Ass Worship

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Numerous Greek and Latin writers allude to a widespread belief that Jews, and subsequently Christians, observed some form of ass worship. The earliest mention of this cult is by Mnaseas of Patras (third–second centuries b.c.e.) who, according to *Apion (Jos., Apion, 2:112 ff.), refers to the "golden head of an ass" in the Temple sanctuary. Apion maintains that this ass's head was worshiped by the Jews, the fact coming to light "on the occasion of the spoliation of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, when the head, made of gold and worth a high price, was discovered" (ibid., 80). This account is similar to that of Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135–51 b.c.e.), who claims that Antiochus Epiphanes found in the Temple the statue of a bearded man, apparently Moses, sitting upon an ass and holding a book. Another Greek writer, Damocritus (first century b.c.e.–c.e.; see Suidas, Lexicon, ed. by A. Adler, 2 (1931), 5, no. 49, s.v. Δαμόκριτος), in his book "About the Jews" charges the Jews with sacrificing a human being to the head of a golden ass once every seven years. Suidas himself shortens the interval to three years (ibid., 641, s.v. ʾΙούδας καὶ ʾΙουδαὶος). Plutarch (Quaestiones convivales, 4:5) also refers to the Jews' worship of the ass, giving it as a reason for their abstention from the flesh of the hare, whose flesh is similar to that of the ass. Tacitus (Historiae, 5:3 ff.) tells of a herd of wild asses which led Moses and the Jews to a spring when they were sorely in need of water, the Jews, in consequence, elevating the ass to an object of worship (cf. Gen. 36:24).

The Christians apparently inherited the ass-cult accusation from the Jews. According to Tertullian (Apologeticus 16; Ad Nationes 1:2) the close relationship between Judaism and Christianity causes some people to believe that "an ass's head is our God." A presumably satiric graffito found in Rome in 1856 depicts a man with the head of an ass nailed to a cross. Christian Gnostic sects may indeed have observed some form of ass worship. In the Gnostic book Γέννα Μαρίας (Epiphanius of Salamis, Adversus Haereses, 26:10, 12) the spirit Sabaot is said to have had the form of an ass, and the prophet *Zechariah saw a man in similar form in the Temple of Jerusalem.

None of the above, however, solves the basic question of the origin of Jewish ass-worship legends. It has been pointed out that the Jewish religion was often identified with the Dionysus-Bacchus cult (see Frankel, in mgwj, 9 (1860), 125 ff.) which held the ass sacred, both Bacchus and his companion Silenus constantly riding upon an ass. Hence, Greek and Roman writers who were unfamiliar with Jewish worship may have associated the Jews with some form of ass worship. Another solution would associate the Jews with the Egyptian cult of Typhon-Seth, in which the ass played an important part (Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959), 365; Finkelstein, in htr, 35 (1942), 301). It is interesting to note that the Septuagint translates ḥamor usually as ὄνος, but 12 times there is the uncommon ὑποζύγιον. It has been suggested that when the Scriptures deal with some aspect of religious belief, the translators of the Septuagint, in their awareness of the ass-worship accusations, attempted to eliminate any association with ὄνος (e.g., Zech. 9:9).


J. Feliks, Animal World of the Bible (1962), 27; Y. Aharoni, Torat ha-Ḥai (1923), 99–100; S. Feigan, in: Studies… M. Schorr (1944), 227–40.

[Isaiah Gafni]