Tuesday, June 29, 2010

White elephants

A "white elephant" has come to mean many things, but the definitions all refer back to the sacred white elephants kept by kings in Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. The discovery of such pale elephants (they are not actually albinos - see comparison in 2nd image) was taken as a sign that the kingdom was being ruled justly and was blessed with peace and prosperity. It is therefore ironic that a white elephant was captured over the weekend in Burma (3rd image), although others see the animal's find as a sign of hope for the country's opposition parties. It was not the 1st white elephant to be found during Burma's oppressive military rule. Three white elephants were discovered between 2000 and 2002 and presented to Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, who built a garden in Rangoon in which to keep them. Since the general was purged and placed under house arrest in 2005, the regime's leaders have never visited the site.

The idiom of a white elephant as a possession that is a dubious honor to maintain because of its expense derives from the fact that receiving a gift of one of these special animals from the king was both a blessing and a curse. The sacred nature of the beast indicated the recipient's favor, but also precluded that the elephant work for a living to offset the cost of feeding and maintaining it. Happily, this did not present a problem for Pope Leo X (1475-1521), who received 4-year-old Hanno from King Manuel I of Portugal. After arriving by ship in 1514, the white elephant became the pope's favorite pet, living next to St. Peter's Basilica and walking in processions. But Hanno didn't have to be maintained for long - he died in 2 years after being administered a gold-enriched laxative to cure his constipation. There's a moral in there somewhere...

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