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Elephant and dragon

There are at least two vessels from Buckley depicting elephants, two which state 'elephant' in the motto, and at least one mentioning a dragon in the text. Although no direct quote can be found for the mottoes from Buckley, there are links to elephants and dragons in the bestiary texts. A 12th-century manuscript, now in the Cambridge University Library, translated by White in 1954, reads as follows:

'The elephant's nature is that if he tumbles down he cannot get up again, Hence it comes that he leans against a tree when he wants to go to sleep, for he has no joints in his knees.'
(White 1969, 26)

The dragon

'has a crest, a small mouth and a narrow gullet through which it draws breath or puts out its tongue. Moreover, its strength is not in its teeth but in its tail, and it inflicts injury by blows rather than by stinging. Even the elephant is not protected from it by the size of its body; for the dragon, lying in wait near the paths along which the elephants usually saunter, lassoes their legs in a knot with its tail and destroys them by suffocation.'
(ibid, 166).

Also, Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas has a similar description:

'Then suddenly, the Dragon slips his hold
From th'Elephant, and sliding down doth fold
About his fore-legs, fetter'd in such order,
That stocked there he now can stir no further;
While th'elephant (but to no purpose) strives
With's winding trunk t'undoe his wounding gyves,
His furious foe thrusts in his nose, his nose;
Then head and all; and there-withall doth close
His breathing passage: but, his victory
He joyes not long; for his huge enemy
Falling down dead, doth with his weighty fall
Crush him to death, that caus'd his death withall.'
(ibid, 167)

According to Aldrovandus (writing in 1599), the words 'dragon' and 'serpent' are interchangeable. Superstitions in many parts of England regarded dragons/serpents as 'mighty worms' or 'huge snakes' (ibid, 165). The image on vessels 26 and 29 could be interpreted as a worm or snake, i.e. a dragon. Vessel 26 clearly depicts an elephant standing close to this image. In the Christian moralisations, the elephant and the dragon symbolised good and evil.

One has to assume that the Buckley potters had either heard or seen text referring to the elephant and the dragon. The text on the dishes has either been copied incorrectly or remembered incorrectly. It may be written in a local dialect (Lloyd Gruffyd 1980, 164). The depiction of the elephant is very accurate. The potter may have seen a good illustration in a book or actually seen an elephant. Sir Thomas Browne, writing in 1646, comments on the absurdity of the statement that elephants 'hath no joints'. He informs us that 'not many years past, we have had the advantage in England, by an elephant shewn in many parts thereof, not only in the posture of standing, but kneeling and lying down' (Keynes 1968, 272). Maybe the elephant went to Chester and was seen by people from Buckley when they went to the market.

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Last updated: Wed Mar 24 2004