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 Jerusalem.
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 mounte-bank 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 carried 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.
ASS (Heb. חֲמוֹר, ḥamor), in the Talmud the feminine form ḥamorah occurs, or aton whose colt is called ayir. The ass belongs to the genus Equus to which belong the horse and the wild ass. Various strains exist in Ereẓ Israel. The most common is small, usually brown in color (ḥamor is connected with Ar. ḥamar, "to be red"). However, other kinds exist such as the Damascus ass, which is tall, strong, and usually white or pale brown. This species is probably referred to in Judges 5:10 as ridden by the upper classes. Among other peoples the ass is regarded as a foolish animal; in ancient Jewish sources, however, it is the symbol of patience and understanding. Issachar, who chose the life of the modest farmer, is likened to a "strong-boned ass" who bowed his shoulder to bear (Gen. 49:14–15). One of the best-known incidents associated with the animal is the story of *Balaam (Num. 22:22–30) whose ass sees an angel unperceived by his master and is given the power to speak in order to reprove Balaam for his obstinacy and quick temper. Unlike the horse which was regarded as a luxury or for war, the ass exemplifies the life of work and peace. The prophet Zechariah describes the savior of the people as "lowly and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass [aton]." It is possible that the statement in the Talmud that "he who sees an ass in a dream should hope for salvation" (Ber. 56b) is connected with this passage. Today the ass is still employed in Israel as a beast of burden.
According to medieval bestiaries, the ass "has no sense at all" and this was the general attitude toward the domesticated ass in folkloric beliefs and tales, especially in Mediterranean countries. It played an essential role in the European medieval Feast of Fools; and in oral animal tales current among Jewish storytellers, it is the most foolish of all animals. The view of the ass in Jewish tradition stems from the aggadic fable of the lion, the fox, and the ass (Yal. 1:182; cf. Aesop-Chamdry, no. 199, ed. Span, no. 22), which ends with the statement of the ass "having no heart (brains)." The derogatory notion that the ass is the most stupid of all animals gave rise to the aggadic comparison of the Gentile to an ass (based on Gen. 22:3). The concept is relatively late, as the old aggadic attitude toward the ass was positive (see above). In Hebrew proverbial lore, the ass ascending a ladder denotes an incredible and impossible feat, such as the elephant "passing through the eye of a needle" mentioned in the Talmud (Ber. 55b; bm 38b), and the similar camel in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 19:24) and the Koran (7:40). It serves as a metaphor for the wisdom attributed to fools in medieval and later literature.
Aharoni, Torat ha-Ḥai (1923); S. Feigin, Studies in Memory of Moses Schorr (1944), 227; J. Feliks, Animal World of the Bible. in folklore: Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1936), 116; J.L. Zlotnik, Midrash ha-Meliẓah (1938), 62–64; Scheiber, in: Folia Ethnographica, 1 (Budapest, 1949), 1–3. add. bibliography: Feliks, Ha-Ẓome'aḥ, 232.
ass1 / as/ • n. 1. a hoofed mammal (genus Equus) of the horse family with a braying call, typically smaller than a horse and with longer ears. The two species are E. africanus of Africa, which is the ancestor of the domestic ass or donkey, and E. hemionus of Asia. ∎ (in general use) a donkey. 2. inf. a foolish or stupid person.PHRASAL VERBS: make an ass of oneself inf. behave in a way that makes one look foolish or stupid. ass2 (Brit. arse) • n. vulgar slang a person’s buttocks or anus. ∎ a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person. ∎ women regarded as a source of sexual gratification. ∎ oneself (used in phrases for emphasis): get your ass in here fast the bureaucrat who wants everything in writing so as to cover his ass.DERIVATIVES: assed / ast/ adj. [in comb.] fat-assed guys.
- Balaam’s ass ass which rebukes Balaam who then blesses the Israelites. [O.T.: Numbers 22:22–35]
- Bottom, Nick oaf upon whom Puck fixes ass’s head. [Br. Lit.: Midsummer Night’s Dream ]
- Dapple Sancho’s ass. [Span. Lit.: Don Quixote ]
- Democratic Party donkey; symbol of Democratic Party in U.S. politics. [Am. Culture: Misc.]
- Golden Ass, The Lucius, transformed into donkey, observes foibles of mankind. [Rom. Lit.: Benét, 44]
- Midas for judging Pan winner of flute contest, his ears are changed to ass’s ears. [Gk. Myth.: Leach, 83]
- Pinocchio and Lampwick naughtiness causes them to sprout donkey’s ears and tails. [Ital. Lit.: Pinocchio ]
jen·ny / ˈjenē/ • n. (pl. -nies) 1. a female donkey or ass. 2. short for spinning jenny.
ass-eared epithet applied to Midas after he had unwisely given judgement against Apollo in a contest of flute-playing, and been rewarded by the god with donkey's ears in place of his own.
ass in a lion's skin a foolish or cowardly person who adopts a heroic pose or appearance; the allusion is to a fable in which a donkey dresses up in the skin of a lion to appear terrible.