Olifant (instrument)

Olifant (an alternate spelling of the word elephant) was the name applied in the Middle Ages to ivory hunting horns made from elephants' tusks. One of the most famous olifants belonged to the legendary Frankish knight Roland, protagonist of The Song of Roland.

Olifant from the Le Musée Paul Dupuy of Toulouse.
Olifant from the treasury of Aachen Cathedral.
Roland blows his olifant to summon help in the midst the Battle of Roncevaux

In The Song of Roland, Roland carries his olifant while serving on the rearguard of Charlemagne's army. When they are attacked at the Battle of Roncevaux, Oliver tells Roland to use it to call for aid, but he refuses. Roland finally relents, but the battle is already lost. He tries to destroy the olifant along with his sword Durendal, lest they fall into enemy hands. In the end, Roland blows the horn, but the force required bursts his temple, resulting in death.[1] The Karlamagnussaga elaborates (V. c.XIV) that Roland's olifant was a unicorn's horn, hunted in India.

Another famous olifant belonged to Gaston IV, viscount of Béarn, and is now preserved in the Spanish city of Saragossa, which he helped conquer from the Banu Hud.

Salernitan oliphantsEdit

The Horn or Oliphant of Ulph, preserved in the treasury of York Minster, is one of a group that were carved in Salerno[2] in the first half of the eleventh century. In one of its bands of low-relief carving, addorsed paired griffons have tails that terminate in monstrous eared heads.

The horn of Ulph is most likely the very Horn of Tenure given to York Minster by the Viking nobleman Ulph, who resided in Yorkshire before the reign of Edward the Confessor; thus the Horn of Ulph cannot be dated later than the first half of the eleventh century.[3]

A group of surviving ivory horns carved with bands of low relief have been attributed to the same Salerno workshops as the Oliphant of Ulph:[4] the oliphant of the Chartreuse de Portes,[5] an oliphant in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the horn of Muri Abbey conserved in Vienna,[6] and oliphants from the treasury of the Basilica of St. Sernin, Toulouse, and Saragossa Cathedral.[7]

Depictions in FictionEdit

Boromir's Horn or the Horn of Gondor in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings seems to have been based on the Medieval Olifant. There is a connection to the Song of Roland in the novels and movies, when Boromir blows the horn at the battle of Amon Hen to try to summon help from the other members of the Fellowship of the Ring. For Boromir, like Roland, this action comes too late, as he is mortally wounded with several arrows shot by an Orc archer by the time Aragorn and the others reach him.

The horn was later presented to Denethor, Steward of Gondor as proof of his son's death. In the movie of The Return of the King, he holds the horn, now split in two, and demands an explanation for what happened from the wizard Gandalf.

Queen Susan's horn in the Chronicles of Narnia series also resembles an Olifant, and it was said that whenever it was blown "help would certainly come" who whoever had blown it. Queen Susan blows it to summon assistance in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and later uses it as a hunting horn. In Prince Caspian it magically summons the four Pevensie children back to Narnia when it is blown by the young Caspian.


  1. ^ The Song of Roland (Oxford text, trans. Douglas David Roy Owen, 1972. George Allen and Unwin, ISBN 0-04-841003-9
  2. ^ Hanns Swarzenski, "Two Oliphants in the Museum", Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 60 (1962):27-45) esp. pp 42-44.
  3. ^ Swarzenski 1962:36.
  4. ^ Swarzenski (1962:34ff, 40).
  5. ^ Conserved in the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.
  6. ^ Swartzenski (1962:34) supports T.D.Kendrick's assertion (Kendrick, "The Horn of Ulph", Antiquity 11 (1937:237ff) that the oliphant from Muri was carved in the same workshop as the Horn of Ulph.
  7. ^ Swartzenski 1962:40 and illus.

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