Many superstitions concern this familiar animal. The Egyptians
traced his image on the cakes they offered to Typhon, god
of evil. The Romans regarded the meeting of an ass as an evil
omen, but the animal was honored in Arabia and Judea, and
it was in Arabia that the ass of Silenus spoke to his master.
Other talking asses were Balaam’s ass (Numbers 22), which Mahomet
placed in his paradise with Alborack; the ass of Aasis,
Queen of Sheba; and the ass on which Jesus Christ rode into
Some people have found something sacred and mysterious
in the innocent beast, and a species of divination employed the
head of an ass. At one time a special festival was held for the
ass, during which he was led into the church while mass was
sung. This reverence in which he was held by Christians was
doubtless due to the black cross which he wore on his back, and
which, it is said, was given him after the ass of Bethphage carried
Christ into Jerusalem. But Pliny, who carefully gathered
all that related to the animal, made no mention concerning the
color of its coat. It seems likely, therefore, that the ass of today
is as he always was.
It was not only the devout who respected the ass, for the wise
Agrippa offered him an apology in his book, On the Vanity of the
Sciences (1530). Among the Indians of Madras, the people of
the Cavaravadonques, one of the principal castes, claimed to be
descended from an ass. These Indians treated the ass as a
brother, took his part, and prosecuted those who overburdened
or ill-treated him in any way. In rainy weather they would often
give him shelter when they denied it to his driver.
One old fable shows the ass in an unfavorable light. Jupiter
had just taken possession of Olympus. On his coming, men
asked of him an eternal springtime, which he accordingly
granted, charging the ass of Silenus to bear the precious treasure
to earth. The ass became thirsty and approached a fountain
guarded by a snake, who refused to let the ass drink unless
he parted with the treasure. The stupid animal thereupon bartered
the gift of heaven for a skin of water, and since that time
snakes, when they grow old, can change their skin and become
young again, for they have the gift of perpetual springtime.
Another fable endows the creature with greater intelligence.
In a village a few miles from Cairo, there lived a mountebank
who possessed a highly trained ass, so clever that the country
people took it to be a demon in disguise. One day the mountebank
mentioned in the ass’s hearing that the sultan wished to
construct a beautiful building and planned to employ all the
asses in Cairo to carry the lime, mortar, and stones. The ass immediately
lay down and pretended to be dead, and his master
begged for money to buy another. When he had collected
some, he returned to his old ass. ‘‘He is not dead,’’ he said; ‘‘he
only pretended to die because he knew I had not the wherewithal
to buy him food.’’ Still the ass refused to rise, and the
mountebank addressed the company, telling them that the sultan
had sent out the criers commanding the people to assemble
the next day outside Cairo to see the most wonderful sights in
the world. He further desired that the most gracious ladies and
the most beautiful girls should be mounted on asses. The ass
raised himself and pricked up his ears. ‘‘The governor of my
quarter,’’ added the mountebank, ‘‘has begged me to lend my
ass for his wife, who is old and toothless, and very ugly.’’ The
ass began to limp as though he were old and lame. ‘‘Ah, you like
beautiful ladies’’ said his master. The animal bowed his head.
‘‘Oh, well,’’ said the man, ‘‘there are many present; show me
the most beautiful.’’ The ass obeyed with judgment and discretion.
These marvelous asses, said the demonologists, were, if not
demons, at least men metamorphosed, like Apuleius, who was
transformed into an ass. Vincent de Beauvais speaks of two
women who kept a little inn near Rome and who sold their
guests at the market after having changed them into pigs,
fowls, or sheep. One of them, he adds, changed a certain comedian
into an ass, and as he retained his talents under his new
skin, she led him to the fairs on the outskirts of the city, gaining
much money thereby. A neighbor bought this wise ass at a good
price, and in handing it over the sorcerers felt obliged to warn
the purchaser not to let the ass enter water. Its new master attended
to the warning for some time, but one day the poor ass
managed to get free and jumped into a lake, where it regained
its natural shape, to the great surprise of its driver. The matter
was brought to the ears of the pope, who had the two witches
punished, while the comedian returned to of his profession.
Many stories are told of the ass that carried Jesus Christ into
Jerusalem, which is said to have died at Verona, where its remains
are still honored. They say the ass is a privileged animal
that God formed at the end of the sixth day. Abraham employed
it to carry the wood for the sacrifice of Isaac; it also carEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Ass
ried the wife and son of Moses in the desert. The rabbis maintained
that Balaam’s ass was carefully nourished and hidden in
a secret place until the coming of the Jewish Messiah.