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17 december 2011

I don't usually think much about donkeys. I'm trying to remember the last time I saw one. I've seen mules recently in west Texas, but the last donkey I saw might have been in the West of Ireland, 15 years ago. Donkeys were integral to the economy of rural Ireland well within my lifetime, but as Jill Bough explains in Donkey, they disappeared from the margins of the developed world at a gallop in the second half of the 20th century. Horses and camels maintained prestigious uses in sport, or show, or simply in people's affections, after their economic heyday passed. Donkeys didn't. They now play a role only in the most abject of economies (as in subSaharan Africa), and donkey breeding elsewhere has been abandoned as useless.

As with so many other creatures chronicled in the wonderful Reaktion Animal series, donkeys present inherent contradictions. I suppose all beings that can exist apart from humans, but are shoehorned by us into uncomfortable cultural roles, will be bursting with such contradictions. To be an "ass" is to be willfully idiotic; to be a "jackass" in particular is to lead a short unhappy life doing suicidal stunts on TV. And we know from Bing Crosby that

A mule is an animal with long floppy ears
Who kicks up at anything he hears.
His back is brawny and his brain is weak,
He's just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.
Yet copious testimony – admittedly most of it from mule-skinners and donkey-drivers – confirms that mules and donkeys are more intelligent than horses. If they're more stubborn, that also means they're less skittish. Bough notes the famous images by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon crossing the Alps on a rearing show horse; she then prints Paul Delaroche's prosaic, and historically accurate, painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps astride a head-down, no-nonsense mule. (156-57)

We think of donkeys as stupid, says Bough, because we associate them with the yokels and peons who throughout history have had to labor in the company of donkeys instead of supervising from the backs of horses. Scorn for donkeys is scorn by association with a peasantry that has now ceased to exist in the mechanized agricultures of Europe where that scorn arose. That scorn persists in fossilized metaphors even where donkeys themselves have ceased, for the most part, to exist.

Cultural scorn can be more than just a matter of words; it can inflect human treatment of entire populations. Bough notes the protection of feral donkeys in the Southwestern United States, where the image of the noble burro is well-integrated into local folklore. By contrast, the feral donkeys of Australia are casually murdered by snipers in helicopters. Though they played a similar historical role in opening the outback as they played on the Santa Fe Trail, Australians developed no lore of the donkey – and now perceive them as the most pernicious of vermin.

Perhaps most interesting in Bough's catalog of donkey iconography is the long association of the donkey with Jesus Christ. Together with an ox, an ass witnessed the birth of Jesus. It might have been the same ass who bore Mary and Jesus on their flight into Egypt, and on their way back again. On Palm Sunday, Jesus would enter Jerusalem riding on an ass (and on a colt the foal of an ass). The moral is inescapable: the last shall be first, and the first shall be an ass.

Nietzsche would not have approved: what's the point of a Messiah who can't arrive on Secretariat? But the donkey of Palm Sunday symbolizes more than mere humility. He's a type of Balaam's ass, which is one of the more intelligent characters, human or animal, in the Old Testament. And beneath the iconography, he's a real donkey: longsuffering, methodical, doughty, capable of remarkable comebacks from adversity. Jesus knew what he was riding.

Bough, Jill. Donkey. London: Reaktion, 2011.