Myths and legends – The Elephant Bride

Once elephants were humans, until one day a nervous young bride disobeyed her father… In Samburu legend, elephants were once humans. Once upon a time a young bride was newly wed. As she prepared to leave home her father gave her strict instructions that when she left the boma (thorn enclosure) she was not to look back. But she felt so sad as she followed her husband away that she couldn’t resist turning around and taking one last wistful glance at her childhood home. That night in her new hut strange things began to happen.

N’gai (God) was very angry that the girl had disobeyed her father and decided to punish her. The young bride began to swell and grow and burst out of the roof of the hut at last turning into a great, grey elephant under the bright night sky. All elephants descended from this first elephant girl, and as such the Samburu and elephants are related by blood. It is believed that when elephants find dead humans they too place grass upon the graves. Even after the Samburu have left an area for good they have seen elephants take branches or leaves and place them upon their graves. Accordingly, when the Samburu pass an elephant skull they pick some green grass, spit on it and place it inside holes in the skull. Green grass is a symbol of peace and spit a symbol of rain, and the two together are a blessing bestowed.

Though the Samburu still practice the ritual of placing grass upon a skull many have forgotten the legend from which it came. However the legend of the bride is still well known amongst the Maasai people, who also bless elephant skulls in this way. N.B. Old hunters have tales of having seen elephants bury dead or sleeping people under a pile of branches. On occasion, the hunters themselves were buried whilst taking a cat-nap. Elephants have a fascination with the bones of their own dead, smelling them, tasting them and sometimes scattering the bones over long distances. There is no explanation yet for this behaviour nor for the reported reaction to human dead.

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