Nowadays the donkey symbolizes obstinate stupidity, but this is only a special and subsidiary aspect of a much more general concept which almost universally makes the ass the emblem of darkness and even of devilish propensities.
The asura Dhenuka is manifest in the guise of an ass.
In Ancient Egypt the ‘red ass’ was one of the most dangerous beings which the soul encountered on its voyage to the Otherworld. Guenon suggests that the creature may be identical with the ‘scarlet Beast of the Apocalypse’.
Ismaili esoteric doctrine calls the spreading of ignorance and fraud ‘Dajjal’s donkey’, from its blinkered literal interpretations which inhibit attainment of the inner vision.
A counter-argument is the presence of the donkey at the nativity and the part which it played in Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. However, Guenon has noted that in the first instance it stands facing the ox, symbolizing the maleficent opposed to the beneficent, while in the second these same forces are shown tamed by the Redeemer. Indeed a quite different significance could be given to the beast which carried Jesus in triumph - in China a white donkey is sometimes the steed of the Immortals.
In fact, on Palm Sunday the beast which Christ rode was a she-ass, and this is significant. In the myth of the false prophet Balaam, the part played by the she-ass was clearly beneficent and Mgr Devoucoux unhesitatingly makes her the symbol of learning and esoteric knowledge, thus showing a complete reversal of the original symbol. From this one might perhaps infer an initiation symbolism in the honours paid to the ass in the medieval Feast of Fools. However, the feast as a whole is imbued with parody and the temporary reversal of accepted values seems so much a part of it as to bring us back to our starting point. As Guenon observes, the feast channels the base instincts of fallen man so as to limit their baleful effects, in other words what current psychoanalysis would term ‘catharsis’, symbolized by the temporary introduction of an ass into the choir of a church. In theological terms it is effected by reversal and mockery, when a carnival Satanism replaces the she-ass of knowledge with the diabolical donkey.
Like Satan and like the Beast in the Apocalypse the ass is the symbol of the sexual organs, the libido, human instinct and of life confined to the earthly plane of the senses. The spirit masters matter which sometimes escapes its control, although it ought to be subject to it.
The well-known romance, The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, by Apuleius, tells of the successive changes which transported Lucius from a prostitute’s perfumed chamber to rapt contemplation before the statue of Isis. This series of metamorphoses illustrates Lucius’ spiritual development. As Jean Beaujeu observes, his transformation into an ass ‘expresses in physical terms and in visible shape the punishment of his relapse into sensual pleasure’. The second transformation ‘by which his human shape and personality are restored, is not simply a shattering manifestation of the saving powers of Isis, but illustrates the transit through misfortune, mundane pleasure, enslavement to blind fortune into supernatural bliss and the service of an all-powerful, all-provident godhead. It is a true rebirth, the inner rebirth.’ Restored to human shape, Lucius can now follow the path of salvation and enter the way of purity which will initiate him into the highest mysteries. Only when he has thrown off the ass and become man once more (and after a series of increasingly severe trials) can he actually embrace knowledge of the godhead.
According to the legend, Apollo changed King Midas’ ears into ass’s ears because he preferred the sound of Pan’s pipes to the music of the temple of Delphi. In symbolic terms, his choice, and the ass’s ears with which he was punished, show him succumbing to the attractions of sensual pleasure rather than seeking the harmony of the spirit and the empire of the soul.
In his description of The Way to the Underworld, Pausanias (10: 28-31) states that there was a man called Ocnos sitting beside the sacrificial black rams. He was depicted plaiting a reed rope which a she-ass ate as fast as he plaited it. Pausanias goes on to say that this Ocnos was a hard-working man with a spendthrift wife, who soon wasted all he earned by his hard work. The allusion is obvious, at least so far as the wife is concerned, but her enigmatic husband is not without interest in so far as he complements the symbolism of the account, since ‘his name means “hesitation” or “indecision”. His presence in this context prompts us to see in him the symbol of weakness, even of fault - of never taking sides and of never bringing his undertakings to a successful conclusion’ (Jean Defradas). In this light, the matrimonial scene becomes completely clear.
Renaissance painters depicted a range of psychological states as a donkey - the monk’s spiritual disheartenment; moral depression; idleness; bored pleasure-seeking; stupidity; incompetence; obstinacy; foolishly blind obedience. Alchemists saw the donkey as a three-headed demon, one head being mercury, the others salt and sulphur, the three main constituents of nature, the hidebound being.
The donkey was seen as a sacred animal in some religions. It played an important part in the worship of Apollo and asses were sacrificed to him at Delphi. A donkey carried the chest which was used as a cradle for Dionysos and is therefore sacred to him. According to another tradition the sacrifice of asses was of Nordic origin.
In The Frogs, Aristophanes has a slave telling Dionysos, when his master places a burden on his shoulders: ‘And I’m the ass with the sacred image on his back.’ The scene may be farcical, but the ass carrying the sacred image is a commonplace and is interpreted as the symbol of the king or of temporal power in general.
The wild ass, or onager, symbolizes the eremetical desert Fathers, the reason doubtless being that the hoof of the onager is impervious to poison. The jaw-bone of an donkey is proverbial for its hardness and it was with this that Samson slew a thousand Philistines.
The ass is under the influence of Saturn, the second Sun, who is the star of Israel. Thus some traditions identify Jehovah with Saturn. This perhaps explains why some satirical caricatures depict a man with an ass’s head on a cross, Christ being the Son of the God of Israel.
The she-ass symbolizes humility and her foal self-abasement. Richard of St Victor was to write that humans needed to understand the meaning given to the she-ass in order to become steeped in humility and vile in then-own eyes. If Christ deliberately chose a steed of this sort, Richard of St Victor was to say, it was to show the need for humility. Hence he wrote: ‘upon whom now rests my spirit, says the Prophet, unless upon the humble, the peaceable and he who trembles at my words [Proverbs 16: 18]. He who practises true humility before God and within his heart, rides upon the she-ass: but he who is attentive to the duties of true self-abasement outwardly and before his neighbour, rides upon her foal.’
Here the she-ass is the symbol of peace, poverty, humility, patience and courage, and is generally exhibited in a favourable light in the Bible. Samuel went to look for the missing she-asses; Balaam was taught by the example of his she-ass, which warned him of the presence of the Angel of the Lord; Joseph set Mary and Jesus on the back of a she-ass to escape Herod’s persecutions in Egypt; and on Palm Sunday Christ made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem riding upon a she-ass.