In Praise of Donkeys

by Elf S. Raymond



"Serve the Lord with gladness." Psalm 100:2

She was a silver donkey and her name was Bianchina. Trotting, her hooves chipped flint. Sparks flew when she stepped on the cobble-stones of this Umbrian hill town's narrow main street that wound its way down to the town gate, the ancient door of Minerva. Once outside the gate, Bianchina, with a spring in her step, would walk on earth and gravel still cool from the night.

Daylight crept up like a thief, appearing of a sudden. The valley below was filled with mist while the flanks of the hills, left and right, lit up with green bands of pastures, terraced vineyards, and the silvery veils of olive tree clusters in full foliage. A lark rose straight up into the sky, singing. The light grew brighter, bringing a foretaste of heat, and the sun moved higher.

When she crossed a bridge, Bianchina pricked up her long ears to the sound of rushing water, pulled on the rope and looked with large, liquid-brown eyes at the young man who was leading her. He looked back at the small donkey and nodded. Together they went down the grass bank to the water's edge where Bianchina drank from the brook and patiently waited while her master took a dip. Now the new day had begun in earnest. Back on the road, they walked swiftly soon to reach a gravel pit and a quarry.

Carefully, Francis filled two large baskets with stones, yoked them together and, with great effort, placed them on Bianchina's back. She stood quietly, with bent neck.

The load was heavy, the path up the hillside steep and narrow. Guarding each step against slips, Francis and Bianchina climbed to their destination: a crumbling small church. (#1) On arrival, he placed the baskets on the ground, led the donkey to a pine tree and took off the halter, stroking her short mane. It took a while for her legs to stop trembling and for her breathing to go softly after the climb.

Francis, as he had done yesterday and the day before, began rebuilding the north wall of the church, stone by stone. He used rocks and stones he found on the ground together with those Bianchina had carried up from the quarry. His eyes and hands served with precision, as measure. Though delicate, Francis was strong and happy in what he was doing. Time seemed to stand still.

But the heat rose, and the sound of the cicadas turned shrill when the sun reached mid-sky. Two children, who had seen the man and his donkey before, brought cheese, olives, bread, and water, and started to ride Bianchina around in circles. Francis thanked the children and asked them to bring his thanks and greetings home. (#2) He sat down in the shade under a tree, slowly ate lunch and rested. Before long, a breeze started up and scattered a flock of white clouds across the sky. The heat subsided.

With a jump Francis, returned to work. Seeing how the wall had grown, his pace quickened and he kept fitting stone to stone, until sunset. Now, standing erect, he looked astonished at the play of light in the evening sky: innumerable swirling shades of blue divided by a snake-like streak of orange where the westerly hills touched the sky far on the horizon.

Sure-footed Bianchina climbed down the hillside, showing the way. The two baskets were stored at the quarry to be used again the next day. Tired, Francis and Bianchina walked side by side back to the town and, just when they entered the gate of Minerva, the first stars came out. Bells started ringing, filling streets, squares with fountains, stables, palaces and houses, and the hearts of many creatures with big moving sounds of thanks for the day that now drew to its close.

Francis knocked at a richly carved wooden door to ask for supper and a place to stay overnight. No answer. When he sat down on the steps, a small band of boys, (or was it young men?) came by, made fun of him and threw stones at the donkey. Quickly, Francis got up. The gang drew closer, making braying noises and shouting insults. A crowd gathered, eager for a brawl, only to be dispersed by a sudden rain shower. Everyone ran for cover, and the man and his donkey found themselves alone again, wet and safe.

Francis kept knocking at doors. Some did not open while others did, to be shut again. At long last, he was asked to enter. For Bianchina, there was place in the stable, oats, hay and water; even fresh straw in a corner. Francis wished her a good night, secured the door and joined the family of six in the large kitchen. The smell of freshly baked bread filled the air. He was hungry and glad that the meal was about to begin. They all said thanks, broke bread, poured wine and had supper. Soon afterwards, the children went to bed. The grown-ups stayed up for quite a while, talking. A cricket chorus kept the rhythms of the summer night, and the donkey in the stable stirred from time to time in her sleep.


Part II: Lucius

"Gently pluck the roses with your mouth
and you will slough off the hide
of what has always been for me the most
hateful beast in the universe."
Isis to Lucius, The Golden Ass

Lucius, so a golden story from late antiquity tells, is a donkey in Thessaly, famed land of witches. (#3) His coat is a reddish dun, or sandy gold: the color of his distant ancestors who, as wild asses, roamed the African deserts. Domesticated by early peoples in the upper Nile valley, the ass, priceless for farming as well as trade and transportation, became the center of a cult. He was worshipped as being sacred to the great god Set, Lord of the Universe, the original head of the Egyptian pantheon, whose home was the South. Set often was depicted in a donkey's shape. His distinguishing mark was, unsurprisingly, long and pointed ears. Representations of these ears became the prototypes of divine and royal power, i.e. ultimate authority. They form the power glyph: the two tips of every scepter carried by Egyptian gods and kings, as tokens of remembrance that all legitimate power derives from Set. (#4)

Though power and authority stay, they change hands over time: From the hands of the One to the hands of the Many. Myth tells how the Lord Set was dispatched by young Horus, son of Queen Isis, in retribution for his murder of Osiris. With Set's downfall in Upper Egypt and the regions under his influence, the Southern part of sky and earth lost early on much of its prestige. The seat of power, celestial and otherwise, moved slowly north, down the river Nile to the Mediterranean basin. Subtle priests, spinning resilient threads and weaving tales, invent in perpetuity new patterns of what is to be deemed true and good and evil, delivering the border-setting rules for life's repetitive realities in shimmering new guises. Thus continuity is made to prevail across the cataclasms, the tectonic shifts of power that punctuate the work of time. In the new fables, Set not only figures as defeated by young Horus, but as transfigured into the demonic power of hot evil at the telluric center, the Prince of Darkness, commanding the forces of hell. (#5) And what happened to Set/Satan's signature animal in the new dispensations?

A lot! When Lucius was grazing the hedges of Thessaly in search of roses, in the middle of the second century, the donkey was an outcast, a maligned beast of burden. Although Dionysus had set a pair of asses among the stars (#6) and the two bright stars above Orion are called Orion's donkey ears, our equine friend's reputation was severely damaged, perhaps beyond repair. His lovely ears gracing the scepter were no longer recognized for what they stand for, but reinterpreted as, say, bird feathers, reeds, or lily leaves. And when Apollo is punishing King Midas for failing to agree that he, Apollo, deserved the prize he won in his musical contest with Marsyas, he gives him donkey ears to wear as signs of ridicule. To cover his shame, Midas takes to wearing a cap. (#7) In Egypt Set had lost to Horus, and in Greece, Dionysus to Apollo. In addition, the leader of the Giants in their revolt against the Olympians was the great Alcyoneus whose name means "Mighty Ass". The revolt was suppressed, the Giants defeated and Alcyoneus died at the hands of Heracles. Loss tends to result in ignominy, and this story is no exception.

From now on, the donkey's fine virtues of patience, frugality, forbearance and moderation go unacknowledged. His name and image convey the sinister and stand for lust, lechery, wickedness, filth, and cruelty. The donkey, sacred to Set and to Dionysus, has been transformed into the most despicable of not just quadrupeds, but creatures, real and imaginary. Parts of his anatomy, the haunches, are routinely used by story-tellers as the very marks of viciousness and are attributed to the insatiably lewd, disgusting, and terrorizing demons known as Empusae, the Hellenic counterparts to the Hebrew Lilim, daughters of Lilith and Sodom. Once every year, the poet Pindar tells in the tenth Pythian Ode, hecatombs of donkeys were brought to slaughter, sacrificed to Hyperborean Horus-Apollo; and Plutarch in "On Isis and Osiris" reports that in Egypt Set's defeat by Horus was commemorated annually by driving herds of reddish donkeys over cliffs to their certain death.

Poor Lucius! Why such ill-luck? What has he done to incur the agony of such humiliation and walk the earth in the shape of a wretched ass? After all, Lucius knew himself to be a young man with the distinction of having, on his mother's side, descended from the famous Plutarch, and, if this were not enough, to be heir to a considerable patrimony. All the years of his life he had enjoyed the advantages of a privileged existence, including a university education that led him from Carthage to Athens where he quickly took to the divine Plato's theory of the eternal soul's rational ascent.

One fine day, family business brought Lucius to Hypata, the largest town in Thessaly. There he fell in love with his host's slave-girl by the name of Fotis. Enticed by signs she proffered, he started a dalliance. Though this affair was neither lacking in ardor nor charm, Lucius' ultimate aim was to gain, with the experienced girl's help, access to the secrets of the Thessalian witches' art. His curiosity burned even brighter than his passion! While attending a dinner party at Lady Birrhaena's house, his attention was arrested by a marvelous sculpture of Actaeon whom the goddess Diana had transformed into a stag to punish him for his immodest gaze. But Lucius failed to heed the warning sign and persisted in his rash pursuit of Thessaly's black magic. A dalliance with a slave girl, though unbecoming to a man of his station, is one thing. Fooling around with the supernatural, quite another. When the girl, no mean apprentice witch, acceded to his desire and gave him a box with ointment to change him according to his wishes into an owl, renowned bird of wisdom, her spell, horror of horrors, turned him into an ass. Flushed with the spirit of self-condemnation, she reassured her transformed lover Lucius, who had lost the power of speech, and much else besides, that nibbling just a few rose petals would return him to human shape at once.

A year elapsed: Twelve sorrowful, long months where all the Signs of the Zodiac passed through their House at the appointed time. Ill-starred Lucius had had during the entire time only one brief gasp of reprieve from his shame and torment. This happened right after the victory over the bandits, when he carried eagerly, and with great pleasure, the lovely Charite from the threats of death in the bandits' dark forsaken cave back to life and freedom. But in no time blind fortune's cruel blows continued unabated.

Had now, after leaving Thessaly and arriving at Corinth, the moment finally arrived for Lucius to die a ritual death and be reborn as human, or was he destined to remain forever incarcerated in his thick ass-hide? Roses readied themselves to bloom and fresh hope filled his heart. Thyasus, a judge, and his last master, had made Lucius into a friend of sorts. But this worthy judge was not above planning to display him, Lucius, in public spectacle, engaging in intimate embrace with a murderess during a three day festival at Corinth. The thought of having to perform in public the most intimate of all connexions made Lucius blush under his hide. This was against his sense of decorum as a man, and an affront to the modesty nature lends all creatures. That the woman in question was a murderess, unworthy of amorous attention, turned this impending prospect from being delicate to morally revolting. While waiting for the scheduled ceremony, tears of shame almost obscured Lucius' vision when, at a moment's stroke of luck, he saw a chance to solve the torturous dilemma by staging a lightning escape. After a six mile gallop, he reached the other end of town and found a safe, secluded beach, washed by the waters of the Aegean Sea. Night fell and sleep was sweet.

During the night, Queen Isis, also known as Hera, Juno, Hecate, Rhamnubia, Demeter, Cecropian Artemis, Diana of Ephesus, Blessed Queen of Heaven, Bellona of the Battles, Ceres, Lady of the Fields, Celestial Aphrodite, Great Mother, Stygian Proserpine, Ruler of Life, Love and Death, and by many other names and titles proper to her godhead, addresses Lucius: "Weep no more, lament no longer; the hour of deliverance is at hand...Tomorrow my priests offer me the first fruits of the new sailing season...You must wait for this sacred ceremony, with a mind that is neither anxious for the future nor clouded with profane thoughts; and I shall order the high priest to carry a garland of roses in my procession, tied to the rattle which he carries in his right hand. Do not hesitate, push the crowd aside, join the procession with confidence in my grace. Then come close up to the High Priest as if you wished to kiss his hand, gently pluck the roses with your mouth and you will immediately slough off the hide of what has always been for me the most hateful beast in the universe." (#8) Shortly thereafter the vision of the invincible goddess faded and dissolved.

The next day, at the procession, Lucius gently and politely wriggled his way to the High Priest: "He stood still and held out the rose garland to the level of my mouth. I trembled and my heart pounded as I ate those roses with loving relish; and no sooner had I swallowed them that I found that the promise had been no deceit. My bestial features faded away, the rough hair fell from my body, my sagging paunch tightened, my hind hooves separated into feet and toes, my fore hooves now no longer served only for walking upon, but were restored, as hands, to their human uses. Then my neck shrank, my face and head rounded, my great hard teeth shrank to their proper size, my long ears shortened, and my tail which had been my worst shame vanished altogether." (#9)

These are the very words Lucius uses later when he writes his novel to describe his transformation into an ass and his return to manhood. In due course he was initiated into the cult of Isis and Osiris. Coming from a family of rank, he was granted the honor of serving the Goddess, and her consort, as priest. He lived a happy life, writing books of history and poetry to please his audience and show his gratitude to Isis for her favor. Not one page, among the many splendid ones that did, came down from Lucius Apuleius indicating that he was troubled by his donkey's status, or anybody else's, as an outcast. Though he had knowledge through his own experience of what it is like to live such a life, he did not repent on it in his thoughts. Neither love of justice, nor pity, have therefore found a home in his immortal works. The donkey, so it seems, better look elsewhere to find an exit from his life of shame and start, just like Lucius, on a new career.


"Even if you drove to Mecca
The little donkey Christ once rode,
He would in no way change his mode
But stay true to donkey nature."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Poets make it so easy for themselves, casting the rays of their own understanding through ambiguity's swirls and haze! Goethe availed himself of this great gift and privilege up to his earthly life's border, when he said, with his last breath, "More Light", sending some people in the room scurrying for candles, while others drew in the sharp, startled breath of sudden illumination.

But what is the reader to do with the lines quoted above? (#10) What is the mode the donkey will not change? What, after all is said and done, is his true nature? As zootype of Set he was endowed with attributes of majesty and fell from his exalted elevation into the pits of Hell to represent the fiendish essence. As friend of Dionysus, and, incidentally, the comely goddess Hestia's protector against Pan's designs upon her chastity, he was set among the starry constellations: a fine, extra-terrestrial place that seemed to promise safety. But in the competition for high places, the sacred least of all is safe. The victorious worship of Apollo with perfidy profaned the patient donkey by turning him, of all things, into the prototype of akrasia: the vice of incontinence and rampant insatiability.

Bad things tend to preponderate in triplets. The third and lasting kick against the donkey's reputation comes from his close association, nay, identification with Saturn. (#11) Saturn as Christmas Fool, or wizened Spirit of the Old Year on its last leg, wears the ass-eared fools-cap dating to the Roman Saturnalia, and his foolishness is transferred to the ass. Foolishness, a quality that serves as wisdom's dialectical partner, coarsened into stupidity, which, proverbially, applied to the ass as his distinguishing mark, begat asininity: no longer a quality engaged in the truth-bent play of elenchic dialectic, (#12) but an immutable, disgraceful essence', projected as dismissive and invective. O, Deus misereatur: Have mercy upon our poor tongues!

Is asininity' then, as vulgar etymology would suggest, the donkey's true nature? Even the nature' Goethe has in mind in penning his lyrical whimsy? There is no easy answer since any number of interpretations can be brought to bear on the question in the light of the varieties of intellectual experience. Mental faculties, after all, vary from one person to the next and also, quite frequently, from moment to moment. But no matter how self-assured, trained, sophisticated, experienced and nimble the understanding, this query's chances for more adequate answers improve when looked at not only in empiricism's flicker of common sense candles, but in the visionary flash of prophetic message (#13) from the depth of suffering and the hope of restoration:

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem:
Behold: thy King cometh unto thee:
He is just, and having salvation;
Lowly, and riding upon an ass,
And upon a colt the foal of an ass."
Zechariah 9:9, KJV

Or, alternately, the contemporary GOOD NEWS translation:

"Rejoice, rejoice, people of Zion!
Shout for joy, you people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you!
He comes triumphant and victorious,
but humble and riding on a donkey -
on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

The prophet's soul, enraptured, is singing an aubade', a song of dawn, announcing a new day and age where all will be well. The substance of his message is power's new example, humility in unison with true authority, the just man's royal image of compassion. A king riding on a humble donkey is a sign pointing for all who see to the secret of the promised future, where power over others is no more desired and self-rule and compassion slowly come to take their place among the constellations of human love and will. It is truly good, not to say excellent, to know only the foolish who are versed in hardship can put their hope and faith on such a promise, only the simple can single-mindedly entrust and give their lives to the prophet's message, and only people with open, upright hearts can glimpse the donkey's nature and walk together gladly through the future's narrow gate:

"The way tomorrow
Leads across chipped cobble-stones:
A donkey's alley."

************************** ************************** *****************


1.) Around the year 1206, a young man, who was to become Saint Francis, restored the walls of San Damiano's tumble-down church on the outskirts of Assisi in Umbria.

2.) In spirit and in deed, Francis has divested himself of his upper class existence and joined the life of the popolo minuto, the poor in town and countryside, for the love of God.

(The above two points are taken from "Saint Francis of Assisi: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of Saint Francis", Marion Habig, ed., Chicago, Franciscan Herald, 1973.)

3.) Lucius' story is the connecting thread of one of the first novels ever penned. The book's origi nal title is "The Transformations of Lucius Apuleius of Madaura" and Luciu s Apuleius of Madaura (uncertain dates: 120-180 c.e.) is ndeed its pseudo-au tobiographical author. Apuleius uses, as he points out in his address t o the Reader, the Egyptian story-telling convention which allows humans to be changed into animals, and relies on the hyper-ornate Milesian style of the professional entertainer. (See "Does She, or Doesn't She: the question of attribution in Plato's MENEXENUS", Elfie Raymond, Occasional Essays, Esther Raushenbush Library, SLC)

The generally ac cepted interpretation of "Lucius" owes a lot to the words of Adlington, the no vel's Victorian translator into English: "Since this book of Lucius is the fi gure of man's life and toucheth the nature and manner of mortal man, egging them forward from their asinal form to their human and perfect shape... I trust that the matter shall be esteemed by such as not only delight to please their fancies in recording the same, but also take a pattern thereby to regenerate their minds from the brutal and beastly custom." The interpretation attempted in this essay side-steps the figurative and tropological-moral approach taken by Adlington and confines itself to the rhetorical and euhemeristic.

4.) See R. Graves "Greek Myths", 83.2.

5.) Fact-informed speculation in fascinating detail about this paradigm shift', or transvaluation of values' at civilization's bright dawn can be found, e.g., in Robert Graves' magnum opus, mentioned above, and Peter Tompkins' "Magic of Obelisks." Contemporary attitudes toward the South, whether they be geo-political, or relate to the human body as cosmic analogue, seem to perpetuate the judgments accompanying the fall of Set.

6.) See Hyginus "Poetic Astronomy", 11, 23.

7.) See R. G raves, op. cit., 83.g. -The story of King Midas' ass-ears is a show- case for the traps interpreters face in the attempts to stabilize meanings and derive unequivocality from mythic double talk. Graves' use of an updated euhemeristic method succeeds in clarifying semantic opacity while simultaneously preserving the tale's potential for plurisignation.

8.) Apuleius, "The Golden Ass", R. Graves, tr., New York, Noonday Press, 24th printing, 1989, p. 265.

9.) Ibid., p. 271.

10.) "Goethe's Gedichte in Zeitlicher Folge", Frankfurt a. M., Insel Verlag, 1990, p. 707.

11.) Robert G rave s explains the connection between the donkey and t he fool in the introduction to his translation of the "Golden Ass" as foll ows: "Asses are connected in we stern European folklore, especially French , with the mid- winter Saturnalia at the conclusion of which the ass-eared god, later the Christmas Fool with his ass-eared cap, was killed by his rival, the Spirit of the New Year - the child Horus, or Harpocrates, or the infant Zeus. That there was an eastern European tradition identifying Saturn's counterpart Cronos with the ass is proved by the anonymous Byzantine scholar of the twelfth century (quoted by Piccolomini in the Rivista di Filologia, ii, 159) who in drawing up a list of metals, colors, flowers, and beasts appropriate to the seven planetary gods gives Cronos' attributes as lead, blue, the hyacinth, and the ass. This explains the otherwise unaccountable popular connection between asses and fools; asses are really far more sagacious than horses."

12.) The Apostle Paul say s in his first letter to the Corinthians "Fo r it is written (Is. 29:14), I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the unders tanding of the prudent. Where IS the wise? Where IS the scribe? Where IS the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe...But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (I Cor. 19-21, 27)

"The Praise of F olly" by Erasmus of Rotterdam picks up this theme in the 16th century to disabuse people of the favorable prejudices they entertain about themselves and their reasoning, exhorting them to replace the subtle sophistries of casuistry by the even subtler, yet simple and felt truths of the wisdom of God's children that is utter foolishness in the eyes of the world.

13.) The King James Version of 1611, known as Authorized Version, features two donkeys, but i s unclear which of them is carrying the rider. The G OOD NEWS bib le of 1976, deftly reduces the number of donkeys to one, havin g the rider mount the colt . Since the passage of the triumphal entry into J erusalem in Zechariah 9 :9 underlies all four New Testament accounts, but especially Matthew's and John's, the suppression of the mother donkey spells trouble for anyone concerned with textual consistency. Fortunately, there are older and better texts. Jerome's scripture translation from Hebrew sources and the Greek of the Septuagint into Latin, known as the Vulgate, was finished around 405 c.e. and says Christ rode the mother donkey. Renaissance painters seem to have favored in depicting Christ's entry into Jerusalem the account in the Vulgate, and Fra Angelico circumscribes his famous representation of the historic scene with Matthew 21:5 "... Behold thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting, upon a she-ass, and a colt the foal of an ass."

In looking at Zechariah's passage and its New Testament progeny, it may be us eful to see it not only as history, or prophecy and fulfillment. It is also a well-known literary topo s', i.e., a common place of things words do, offering knowledge for the rescue of the soul. As such it is related to, as well as a possible correction of Plato's inspired figure of the charioteer with his two steeds in the "Phaedrus." The literary parallel to the entry with donkey' in scripture is, however, to be found in Lucius Apuleius' novel "The Golden Ass" in the section following Lucius' and the graceful Charite's deliverance from the horrors of the bandits' cave:

"As soon as we (Lucius with Charite mounted on his back) came within sight of the town everyone flocked out expectantly. Charite's father, mother, relatives, freedmen, slaves, and all ran delightedly towards us and formed up in procession behind us, followed by crowds of men, women, and children of every age. It was indeed a memorable spectacle: a virgin riding in triumph on an ass."

Robert Graves dryly comments that the last line means "dominating the lusts of the flesh without whip or bridle.'

14.) Two not so urgent questions: How is the Democratic Party's Donkey related to his distinguished forebears? And does the story of Idaho's fabled "Jack- Ass Jack", who struck the largest silver mine north of Potosi, have any bearing on the donkey-symbol's genealogy?