From an elephant to an Oliphant


There’s an intriguing object in York Minster, a medieval cathedral in northern England, that caught my attention.  It’s called an oliphant. It’s made from part of an elephant – a tusk. Carved with images of animals, it was filled with wine and presented to the church by a Viking nobleman called Ulf in the year 1036.

What interested me about this object was the way it revealed how interconnected the world was in the Middle Ages.  Here is an elephant tusk – probably from Africa. The animals carved on it were copied from ancient Syrian and Babylonian art – ancient even in those times.  The carvings were probably done in Amalfi in Italy, where craftsmen had easy access to ivory.

How did it get to be in Viking hands?  Well, the Vikings got everywhere.  They ruled England at times, served the Byzantines in the east, traded in Russia, founded cities in Ireland and were the ancestors of the Normans. The Vikings were worldly people and it wasn’t so unusual that a rich warrior would have such a trinket.  Here are some photos of the oliphant that I took a month ago.

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5 thoughts on “From an elephant to an Oliphant

    1. Those Vikings certainly got around – some ended up being an elite bodyguard for the Byzantine emperor in far off Constantinople. In the sixth century church of Hagia Sophia, in what’s now Istanbul, you can see some Runic graffiti that a Viking carved on a pillar a thousand years ago. It was pointed out to me by my helpful Turkish guide.

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