Why Are White Elephants called White Elephants?

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Podcast Transcript

If you’ve been around long enough, you might have heard something being described as a white elephant. 

A white elephant is something that is a burden, usually costly, that you can’t get rid of.

Why did that particular color of that particular animal get picked to represent something so odious? 

Learn more about white elephants and why they came to represent what they do, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Given the negative connotations of the English phrase “a white elephant”, you might be surprised to learn that the origin of white elephants is actually rather positive. 

The earliest reference to a white elephant comes from the ancient Hindu  Purana texts. In it, they tell of the god Indra who has a white elephant. In fact, to this day, Indra is usually depicted riding on his white elephant, which was named Airavata.

This depiction of a white elephant as a powerful and holy symbol, goes back thousands of years to the very origins of Hinduism. 

Today, we tend to think of Hinduism as just being a religion that is centered in India. However, centuries ago, it was the predominant religion over a much larger area. 

In particular, Hinduism was the dominant religion in most of what we call Southeast Asia. Many famous temples and ruins in Southeast Asia actually had Hindu origins.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia was originally Hindu, as was Prambanan in Indonesia, and the My Son temples in Vietnam

It also so happens that Southeast Asia, as well as India and parts of eastern China, was the original habitat of the Asian elephant. 

Hinduism was replaced by Theraveda Buddhism in most of Southeast Asia about 1000 to 500 years ago.  Theraveda Buddhism actually borrows several customs and traditions from Hinduism. One of which, at least in Southeast Asia, was a reverence for the white elephant. 

Buddhism also had its own references to white elephants as well. According to legend, Maya, the mother of the Buddha, was impregnated by a white elephant.

What exactly makes white elephants so special? 

White elephants are elephants that exhibit albinism. 

Albinism is a condition that can exist in almost every plant or animal species. It is a lack of pigmentation which causes the animal to usually appear white. 

Albinism is a rare condition. Just how rare it is will depend on the species. For example, some species of birds appear to exhibit albinism in about 1 in every 1100 births. 

In other species, it can be extremely rare. For example, there has only been a single known example of an albino gorilla. 

One of the reasons it is so seldom seen in nature is that many of the conditions that go along with albinism can dramatically shorten lifespan. 

An albino crocodile, for example, will usually die days after birth, due to a lack of protection from the sun. In other species, it tends to make the creature with the condition a target for predators. 

In many cultures, finding an albino animal is considered a sign of a good omen, or that the animal was a special spirit. Many native American tribes had a taboo against hunting or killing albino animals as they were believed to be great spirits. 

In British Columbia, there is a population of white black bears that are not albino but are called spirit bears. 

There is a similar population of white lions in southern Africa which have also been traditionally revered.

So, it should come as no surprise that an albino version of a majestic creature like an elephant should be considered a very positive thing. 

Here I’ll note that white elephants, aka albino elephants, don’t actually look “white” like a polar bear is white. That is because while their hair is white, elephants don’t have a lot of hair, and you mostly see their bare skin. So they actually look sort of pink, 

In the Sassanid Empire in Persia, white elephants were used in battle. 

Arab rulers during the Caliphate often would ride on a white elephant as it was considered a royal symbol. There weren’t any religious connotations to the elephant, it was just something a ruler would ride on.

Likewise, the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, gave a white elephant to the European Emperor Charlemagne as a gift.

In the countries in Southeast East Asia which practiced Theravedic Buddhism, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, it was a very good omen for the king to be in possession of a white elephant. 

The more white elephants a king had, the better things would be for everyone as the king, and hence the kingdom would be blessed with peace and prosperity. 

I should note, that in the Thai language, they are not called white elephants, but rather are simply referred to as albino elephants when they are literally being mentioned,  or they will more commonly be referred to as chang samkhan, which means auspicious elephant. 

 A white elephant is an English language euphemism. 

The flag of the Kingdom of Siam, which was the name of the country before Thailand, had a white elephant on it from 1817 to 1917. The flag of the Thai navy today still has a white elephant on it.

When a white elephant was found, it would usually be given to the king as a gift. This was a very good deal if you happened to have been one of the albino elephants.

The king’s white elephants would be given the utmost care and treatment. They would be the most pampered animals in the country given their central importance. Unlike other elephants in Asia, they were never required to work.

This tradition of white elephants still exists and has never gone away. 

The previous King of Thailand, Rama IX, had a total of 21 white elephants during his very long 70-year reign. 

When the new king of Thailand was crowned in 2019, a white elephant was part of the ceremony. 

In Burma, the military junta there actually make a public announcement in 2001 that they were looking for white elephants to give legitimacy to their government. It is believed they still have 9 white elephants.

In 1970, United States Vice-President Spiro Agnew gave a baby white elephant as a gift to the Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk. No one knows what happened to it, but it most certainly didn’t survive the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

So, white elephants have a very long history as being honored and revered creatures.

However, that seems to have nothing to do with how the term “white elephant” is used today, as something which is an expensive burden.

How did this modern usage of the term come about? 

Well, believe it or not, it actually came from the King of Siam. 

If the king had many white elephants, on occasion he would give one as a gift, either to another king, or some other member of the nobility. 

Getting a white elephant as a gift was a blessing and a curse.

It was a blessing in that it came from the king and everything that the white elephant represented. 

However, given its sacred status, it also required a lot of money to keep it. You couldn’t just sell it or give it away. You had to hire special staff to look after it, you had to build a facility to house it, and of course, you had to feed it. And because it was sacred, you couldn’t use it to work, so it wouldn’t actually make you any money. 

Furthermore, given the lifespan of elephants, it was a cost that you were going to have to incur for years. 

The use of the term “white elephant” to refer to an expensive burden first appeared in the 17th century and came into common use in the 19th century. 

The American showman PT Barnum purchased a white elephant from the King of Siam only to find out that he was really just a normal elephant with some pink blotches on his skin. The king wasn’t dumb enough to actually sell an American the good stuff.

Nonetheless, Barnum promoted the elephant as the “Sacred White Elephant of Burma”.

In New England, people had white elephant sales, which was just a way for them to sell off unwanted objects. 

The symbol of the Oakland Athletics baseball team has been a white elephant ever since 1902 when the New York Giant’s manager John McGraw told a newspaper reporter that the Athletic’s owner had a white elephant on his hands. 

The Athletics manager, Connie Mack ran with it and began using a white elephant as the team’s mascot, which they still do today.

Modern-day usage of the term will often be used for very expensive government projects that don’t pan out, like airports or military systems. So much money was spent on them, that politically, they can’t just be thrown out or abandoned.

The term is also used to describe employees which do nothing, yet can’t be fired. 

So, the term “white elephant” does actually have its roots in actually white elephants. 

While it isn’t known if the King of Siam would gift white elephants on purpose to economically disadvantage someone, even today, keeping a white elephant is something that probably only a king can afford.