Imagine a four-legged beast with no knee joints that cannot lie down and has to sleep leaning against a tree. An animal with a long, skinny trumpet for a nose. A creature large enough that one can build small castles on its back. It lives for 300 years and is afraid of mice. Its mortal enemy is the dragon. It must “travel to the East, near Paradise, where the mandrake grows” when it comes time to mate. Now draw this thing.
What did you come up with? Chances are, if you actually undertook this exercise, you would arrive at something resembling the medieval conception of elephants, found in illustrated manuscripts across Europe. The artists had apparently never seen this creature, but it featured prominently in bestiaries – popular encyclopedias of animals that drew together the work of classical authors and medieval travelers to show how animals symbolize human and divine traits.