In Praise of the Donkey

New Year’s Day 2020

You can listen to Funky Donkey by the Beastie Boys while you read this if you so desire.

Children love donkeys, Jupiter Artland Xmas 2019

Donkeys = go slow

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a book called ‘Walking with a donkey in the Cevennes’ (France). When he walked there, he was forced to go slowly so that his donkey didn’t “browse”. In order to make it through a walking day of around 20 kilometers with a rucksack on my back, I too engage a modest pace. I have discovered that slow is good for me. I can see the details of the landscape, I can feel the ground under each heel and toe, I have time to muse.

‘I noticed that a donkey has an appealing terrestrial solidity – it’s a good solid animal – yet its limbs are surprisingly slim. It’s as firmly yet lithely connected to the earth as a birch tree. ‘ Beatrice and Virgil which, among other things, features a particularly enjoyable conversation between Beatrice, who is a donkey, and Virgil, who is a howler monkey, about the nature of a pear (that is, the fruit).

by Yann Martel (2010) p. 121 (TW: torture, holocaust)
text contains ink
Donkey detail from Otoño (Autumn), a painting by Francisco do Barrera 1638, which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Seville, Spain

In his book ‘The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World’, Andy Merrifield wrote about how he would watch Grebouille graze in the field for hours, as a sort of meditation. Merrifield trod in Stevenson’s footsteps and he too discovered the unhurried pace of the beast.

Sculpture from the Camino Santiago de Navarra, courtesy of Spanish Fiestas

Did you know? Donkey’s Back (lombo da burro) is the name of a rock in the Lapa de Pombas, a fishing port on the west coast of Portugal just south of Almograve? Local fishermen guide their entry and exit to the harbour by using this and other such masses.

A cardboard donkey, spotted in a shop in Athens, Greece

Stubborn as a mule

Known to be good at kicking, donkeys also have a reputation for stubbornness and this is usually regarded with derision. However, I am assured by owners that if a donkey refuses to do something there will be a good reason, that it’s all about self preservation. That makes sense doesn’t it? It’s funny how we don’t always put ourselves in others’ (horse)shoes, juding them instead by our own habits, standards or preference and therefore perhaps misunderstanding their reasons for not doing something. If we are to learn from the ass, we will look around us when someone is stubborn and ask, ‘why might that be?’ and ‘is there a good reason?’ before we try and force them.

You probably know that a donkey is an ass is a donkey. They are the same thing.

An Irish Donkey, Cork, Ireland

‘Donkeys have been used for transporting people and goods since biblical times. While donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn, they are also notoriously smart and capable of keeping themselves and their passengers away from danger.’ from ‘What is the differece between mules and donkeys?‘ by Jen Davis

Donkey Art outside the Uue Kunsti Muuseum, Parnu, Estonia
identify a donkey
Donkeys have characteristically long ears

Ass attributes

In ‘Stories About My Ass’, Brandon Dickerson writes about how clever donkeys are, how he spent time, sweat and money securing their perimeter fence to stop them escaping. He was just boasting on the phone to his wife about what a good job he had done when Yoti (one of his donkeys) promptly broke through the new boundary with ease and, joined by his companion Donkey, they calmly grazed ‘in his face’ (as it were). From The Great Escape

Mule, donkey, ass, colt…

Mule: A mule is produced when you breed a male donkey to a female horse, also known as a mare. A “hinny,” meanwhile, is produced when you breed a stallion, or male horse, to a female donkey. Mules possess characteristics of both of their parents but are typically sterile and unable to reproduce. (Jen Davis for

Colt: a baby donkey such as Jesus was said to be riding on – ‘humble [lowly] and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ Zachariah 9:9

Donkeys are herbivores and sometimes they live into their 50s (35-40 years is common). They need shelter from the cold and rain because their coats are not waterproof. Because of this they often die of pneumonia in the UK. from Donkey Quiz 

A mule – see the ‘wither’ bump in the shoulder area. Donkeys have flatter backs

So, riding on a donkey means being humble, or what?

In the prologue to his ‘Canterbury Tales’ (stories about some of the earliest pilgrims), Chaucer writes that ‘a humble beast exalts the rider’, making reference to the Bible (again) and stressing the state of mind needed to ride on one. Some imply that riding a donkey, in this context, implies a lack of concern for smart clothes, the opposite of making an imprression of being rich and lording it over everyone (Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: An Anotated Bibliography 1900-1982’ by Caroline D Eckhardt and Dorothy E Smith). Others suggest that the donkey represents the Jews (Wikipedia), and yet others that riding thus, signifies a coming in peace because if he had been on a horse it would have  denoted war. (William David Davies and Dale C Allison 2004).

IMG_20180527_112230 (640x359)
Orkney donkeys, spotted while making the St Magnus pilgrimage

Looking at the roots of the Hebrew words (I used this source Mony Almalech 2014 accessed Jan 2020) used to enquire into the meaning of ‘colt of the she-ass’ which Christ sat upon on Easter day, one can start to understand that a he-ass (male, related to the root of the word ‘red’ (of wine and fire) and ‘clay’) implies being base, ie of the earth, material; whereas the she-ass was more to do with ‘white’ (think about her milk) and her tendency to walk with small steps: a he-ass is not related to a she-ass. While we in the West have been led to believe (perhaps as a result of sloppy translations or misunderstanding of cutural references) that the donkey represents humility or peace, Jews of the time (who the bible was written for) will have understood the subtleties of these words and therefore known that Christs’ choice of a colt (son of a she-ass, not a he-ass) was clearly a mount for a King. (The Sathya Sai Sanctuary Trust for Nature knows this too.)

King Midas with his donkey’s ears from the British Library Catalogue

Midas, the man with a donkey’s ears

Midas (the one whose touch turned things to gold – see Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ book XI 85-145) was deemed to have ‘undiscriminating ears’ and therefore given a new, elongated pair, those of a slow-moving ass. These donkey’s ones were ‘covered with shaggy hair and flexible at the base’ all the better to hear with.

In his account of walking the Camino de Santiago, ‘Spanish Steps – My Walk with a Donkey’, Tim Moore describes the swivelling ears, noting how alert they are. He starts to realise that when they are raised and rotating (I get an image of a submarine’s periscope), something is about to go amiss.

In Chaucer’s version of the Midas’ myth (a jolly rendition can be found in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’), the woman in question couldn’t bear to keep quiet about her husband’s special lugholes (well who could, what a story!) so she told the water in a lake. In Ovid’s original, though, it was a ‘servant’ who gave the game away: to the earth from which grew reeds which in turn whispered it to the winds. (I used A. S. Kline’s translation of Ovid for these quotes.)

Newpoint Players Canterbury Tales poster, Newry, Northern Ireland

‘You may have seen a housefly … but I bet you aint never seen a donkey fly.’ The fast-talking (Eddie Murphy voiced) donkey in the film, Shrek

A donkey to carry your stuff

It is now possible for long-distance walkers to have a company transport their luggage from one hostel to another along the Camino de Santiago de Compostella (properly kown as the Camino Francais or French Camino) by car or van, allowing many to make that trek who had previously not been able to. Then there are a few pilgrims who take a mule to carry their bags, but the majority carry their own. I started my long-distance walking habit in Spain with a rucksack on my back (containing what I needed for a 3-month stay: summer, autumn and winter), rather than having a donkey carry it for me, hence my blog is entitled, ‘Walking Without a Donkey’.

Donkeys from the Pays Basques region

Lou Monte sings (in ‘Dominick the Donkey’) about the reason Santa has a donkey: ‘Because the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy. ‘

Finally, here is a recipe for ‘tired donkey’, Galician soup called sopa de burro cansado. It consists of hard bread (100-150g) soaked in red wine (500ml) with sugar (3 or 4 tablespoons)!

Even though no-one carries my luggage but me, I am not an ass

Robert Louis Stevenson (best known as the writer of Treasure island) ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’

Chemin Stevenson / The Stevenson Trail, France GR70 (Grande Randonee ie a long walk) starts in Monastier sur Gazeille in the Haute Loire (Velay area) to Saint Jean du Gard or Ales in the land of the Camisards. It takes about 2 weeks. There is a little film with images of Stevenson on this page.

The Donkey Sanctuary (UK)

Stories About My Ass is a podcast on itunes about, among other things, being a miniature donkey owner.

The Shrek donkey on Atlas Obscura