Semiramis was a legendary and mythologized figure whose tales likely were built around the historical Assyrian Queen Sammu-Ramat, who held power as a regent ruler around 811-806 BCE for her son, King Adad-Nirari III (r. 811-783 BCE). During her regency, the Assyrians launched attacks on Armenians and the Medes. Her son, Adad-Nirari III, and the kings who came to power after him, continued Sammu-Ramat’s expansionist ways, extending Assyrian influence into the Iranian plateau, down toward the Persian Gulf, and also spreading westward in the direction of Egypt. Over time, folktales about Sammu-Ramat were meshed together with (and expanded beyond) the feats of her son and the succeeding kings after them, resulting in the legendary and embellished figure of Semiramis being presented in ancient texts as a larger-than-life Assyrian queen who single-handedly conquered as far west as the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, as far south as Ethiopia, and as far east as India. Stories of Semiramis’ campaigns in India (where no Assyrian armies ever actually set foot) were quite imaginative. The strangest of all was a tale in which Semiramis supposedly manufactured an army of giant elephant-shaped puppets.
Semiramis did not build her army of fake elephants on a mere whim. As can be ascertained by her need to create the puppets, she had no real elephants in her army. This, in her mind, put her at a disadvantage against the Indian armies, which did indeed have elephants. Therefore, Semiramis reportedly created fake elephants to make the Indian armies wary of attacking her vulnerable invasion force. This peculiar story was recorded by the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE):
“Observing that she was greatly inferior because of her lack of elephants, Semiramis conceived the plan of making dummies like these animals, in the hope that Indians would be struck with terror because of the belief that no elephants ever existed at all apart from those found in India. Accordingly she chose out three hundred thousand black oxen and distributed their meat among the artisans and the men who had been assigned to the task of making the figures, but the hides she sewed together and stuffed with straw, and thus made dummies, copying in every detail the natural appearance of these animals. Each dummy had within it a man to take care of it and a camel and, when it was moved by the latter, to those who saw it from a distance it looked like an actual animal” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, II.16).
Semiramis’ fake elephants, powered by hidden men and camels, did their job well at the beginning of the mythical invasion. Deserters from Semiramis’ army, however, betrayed the ruse to the Indian forces. No longer worried about the army of fake elephants, the Indian troops attacked Semiramis and forced her to withdraw back into the normal territory of the Assyrian Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Elephants By A Pool, Painted By Antoine-Louis Barye (c. 1795–1875), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).