The Elephant as Metaphor

The gold rushers who swarmed into California hoping— but failing— to find an easy fortune, boosted the folklore phrase “I’ve seen the elephant” into national usage during the 1850s. A metaphor unused and forgotten today, it once meant to experience something extraordinary and dangerous, and to acquire sudden maturity from lessons learned through the sufferings of reality—exactly what happened to thousands during the California Gold Rush. Why an elephant as a symbol of enlightenment?  Well, in days long past, hardly anyone in America had seen a live elephant except at circuses, where they were major attractions. The story goes that a farmer, his wagon filled with the totality of his annual produce crop, set out for the market in the next town, excitedly telling everyone at home that he was “going to see the elephant” because a circus was scheduled to arrive there. On his way to the market, the farmer met the circus coming into town from the opposite direction. At the sight of the elephant his frightened horse reared up, overturning his wagon and smashing all his salable produce—and then bolted. The now ruined farmer walked all the way home, mulling over what had happened. He had to admit to his family that all their hard labor that season was for nothing.  Still somewhat awe-stricken, he added “But I got to see the elephant.”

 

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