Yesterday in the first of a series of articles on the donkey in the western tradition of Christian art, I wrote about the Graffito Blasfemo – one of the earliest known representations of the Crucifixion. Later in the day, a friend who had seen my blogpost commented: “That’s not a donkey, it’s a horse!” She pointed out that the ears were too short for a donkey. I countered by saying that the shape of the rest of the head was definitely a donkey and the muzzle was obviously a donkey!
You might fairly make the observation that, as we are both teachers on our long summer holiday, we are running out of sensible things to while away the time. Nevertheless, the question was immediately found to be more interesting because the husband of my friend who disputed the ears had been typing into his mobile phone during this exchange, in order to see what he could find on Google. He is not a teacher but a builder and therefore interested in practical solutions.
“Here you are!” he pronounced. “The Syrian wild ass.” He showed us the photograph which had turned up on a website about endangered and extinct species, and this is exactly the head that we find in the Graffito Blasfemo Crucifixion picture. He announced that he had read that the species sadly became extinct in 1928. That settled the horse versus donkey argument, but it kindled my interest. Plus I had already marked out a section of this blog for a series of articles on preservation of donkey breeds. (It should really be called ‘conservation’ but the pages sort alphabetically and I wanted ‘Culture & History’ first.)
So, being a teacher with eleven days of my holiday still outstanding, I devoted much of my morning to finding out more about the extinct Syrian wild ass (Equus hemionus hemippus) It was only a metre high at the shoulder as can be seen in this photograph where it can be compared with the size of the onlooker outside the fence. The story became more interesting as it is likely this was the exact type of animal referred to in the Hebrew Bible as a wild ass: e.g. Ishmael referred to as a wild ass in Genesis, various references in the Psalms, and so on.
I discovered a fully developed exploration of the Biblical references in the Reverend J.G.Woods’ Bible Animals – a book wonderfully subtitled, “Being a description of every living creature mentioned in the Scriptures, from the ape to the coral.” (!)
The wild ass and the domesticated ass are dealt with separately in Revd. Woods’ work, but interestingly the Syrian ass is pictured in both the domesticated and wild asses sections of his book. In the domesticated ass section. The relationship between the two is described as follows: “It is true that the Wild and the Domesticated Ass are exactly similar in appearance, and that an Asinus hemippus, or Wild Ass, looks so like an Asiatic Asinus vulgaris, or Domesticated Ass, that by the eye alone the two are hardly distinguishable from each other. But with their appearance the resemblance ends, the domestic animal being quiet, docile, and fond of man, while the wild animal is savage, intractable, and has an invincible repugnance to human beings.”
Revd. Woods further explores the differences between the two by examining the two words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe types of ass: “There are several passages of Scripture in which the Wild Ass is distinguished from the domesticated animal, and in all of them there is some reference made to its swiftness, its intractable nature, and love of freedom.
“In the Hebrew Scriptures there are two words which are given in the Authorized Translation as Wild Ass, namely, Arod and Pere, and it is rather remarkable that both words occur in the same passage. If the reader will refer to Job xxxix. 5, he will see the following passage: “Who hath sent out the wild ass (Pere) free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass (Arod)?” Now there are only two places in the whole Hebrew Scriptures in which the word Arod occurs, and there are many doubts whether the word Arod is rightly translated. The first is that which has just been quoted, and the second occurs in Dan. v. 21: “And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses.”
There will be a fuller quotation from this book, in my article on the Syrian wild ass in the Preservation section of this blog which includes a photograph of another example in London Zoo in the 19th century. Revd Woods also gives a vivid account by Sir R. Kerr Porter of the hunting of wild asses, which were a delicacy in many parts of the Middle East. It is due to the over-hunting of this sub-species, together with the mechanisation of transport, that it had become extinct by 1928.
On a lighter note, I can report that Matilde has once again done her party trick and drunk my beer. I had left a full pint mug of beer on a bench while attending to Morris who appeared to have a scratch on the side of his face, but just turned out to be a streak of mud. When I turned round, I found Matilde slurping away at my jug of beer – sticking her long tongue into it and drawing it up very skillfully without knocking the vessel over.
She managed to drink most of it before being surprised by the the cry of “You norty donkey!” At this point she ran off and hid in the stable. I found it very difficult to be cross with her because she very quickly became quite soppy and emotional. And we both had a fly on our nose, so it is difficult to be serious in those circumstances. But I need to explain to Matilde about the way the Syrian ass became extinct, and how this was mainly due to it stealing other people’s beer.