ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: The donkey
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The donkey

Source: Excerpt, 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life Books     The African Wild Ass, Equus africanus, can even today still be encountered in Egypt. It was more prevalent in ancient times and was the ancestor of the domesticated donkey. Its habitat are the deserts and semi-deserts; its diet consists of grass and other plants, rarely leaves. It can go without water for up to three days. The females and young live in herds, the males are solitary or band together in bachelor herds. In looks it is very similar to the the domestic donkey, distinguishable by its lighter colour and lack of stripes on its legs.[9]
    The main beast of burden in ancient Egypt, the domestic donkey was one of the first animals to be domesticated. But it was seemingly rarely ridden by the ancient Egyptians. Most of the depictions showing donkeys mounted by riders are of Asiatics.
Its at times difficult temperament was even then a by-word, as was its treatment. A scribe describes his pupil thus:
Thou art like an ass in taking beatings.
Koller Papyrus
Gardiner 1911 Egyptian Hieratic Texts
Donkeys     On the left is shown an Old Kingdom scene of donkeys driven to the fields where they were to be loaded with sacks containing harvested ears of wheat, the farmhands making liberal use of sticks in controlling them. The accompanying description describes the treatment laggards were likely to receive:
One likes him who ascends quickly (to the village), but the sleepy (i.e. lazy) one receives blows, O you who have come to me!
After Hermann Junker, Zu einigen Reden und Rufen auf Grabbildern des alten Reiches, p.24
    Donkeys were ubiquitous and of great economic importance. Large estates had hundreds if not thousands of them. Qereri wrote in his tomb: I have caused females (she asses) to be with young and they have produced 200 donkeys [5], and the dwarf Seneb wrote in his mastaba somewhat cryptically: 12017 donkeys, 10200 female animals [6]. For the state it was therefore worthwhile to tax donkeys, taxes which the owner had to pay even if the animal had been lent to somebody else. Djehuti-mesu complained in a letter to Pa-iri who had not yet returned his donkey: [2]
Behold, you have not sent it (i.e. the donkey) (back) yet, but one collects taxes from me year after year, in spite of it still being with you.
    Overland trade was completely dependent on donkeys until the introduction of the camel in the first millennium BCE. They were hardy animals, requiring little water and only low quality food.
    At times their physical beauty was praised. In a letter Patus, son of Haremsynis, wrote to Psenthotes, son of Psenaies, some time in the second century BCE:[8]
...Have a look at the she-donkey of Psen////, son of Horos, .... a most beautiful donkey... She is a top donkey, a she-donkey with perfect proportions,...
    Their masters' appreciation was at times given expression when they were buried. One such grave, dated to about 3000 BCE, was at Abydos in an area where otherwise high officials were buried. It contained ten donkey skeletons showing signs of wear due to loads having been placed on their backs, but they had apparently been in good health and been taken good care off.[7]
    First millennium BCE instructions contain a number of maxims referring to the various, not always endearing qualities, of the donkey, though their meaning at times escapes us, possibly due to faulty translations:
Do not [tie your donkey's foot to the palm tree (?)] lest he shake it.
The hissing of the snake is more effective than the braying of the donkey.
The waste of a donkey is carrying bricks.
One does not load a beam on a donkey.
The oxen harvest the barley and emmer, the donkeys eat it.
If a donkey goes with a horse it adopts its pace.
If a crocodile loves a donkey it puts on a wig.
One uses a horse to go after a ---; one does not take a donkey to attain it.
Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey; his purse is what restrains him.
One does not praise a donkey carrying a load because it brays.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, pp.168ff
    The donkey was generally considered to be an adversary of the gods. 77 donkeys [1] opposed the sun god Re, trying to prevent his rising. Since the Middle Kingdom, the donkey is considered as belonging to Seth and treated accordingly. During the New Kingdom the Donkey of Seth was killed with a lance at the festival of Osiris. At Busiris the sacrifice was symbolic: a donkey's picture was impressed upon sacrificial bread.
    As they did with other representations of evil, the Egyptians dealt with the possibility of interference by Seth's agents symbolically: The hieroglyph of the donkey is pierced with a knife, rendering it harmless. The deceased were equipped with appropriate spells:
Another spell for warding off the donkey. To be spoken by the Osiris NN:
On your face! Do not devour me, for I am pure! I am one who has come by himself. You shall not attack me. I am one who has come because he was called. You do not know. I am the master of your mouth. Retreat before your "myrrh"!
"O you bald back of the head, pierce Seth!" say the existing ones...
After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site [4]

    At times the role the donkeys played in the other world is unclear. In Yuya's papyrus of the Book of the Dead the deceased expects a friendly welcome:
For I have heard that speech which the donkey together with the tom-cat uttered in the House of The Great Opening of the Mouth.
After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site [3]

[1] Michael Tilgner supplied the following information to the EEF list:
A curse against the crocodile Maga refers to 77 gods
... Backwards, Maga, son of Seth! ... The finger of the 77 gods is in your eyes while you are bound to the great landing-pole (nay.t) of Osiris, while you are bound to the four posts (sxn.t) of Upper Egyptian greenstone which are at the prow of the bark of Re'..."
J.F. Borghouts, Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts, Leiden, 1978, pp. 86-87
Equated with the donkeys of the spell below, these 77 gods play a protective role when they oppose Maga (as does Maga's father Seth when he fights the snake Apopis on Re's behalf), while the donkeys in the DsDs (nowadays read mr / S nxA(wi)) water seem to be pernicious:
///// in order to stop up the mouth of him who //// you, as the mouth was stopped up of those 77 donkeys who are in the DsDs (?) water.
Adolf Erman, Akademieschriften (1880-1928), Teil 1: 1880-1910, Leipzig, 1986, p. 504
The roles some gods play in the various traditions are at times contradictory.
[2] After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site I. Hafemann ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe anderer Herkunft => pCairo 58057
[3] B. Backes ed., Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pKairo CG 51189 (pJuja) => Tb 125
[4] B. Backes ed., Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM 10793 => Tb 040
[5] After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site - A. Burkhardt ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Achmim => Felsgräbernekropole von El-Hawawisch => Felsgräber => Quadrate L, M, N und Q => Grab Q15 des Qereri > Kultraum => Ostwand => nördlich vom Eingang => Rede des Grabherrn
[6] After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site - S. Grunert ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Giza => Mastaba des Zwerges Seneb => Scheintür => rechter Außenpfosten => Gewände => 2. Darstellung v.u.
[7] Kenneth Chang, "Early Egyptians Revered Lowly Donkeys" in New York Times, Science Supplement, March 25, 2008
[8] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Briefe => Berlin P 3093
[9] Richard Hoath, A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt, American Univ in Cairo Press, 2009, pp.138ff.

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