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Tusks are teeth of certain mammals, canines or incisors, growing out through the mouth and protruding considerably from the mouth and face. For elephants and narwhals tusks are incisors, for walruses and various boars they are canines. They are used as weapons, tools, and for demonstration of dominance.
Elephant tusks give ivory, an exclusive material which was so highly priced that it almost made elephants extinct in Africa. Now trade is extensively forbidden or restricted, but unfortunately a black market exists and flourishes. India and China are major centres for this illegal trading. The African centre for this dubious trade is Egypt, where genuine ivory can occasionally be found in the Cairo bazaar "Khan el-Khalili" along with any amount of counterfeiting. Note, however, that genuine ivory is illegally obtained, often from Sudan, and crossing of any border with it, even if purchased in good faith, might be illegal.
Other mammals also provide ivory, for example hippopotamus, walrus, and mammoth. Mammoths are extinct, but trade with their ivory is not forbidden. Still it is a waste to use remnants of valuable fossils for this purpose.
Ivory consists of dentine, the same material that forms the layer beneath the enamel of all mammal teeth. Still there are small structural differences between ivory derived from different species. For an expert, it is quite possible to tell the sort of ivory he is holding in his hand.
Elephant ivory consists of collagen, proteins, and hydroxyapatite, with an amorphous crystalline structure.
Other materials are sometimes used to imitate ivory: horn, bone, the inner seed of the ivory palm - and, especially, plastics.
You can tell if ivory is genuine by examining it under UV-light. As opposed to imitations, real ivory will fluoresce and look bright. It will also be a little grainy in an irregular way. Plastic imitations, especially, are too smooth and too regular in the often added grain structure. You may need a magnifying glass or a jewelers loupe in order to inspect this. Remember that ivory is material from a tooth, it must look and feel like that.
Historically, trading with ivory goes back as far as old Egypt (oldest findings: 4500 BC), India and China. King Solomon (10th century BC) bought it from India, and Persian rulers used it at least as early as the 6th century BC. Greeks and Romans loved it, and so did Byzantines.
The best ivory carvers probably existed and exist in India and China. As a noble craft it is mentioned already in the Vedic tradition, and there are several Indian centres of this art.
In Japan there is an artistically exquisite tradition of carving small objects, "netsuke", whose purpose is to act as toggles for hanging things from the sash of a kimono [Japanese: "obi"]. Traditional Japanese garments had or have no pockets, so the wearer had to hang small containers or pouches [sagemono] in cords from the sash. "Netsuke" can be made of ivory or of wood.
For what else has ivory been used? Artworks, inlays and relief decorations, jewelry, and any number of small objects: combs, elaborate boxes, chesspieces, signature seals (as Chinese and East Asian signature chops), piano keys, dice, and much more. And it is airtight, a property due to which it could be used for specific purposes in making small airtight vessels or opium pipes. In India there is a special tradition of using ivory for statues of deities and other religious objects, and ivory Buddhas have been made throughout the whole of East Asia.
“All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word. I know, I have been crying out to them.”
(Kabir, 15th century, Indian Philosopher)
Ground ivory is sometimes used as a medicine, especially in TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine]. Aphrodisiacal effects are attributed to it. Ivory might work as a mineral supplement, a very expensive one; other health claims are scientifically unsubstantiated.
Another use is the production of colour pigment. While "ivory" often refers to a whitish, pale hue, as of human skin, the pigment made from it is black. But strictly, the source of "ivory black" was and is not often ivory, but bone. The black pigment is a result of charred animal bone. That means that bone is heated to drive out the hydrogen and oxygen, it is subject to incomplete combustion. The resulting bone char is black.
When real ivory is used instead of bone, the result is ivory char, and the black resulting from that is much deeper and of superior brilliancy. It is expensive, however, and today it is rarely used.
The French language has two different terms here, "noir d'ivoire" and "noir de carbone", so do Spanish and Portuguese. Italian has even three: "carbone di ossa", "nero animale", "nero d'avorio". It can be interesting to note the term "avorio" [ivory], which most people know in connection with "avorio rice".
The pale, whitish hue of natural ivory is the ideal colour of female skin in Japanese and Chinese cultures. To achieve it, many soaps and other skin-products contain bleaches, often extremely toxic.
The word "tusk" probably stems from the same original root as the word "tooth", but this is merely guesswork. Strictly, its origin is uncertain.
The word "ivory" stems from Old French "yvoire" or "ivurie"; Latin "ebur"; further from the Old Egyptian word for elephant: "ab"; which gave "abu", "abw" or "ebu". [The letters "b" and "v" are phonetically related, a change between them is not unnatural.]
Another suggestion is that Latin "ebor" ultimately stems from Sanskrit "ibhas" [elephant].
A third theory is that the origin of "ebor" is Syrian "hivar", a word for ivory referring to its whiteness.
In old Hebrew, ivory is "shen" or "shenhab", the latter being a combination of "shen" [tooth] and Egyptian "ab" [elephant].
In modern German, we meet the elephant again, ivory is called "Elfenbein" [elephant bone]. And in most languages the word refers either to elephant bone, or elephant tooth. Medieval and modern Arabic call it "nab-al-fil" [tooth of elephant] or as an interesting exception from the elephant connection: "'Aj" from "'Awj" [bend, curve], which must have to do with the shape of a tusk.
From Arabic "nab-al-fil" stems (probably) Spanish "marfil".
"Ivory tower" [exaggerated aloofness] is a concept first invented in French (1837), where it was used by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve about Alfred de Vigny in "Pensées d'Août, a M. Villemain":
“Et Vigny, plus secret, Comme en sa tour d'ivoire, avant midi rentrait.”
In English, the earliest known use was in 1911, in "H. L. Bergson's Laughter" by Frederick Rothwell and Cloudesley Shovell Henry Brereton:
“Each member must be ever attentive to his social surroundings - he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.”
There is an earlier use, in the Bible, but the meaning here is different.
“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.”
(Song of Solomon 7:4, King James Version)
Here the ivory tower is a symbol of purity. It has also been used about Virgin Mary.
In Italian it's called "torre d'avorio", in German "Elfenbeinturm", in Spanish "torre de marfil". But an equivalent expression in e.g. Chinese is lacking. This concept is firmly rooted in a specific cultural background.
"Our dreams are a second life. I have never been able to penetrate without a shudder those ivory or horned gates which separate us from the invisible world."
(Gerard de Nerval)
The old Greeks made a distinction between the horned gates and the ivory gates. They said that false dreams arrived through the ivory gates; their word for ivory resembled that for "deceive". In the same manner true dreams arrived through the horned gates; their word for horn resembled that for “fulfil”.
This concept first appears in Homer's "The Odyssey", subsequently to be imitated by Vergil in "The Aeneid":
“Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish'd ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro' transparent horn arise;
Thro' polish'd ivory pass deluding lies.
Of various things discoursing as he pass'd,
Anchises hither bends his steps at last.
Then, thro' the gate of iv'ry, he dismiss'd
His valiant offspring and divining guest.”
(Translation by John Dryden; in the public domain)
It later occurs in works of e.g. Edmund Spenser, T.S. Eliot, and H.P. Lovecraft, and has become an established metaphor in western intellectual tradition.
While I am fully able to enjoy and appreciate the craftsmanship and the artistry of ivory carvings, and the lustre of this exquisite material, that does not justify the taking of lives. Killing elephants or other animals to access their ivory is, in my opinion, unacceptable. Although almost globally banned, ivory trade flourishes and poaching still threatens the elephant populations of both Africa and India. This is not a matter of law but one of ethics and responsibility.
What would you feel if elephants with advanced weaponry came hunting humans, perhaps members of your own family, killing them in large numbers to take their teeth, leaving the rest to rot somewhere?
Reversing the perspective can sometimes provoke fresh thoughts and new insights.