When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Donkeys were first domesticated in the Nile valley, probably in pre-dynastic times (5500-2920 B.C.), and later introduced to Asia. Fans of Winnie the Pooh may be interested to know that the Egyptian name for the donkey was Eeyor . They may have been domesticated independently in Neolithic Spain. Donkeys were first employed to pull the plough and to thresh the corn (perhaps this was why Set was held responsible for the murder of Osiris, who represented - among other things - the ripening corn).
White asses were especially prized in Egypt. I don't know if this tradition predates the character assasination of Set. As is well known, Cleopatra used to bathe in asses milk, as did Poppaea, a wife of Nero. Asses milk was believed to give a white complexion, and said to have numerous medicinal properties. Modern research has shown that asses' milk closely resembles human milk, and may be preferable to cow's milk in this respect. Until recently, it was believed to help cure meningitis. Poppaea is said to have kept 500 she-asses, and this is not unreasonable, as the milk yield is small .
Roman married couples used to adorn their beds with carved asses' heads, because of the association of the ass with fertility. The asses' head, representing Typhon was also engraved onto leaden tablets which were used as curses to cause accidents to rivals in Greek and Roman races. The Romans held the ass sacred to the Goddess Vesta. This was probably because of the association with flour and corn (see section on Samson below). There is even a crucifix from third century Rome showing an ass-headed figure hanging on a cross, with an inscription on it reading "Alaxemenos worships god" It has been interpreted as an insult to the Christian religion (early Christians were sometimes accused of worshipping a god who was a donkey), although it has also been suggested that it represents Typhon/Set and is not intended to be derogatory.
According to Epiphaneus (Heresy XXVI.12), The gnostics had a book which they called "The Birth (or descent) of Mary" which stated that Zacharius, the father of John the baptist, was killed because "....he saw as he was burning incense, a man standing there who had the form of an ass. And when he went out, they say and would have said: woe unto you! what (or whom) do you worship? He that was seen of him within the temple shut his mouth, that he might not be able to speak. And when his mouth was opened, so that he could speak, then he revealed it to them and they slew him."
In Claudius the God by Robert Graves, Herod Agrippa dissuades Calligula from placing his statue in the temle of Jerusalem with the following story: Are you aware of the nature of the statue which is now ket in the innermost shrine of the Temple, and the rites wich are performed about it on holy days? ....the god of the Jews is an extraordinary fellow. He has been described as an anti-God. He has a rooted aversion to statues, particularly to statues of majestic bearing and dignified workmanship like those of the Greek Gods. In order to symbolise his hatred for other divinities he has ordered the erection, in this inner shrine, of a large crude, and ludicrous statue of an Ass. It has long ears, huge teeth, and enormous genitals, and on every holy day the priests abuse this statue with the vilest incantations and bespatter it with the most loathsome excrement and offal and then wheel it on a carriage around the inner court for the whole congregation to abuse similarly; so that the whole Temple stinks like the Great Sewer. It is a secret ceremony. No non Jews are admitted to it and the Jews themselves are not allowed to speak about it under penalty of a curse. In any case I am risking it for your sake."
Donkeys are quite intelligent animals, the association with foolishness seems to have originated in Italy, possibly in the late Roman era. Prior to that time, as I have shown, many people held Donkeys in high esteem. In 260 B.C. There was a consul named Gnaius Cornelius Scipio Asina, who is believed to have been so called because of his large ears . The clan names Asina and Asellus were particularly distinguished at this time .
The childish insult of touching ones ears with the thumbs, and waving the open palms of the hands at someone (you know what I mean), probably represents the ears of a donkey. Plutarch (book V, 363) reports that the Egyptians once called the Persian ruler Ochus, an ass. He responded by killing and eating the sacred Apis bull .
There also seems to be a connection between the Donkey and the European tradition of appointing a "Lord of Misrule" or "Christmas fool" at Midwinter. This tradition echoes the Roman tradition of the Midwinter Saturnalia, when slaves and masters changed places. In The Quest of the holy grail Hector has a dream in which Lancelot is wreathed in holly and riding a donkey***. The location for Castle Cawdor near Inverness (made famous in Macbeth), was apparently chosen because the first Thane of Cawdor, William Calder had a dream that the castle should be built where his donkey lay down to rest. The donkey lay down next to a holly tree, the remains of which can still be seen in the castle grounds. In the Celtic tree calendar, the Beth Luis Nionn, holly represents the month immediately following the summer solstice, and oak the month preceding it .
It should also be remembered that Christ, like Dionysus, rode a donkey, and that the cross shaped patch of dark hair on a donkey's back (which distinguishes true donkeys, from onagers) is said to commemorate this event.
The zodiacal sign of Cancer (which the sun enters on midsummers day) was, at one time represented as two donkeys feeding at a manger (the beehive cluster)  Edward Topsell writes of asses:
"They are not coupled in the spring aequinoctium like mares and other beasts, but in the summer solstice by reason of their cold natures"
Topsell quotes Pliny and Aristotle as his sources.
[postscript] Since writing most of this page a donkey has entered my life. Her name is Margarita (or Maggie for short), a pun on the Bulgarian word "Magaritsa" meaning a female donkey. You can see a picture of her and (shock horror!) me here. She helps me with farm work. She is intelligent, affectionate and devious. Working with her is rather like negotiating with a trade union :-) Maggie has answered a few of the questions I had about donkey folklore and raised a few new ones: Her reproductive cycle certainly seems to be synchronised with solar and lunar cycles. Maggie is most noticably in heat at the midwinter full moon, backing up Topsell's claims. During the summer months she stopped going into heat, and started again in late August but this time precisely at new moon. Once in the spring I saw her stop and gaze at the rising full moon in an almost trance like state. She unexpectedly went into heat on July 22nd 2009, the day of a solar eclipse Maggie is very fond of eating oak leaves. Some websites state that oak is poisonous to horses and donkeys, others say that acorns are poisonous to horses, and some say that oak leaves are a kind of donkey narcotic (which I can certainly believe. Maggie also likes eating fermenting fruit, I can certainly believe that she is drunk and stoned much of the time!). The oak leaves don't seem to do her any harm, and she seems smart enough to know what is good for her (donkeys have a significantly different diet from horses, eating more weeds - notably thistles, bark, tree leaves and buds, and generally enjoying coarser and poorer quality food than horses. They are very cheap to feed and maintain). There are no holly trees locally, so I don't know how she would react to them, but she seems capable of eating lots of spiny and unpalatable plants.
With regard to the story of Samson (see below) it may be relevant that Maggie is distincly shaggy haired, with a pronounced fringe in summer, and moults considerably around midsummer. In "The Frogs" by Aristophanes, Charon, ferrymen of the underworld, makes a reference to "The ass clippings", a place where those hoary with sin would be shorn clean [Top]
lion and donkey (Click here for picture)
As well as threshing the corn, donkeys were also sometimes blindfolded or blinded, so that they could be induced to walk in a circle and turn a mill wheel. This is of course what the Philistines did to Samson, in revenge for his killing of 10,000 of them with the jawbone of an ass. Earlier in the story, Samson had asked the Philistines a riddle:
"Out of the eater came forth meat, out of the strong something good to eat"
Samson was talking about the honey from the wild bees which he had found nesting inside the ribcage of a young lion which he had slain previously. The Philistines reply to him with another riddle:
"What is stronger than a lion? and what is sweeter than honey?"
The answer to this riddle is of course love, and Samson, with his mane of dreadlocks is the lion who is to be overcome. A psychological interpretation of this story can be found here.
Samson is therefore compared to a lion in the first part of the story, and an ass in the second ****.
There is an interesting carved stone in Montrose museum, telling this story. Click here for a photo.
Rather worryingly, the Branch Davidians seem to agree with me on some of this!
Usually in stories of this type (Osiris, and Set, Llew Llaw and Goronwy, Curoi and Cuchullain, Baldur and Hodur***** etc.), the hero's bizarre secret weakness allows him to be killed by his rival who takes his place. Often the rival is the lover of the hero's wife. Samson is an exception, he has no rival, Delilah has no other lover, and after his secret weakness has been revealed, he is not killed. It is as though Osiris has become Set. Perhaps this is because the story of Samson comes from a strictly monotheistic society.
The lion-headed man seems to be a very ancient image. There is a 32000 year old carving from Hohlenstein-Stadel in Germany, made from Mammoth Ivory, apparently showing a figure with the head of a lion. Some experts claim that it is a woman with the head of a lioness (most statues from this era of women). It looks pretty macho to me. Click here to see a picture.
I think there is a parallel here with the story of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne, in which Robin would have been killed by Guy were it not for divine intervention by the The White Goddess, but instead Robin kills Guy and dresses in Guy's grotesque horse (or should that be donkey?) hide cloak, so that it appears as though Guy has killed Robin.
In The Last Battle by C.S.Lewis, a donkey impersonates Aslan by dressing up in a lion skin. I wonder where Lewis got his ideas from. It seems strange to me that an evangelical Christian should be using pagan motifs in his novels, although he does seem to be reinterpreting them in his own way. Looking at "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" in this light, Aslan is not only Jesus, but also the new sun ushering in the Spring, and triumphing over The White Goddess. If the lion is considered to be the king of beasts, then the donkey must be the slave: The most maltreated of all domestic animals, and one of the cheapest to maintain. The lion is a solar symbol, whereas the donkey would seem to be a symbol of saturn. Saturn is the most distant planet known in ancient times which symbolically turns the corn mill of the sky. Saturn is often portrayed as a fool, miller or reaper. In alchemy the sun is associated with gold and Saturn with lead. The donkey is a symbol of lust, and also (especially in Christian iconography) as a symbol of humility. I think it may be significant that elves seem to have been portrayed with ass ears and dreadlocks
The Ethiopian emperor, Haille Selassie had the title of "Conquering lion of the tribe of Judah", and for centuries before him, Ethiopian emperors used a seal with the inscription "The lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed", taken from Revelations 5.5. Rastafarians, who worship Haille Selassie as a god, compare dreadlocks to a lions mane, and trace the tradition of dreadlocks back to Samson. Rastafarianism seems to have been founded in 1932, by Leonard Percival Howell, a couple of years after the coronation of Haille Selassie. It seems to be inspired by Christianity and Judaism, as well as traditional African religions. The Wolof society of Senegal and Gambia; Tyedde, the Islamic Baye Faal sect; the Okomfo Akan fetish priests of Ghana and many other traditional healers of West Africa all wear dreadlocks [Top]
More on these kind of subjects can be found on the page called Jack