By Mahmoud Omidsalar and
Teresa P. Omidsalar
Encyclopaedia Iranica

DONKEY (Equus hydrunitinus, Equus asinus asinus), domesticated species descended from the wild ass (Equus africanus), probably first bred in captivity in Egypt and western Asia, where by 2500 B.C.E. the domesticated donkey was in use as a beast of burden. Because of its jolting gait, it was almost never used in hunting or battle. In southern Persia remains of the domestic donkey have been identified from the 3rd millennium B.C.E. at Tall-e Mal^aan.

In Persian tradition

According to the Bundahian, donkeys were created from the purified seed of the primordial ox and belonged to the family of horses and mules. The "cat-footed" (gorba-paay) donkey was the chief of all asses. Nevertheless, the donkey's braying was considered unpleasant, resembling the voice of the evil spirit. In the Shaah-naama domestication of the donkey is credited to Hushang, though in the 13th century attributed it to Tahmurath. Either Jamshid or Tahmurth was supposed to have been the first to mate horses and donkeys to breed mules.

There is a Muslim tradition that such breeding is undesirable, though not unlawful. In biblical times donkeys, especially white ones, were among the preferred mounts for persons of rank. In Muslim tradition, too, the they were the mounts favored by prophets. Nevertheless, Moses was ordered to remove shoes made of donkey skin before approaching holy ground. Sunnite theologians consider the flesh of donkeys forbidden, though Abu Dawud Sejestani cited a tradition implying that it is permissible in dire need. The prohibition was extended to the flesh of mules and similar animals resulting from the copulation of donkeys with other breeds.

On the basis of one Koranic verse (16:5) Shi'ite authorities do not consider donkey flesh forbidden but merely disapprove of it. There are references to the prices of donkeys in some early texts, but the dependability of such reports cannot be ascertained. Some people have taken great pride in their donkeys and have gone to great lengths to adorn their beasts. Donkey dealers, on the other hand, were often unscrupulous and lowly people; some painted their larger animals brown and sold them as mules. Apparently the Persian expression khar rang kon (lit., "donkey dyer"), referring to a tricky person who takes advantage of the simplicity of his fellow man, is rooted in this questionable commercial practice.

Donkeys, like other domesticated animals in the Middle East, are often abused or overworked. From as early as the time of Aristotle donkeys have been thought to be insensitive to pain, which may account for their especially harsh treatment.

In Persian folk belief

Perhaps the most famous donkey in Muslim tradition is the white one that will carry the Dajjaal, the Antichrist. The speaking donkey is a common motif in folklore and is well attested in Persian literature. The Prophet Mohammad had such a donkey, which supposedly threw itself down a well after his death. The Prophet used to dispatch him to summon people. According to one tradition, donkeys bray because they see demons. Measures recommended to stop braying ranged from the ancient practice of tying a stone to the animal's tail or a string to its ears to oiling its anus, the latter measure probably on the assumption that the animal would avoid braying for fear of soiling itself.

Divinations were made from the behavior or presence of donkeys. One Sasanian warlord supposedly interpreted an enemy leader's change of mount from an elephant to a donkey as evidence of his waning fortunes . In the Middle Ages tales of witches' turning their victims into donkeys were publicly narrated. In modern Khorasan the braying of a seated donkey is taken as an omen of death; it may also simply foretell rainy weather.

In the Middle Ages donkeys could not be included in a woman's dowry. In 19th-century Tehran brides rode white horses in their nuptial processions if they were virgins but donkeys if they were widows. Midwives were transported about their business by female donkeys that had already borne colts; these donkeys could not be black, and drivers were not allowed to beat them. A number of magical properties have been attributed to various parts of the donkey's anatomy. The head, for example, has been supposed to have apotropaic properties against the evil eye. To gain control of her mate or ensure his unfailing love, a woman could serve him donkey brains. Generally however, consuming donkey's brains was thought to cause stupidity, reflecting the ancient belief that donkeys are stupid.

The Shaah-naama includes the story of a donkey that went to the cows to obtain a pair of horns but instead lost its ears; another story, in which the devil uses a donkey to gain admission to Noah's ark, is also well represented in the Persian literary tradition. The Persian expression yaasin be gush-e khar khundan "to recite (the koranic sura) Yaasin in an ass's ear" means to waste advice on a fool. On the other hand it was believed that the donkey, like the mule, would never forget a path it had trodden once.

Cutting the penis off a live donkey in order to cook it in hot spices, to be eaten as an aphrodisiac, has also been reported. Abu Bakr Motahhar Jamaali Yazdi noted that keeping a hair pulled from the tail of a male donkey that has mounted a female increases a man's sexual prowess to the point that he can produce erections at will. Applying a concoction of powdered donkey's penis and olive oil has the more modest effect of making one's hair grow long. Donkey urine was used to remove certain types of stubborn spots from laundry. Treating blades with concoctions of donkey urine, blood, milk, or hoof by-products would ensure that their blows were fatal. Donkeys or various parts of their anatomy were further used in rain-making magic.

Among the most important set of Persian beliefs about the magical properties of the donkey is that connected with folk medicine, which may reflect an association with Christ. This association is implied in the name ambar(-e) nasaaraa "amber of the Christians" for donkey dung, a commonly used remedy. Applying three drops of liquid extracted from the dung, either alone or mixed with other ingredients, is thought to stop most nosebleeds and heal most wounds. Fumigation with smoke from burning ass's dung is considered medicinally effective in general.

Burning donkey's hooves to fumigate the genitals of women in labor was once thought to help in difficult childbirths. From medieval times women used a "stone" (mohra-ye khar, khar-mohra), possibly a petrified gland from the donkey's neck, to prevent pregnancy. It has also been described as a small stone found under the tongue of the newborn donkey, which is swallowed if not taken immediately after birth. The khar-mohra hardens into a yellow-white stone if placed in water and is thought efficacious against most poisons.

The flesh and milk of the donkey have also been considered effective antidotes to poisons. The milk must be taken chilled, however, as drinking it warm is fatal unless the patient ingests dried human feces. Donkey's milk is also considered effective in treatment of many diseases, which may have some basis in fact. The pain of a scorpion's sting may be transferred to a donkey if the victim whispers in the animal's ear or rides the animal seven paces while facing the tail.

Although the ass is a symbol of stupidity, in some folktales it functions as a trickster or entertainer. For example, there has been mention of "donkey fights". Sprinkling a fistful of dirt from a place where a donkey has rolled under the cloth upon which people are eating supposedly results in the entire party's collapsing in guffaws.


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