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Good elephant rider

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Elephant on a Roman mosaic
Elephant on a Roman mosaic

When having war elephants, it was extremely important to have experienced drivers of these animals, i.e. mahouts. Their task was to take care of the animal every day: feeding, watering, cleaning, and in the event of wounds or illness, special care. In addition to caring for the elephant, the mahout’s most important function was guiding the elephant.

The rider was riding the animal on the back of his neck. He had no stirrups and held himself in the correct position by holding onto the elephant’s body. The trained elephant reacts and is guided by voice commands and patting. The most difficult task of the mahout was to control the elephant during the fight. When an animal was out of control, the spear came into use. Thanks to him, the mahout was able to control the irritable colossus. If sticking didn’t help, the elephant could still be steered by sticking a spear into the animal’s right or left ear, respectively, and pulling. Strong pain forced the elephant to change direction. In the event that all methods failed and the elephant threatened its own troops, the mahout had the option of killing the animal – using a wooden hammer, he drove a metal wedge between the cervical vertebrae of the unfortunate creature and thus killed it on the spot.

This method was probably the last resort, used only in the event of a real threat to the fate of the battle. The war elephant was too valuable to be sacrificed recklessly without apparent necessity. The mahouts caring for the Indian elephants were Indians and came with their charges from the east. Because they were excellent targets in combat, the demand for them may have been even greater than for the elephants themselves. Always, however, obtaining a beast with its keeper was a double advantage for those who could not afford to bring a new handler from India. The drivers of North African elephants were probably recruited from the Numidians or tribes engaged in capturing these animals.

  • Niziołek Paweł, Słonie bojowe w świecie grecko-rzymskim, "Histmag", 16.07.2007

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