a serious conversation about asses

In an effort to find something other than our present pandemic to talk about I’d like to have a serious conversation about asses. 

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No, not those ones. These asses:


Specifically the asses that Dionysos and his Satyr army rode into battle:

When the Gods were marching against the Giants, it is said that Dionysos, Hephaistos and the Satyrs traveled by donkey. When they were near the Giants, who, however, were not yet visible, the donkeys brayed and the Giants, hearing the noise, fled. For this reason the donkeys were honored, being placed on the western side of the Crab. (Eratosthenes, Katasterismoi 11)

This is generally regarded as an attempt by Eratosthenes to take the piss out of the Ptolemies, the patron God of their dynasty and an underpinning ideology of Sacred King as Conqueror and Bestower of Civilization that hearkens back to Alexander the Great and his triumphal processions. At least that’s the argument I made in my article The Politics of Myth – but something I read tonight has me reconsidering that position. 

The Saracori (Greek Saragouri, Syriac Šarağurs) were a fierce nomadic tribe who originated in the Siberian steppes before being pushed down into Crimea and the Caucasus by the Sabir and other Iranian and central Asian populations. Concerning them Claudius Aelianus writes:

The Saracori keep asses, not to carry burdens, nor to grind corn but to ride in war, and mounted on them they brave the dangers of battle, just as the Greeks do on horseback. And any ass of theirs that appears to be more given to braying than others they offer as a sacrifice to the God of War. (De Natura Animalium 12.34) 

Similar remarks were made by Strabo concerning the Karmanioi, a Turkic people who lived near the Zagros mountain range:

Because of scarcity of horses most of the Carmanians use asses, even for war; and they sacrifice an ass to Ares, the only God they worship, and they are a warlike people. No one marries before he has cut off the head of an enemy and brought it to the king; and the king stores the skull in the royal palace; and he then minces the tongue, mixes it with flour, tastes it himself, and gives it to the man who brought it to him, to be eaten by himself and family; and that king is held in the highest repute to whom the most heads have been brought. (Geographika, 2.14.24-33)

At least on the periphery of the Greek world the donkey was not an object of ridicule nor would riding one into battle be considered “mock-heroic” – for the barbarian populations and their neighbors these were fearsome creatures worthy of being sacrificed to the God of War.

Indeed, Herodotos relates that braying donkeys helped the Persians finally defeat the previously indomitable Skythians in a scenario much like the one described by Eratosthenes:

The Skythian horse always routed the Persian horse, and when the Persian cavalry would fall back in flight on their infantry, the infantry would come up to their aid; and the Skythians, once they had driven in the horse, turned back for fear of the infantry. The Skythians attacked in this fashion by night as well as by day.

Very strange to say, what aided the Persians and thwarted the Skythians in their attacks on Darius’ army was the braying of the asses and the appearance of the mules. For, as I have before indicated, Skythia produces no asses or mules; and there is not in most of Skythia an ass or a mule, because of the cold. Therefore the asses frightened the Skythian horses when they brayed loudly; and often, when they were in the act of charging the Persians, the horses would shy in fear if they heard the asses bray or would stand still with ears erect, never having heard a noise like it or seen a like creature. (Histories 4.128-129) 

So this has me not only reconsidering how Eratosthenes’ myth should be interpreted but whether Dionysos’ association with these animals significantly predates the Ptolemies, and possibly is a holdover from his days in the Pontic-Caucasian region, one of the places where I believe his worship originated (along with viticulture, nearly 8,000 years ago.)

5 thoughts on “a serious conversation about asses

  1. The interesting thing is while donkeys are capable of galloping (I think the average highest speed is 40 mph) they are notorious for not wanting to do that while mounted. I wonder whether or not the animals in question were actually mules. Unless of course the breeds used by these tribes are different than the ones we have today and were more capable of running while mounted. Which would imply that these may have been some fascinating specimens. The Mammoth Donkey (often listed as the recommended type for adult riders) is 15 to 16 hands tall (around 5ft in height for non-equestrians). I wonder if we could get some statistics on the breed used in these regions for war


          1. It just occurred to me that the answer to the donkey’s behavior is pretty much right in the source itself. If the Saracori tribe had a tradition of sacrificing the donkeys less suitable for riding then that would of course imply that only the ones comfortable with being ridden as fast were the ones breeding. What must have happened is that the Saracori donkeys became more horse-like in behavior through artificial selection. If this was done for generations under the aegis of religious and cultural tradition then it is quite possible that these animals simply evolved to be war mounts over the course of generations. Considering that this is an example of micro evolution (traits developing but the major taxonomic categories are the same) then I hypothesize that it wouldn’t take too long. Considering that the gestation and maturation periods for donkeys are about over a year, depending on how long training needs to last, we could very well see the desired traits in a lifetime. We could have battle donkeys

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