Pliny: Elephants vs. Dragons

I stumbled upon this wonderful bit of Pliny the other day, and there was no way I wasn’t sharing it. Pliny the Elder was a first-century A.D. Roman author, natural philosopher, military officer, and senior Imperial official. His Naturalis Historia was an encyclopedia covering much of what Romans knew about the natural world. It also includes the following delightful passage about the eternal war between elephants and dragons.

“Africa produces elephants, beyond the deserts of the Syrtes, and in Mauritania; they are found also in the countries of the Æthiopians and the Troglodytæ as mentioned above. But it is India that produces the largest, as well as the dragon, which is perpetually at war with the elephant, and is itself of so enormous a size, as easily to envelope the elephants with its folds, and encircle them in its coils. The contest is equally fatal to both; the elephant, vanquished, falls to the earth, and by its weight, crushes the dragon which is entwined around it.

“The sagacity which every animal exhibits in its own behalf is wonderful, but in these it is remarkably so. The dragon has much difficulty in climbing up to so great a height, and therefore, watching the road, which bears marks of their footsteps when going to feed, it darts down upon them from a lofty tree. The elephant knows that it is quite unable to struggle against the folds of the serpent, and so seeks for trees or rocks against which to rub itself. The dragon is on its guard against this, and tries to prevent it, by first of all confining the legs of the elephant with the folds of its tail; while the elephant, on the other hand, endeavours to disengage itself with its trunk. The dragon, however, thrusts its head into its nostrils, and thus, at the same moment, stops the breath and wounds the most tender parts. When it is met unexpectedly, the dragon raises itself up, faces its opponent, and flies more especially at the eyes; this is the reason why elephants are so often found blind, and worn to a skeleton with hunger and misery. What other cause can one assign for such mighty strifes as these, except that Nature is desirous, as it were, to make an exhibition for herself, in pitting such opponents against each other?

“There is another story, too, told in relation to these combats —the blood of the elephant, it is said, is remarkably cold; for which reason, in the parching heats of summer, it is sought by the dragon with remarkable avidity. It lies, therefore, coiled up and concealed in the rivers, in wait for the elephants, when they come to drink; upon which it darts out, fastens itself around the trunk, and then fixes its teeth behind the ear, that being the only place which the elephant cannot protect with the trunk. The dragons, it is said, are of such vast size, that they can swallow the whole of the blood; consequently, the elephant, being thus drained of its blood, falls to the earth exhausted; while the dragon, intoxicated with the draught, is crushed beneath it, and so shares its fate.”

This is all, of course, super weird and delightful, and about as true as a Paul Bunyan story. But remember that Pliny never got within 1,500 miles of India. When you're working with (at best) secondhand and (more likely) fifth- or sixth-hand sources, errors creep in quickly. Consider Pliny's account of the Nile crocodile, an animal familiar to the Romans. He gets some impressive details correct, like the fact that the animal never stops growing. Yet he also records that crocodiles have a movable upper jaw, not lower, which is easily disproven. He had a tough time actually witnessing the things he wrote about, is what I'm saying.

So yeah, why not have elephants and dragons hate each other in your game? Heck, if you want to make it a magical thing, play up the themes of the mundane vs. the fantastic and earth (elephant) vs. air (dragon).

Maybe your PCs need to travel a ways and are doing it on the back of an elephant. When a dragon drops out of a tree onto the elephant, the party will need to get clear while the dragon is constricting the elephant, the elephant is rubbing up against a tree, and the dragon is biting the elephant’s trunk.

Perhaps a magical ritual requires the cool blood of the elephant. (Note: in real life, elephant blood is a normal blood temperature. Obviously.) But on your hunt, be wary of the dragons with whom you compete!

Finally, why not have mahouts and dragonriders hate each other too? Coolest bar fight ever.

Quote is from Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book VIII, Ch. 11-12 (eds. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.)


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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