/news/globetrotting-vikings-the-quest-for-constantinople https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2010EGUGA..12.3994U/abstract https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/apr/03/where-muck-hannibals-elephants-alps-italy-bill-mahaney-york-university-toronto https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weichselian_glaciation https://www.vulture.com/article/game-of-thrones-battles-ranked.html https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20160929-indias-scandinavian-secret https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/archaeologists-unearth-viking-neighborhood-in-istanbul-157658

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