The lucky elephant charm is a deliberate bit of cultural exoticism found in America and Europe. Historically linked to to the era of British colonialism in India, it entered popular culture folk-magic during the late 19th century and probably reached its apotheosis in the 1930s, when lucky elephant charms and knick-knacks were all the rage in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
The origins of the lucky elephant charm can be found in the Hindu religion of India. There, the god Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Siva and Parvati, is worshipped as an opener of the way and luck-god. Ganesha has his own iconography in India, and his best-known symbol is the swastika, which was also popular as a luck-symbol in America, at least until the Nazis corrupted its referential connotations.
The American lucky elephant craze of the early to mid 20th century did not make use of elephant-headed Ganesha imagery. Instead, it conflated the luck-god with the elephant itself, perhaps because there was a lot of media interest after World War One in the so-called "white elephants" of Thailand. Custom dictated that this rare race of pale-skinned elephants could only be owned by members of the royal family -- and American newspaper and magazine accounts of the period made much of the fact that the animals were expensive to maintain. It was even claimed that the King of Thailand was straining his treasury to keep his white elephants fed -- and the term "white elephant" came to mean an unwanted knick-knack of which one cannot dispose.
American fascination with the lucky elephant-god of India and the white elephants of Thailand combined in the form of the ubiquitous lucky elephant knick-knack. In typical American fashion, it was decreed that only those elephant figurines with their trunks upraised were lucky. The rest were, as a friend of mine put it, "just elephants."
This "trunk up" belief has no apparant origin in Africa, India, or South East Asia where elephants are native, but is widespread in the USA, and many Asian and African amulet and statuary makers now produce trunk-up elephant statues for American buyers. It may have originated in the west-British and Irish belief that a lucky horseshoe must face upward or "the luck will run out.") The statuette shown here is a cheap Japanese lusterware "trunk up" elephant knick-knack purchased in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1950s. Other lucky elephant figurines of the mid-20th century were made of ivory, ivory-coloured plastic, onyx, porcelain, jade, serpentine, and ebony.
Concurrent with the popularity of lucky elephant figurines was the popularity of lucky elephant charms, usually carved of jade or cast in silver. These were typically worn by European and American girls and women as part of a charm bracelet, alongside other lucky emblems such as the heart, four-leaf clover, horseshoe, money bag, and wishbone.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s there was a fad for good luck coins and pocket pieces in North America, and the elephant did double duty: On regular pocket pieces, the elephant appeared along with the a panoply of good luck symbols, including the All-Seeing Eye, the swastika, the heart-padlock, the four-leaf clover, the horseshoe, the rabbit foot, and thewishbone; while on political advertising coins the elephant appeared alone, both for luck and as the mascot of the Republican Party.
After the lucky elephant "trunk up" belief became established in the USA, the belief that black cat with "tail up" were lucky soon followed, and magic candles in the form of a black cat with tail up can be found in old hoodoo catalogues dating back to the 1940s at least, if not earlier. However, tail up black cat statues never took off the way trunk up elephant statues did, so all we ever see are the black cat figural candles, which are generally burned for luck in gambling.
Elephant charms and lucky elephant figurines are still made and used, but their popularity is currently on the wane. One reason for this may be that the much-publicized endangered-species status of the elephant makes it seem anything but "lucky" in the modern world. Another reason may be that, like the rabbit foot, raccoon penis bone, and rattlesnake rattle, the elephant charm has somehow become linked with current cultural trends deploring the "exploitation of animals."
For more pages on lucky elephants, see:
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