What are donkeys really?

The donkey is one of the most exploited and abused animals in history. Donkeys were used for towing cargo and for chariots in Sumer (modern day Iraq/Kuwait) as early as around 2600 BC. The attitude towards donkeys has not changed much even today. The donkey is still a labor force that is brutally used and a tourist attraction in some countries, even ridden by people who weigh over 100 kilos. ‘Explore our island on the back of a tortured animal’ would be a fair tourist slogan on some car-free Greek islands.

It’s not clear why the saying: “You are as stubborn as a donkey” exists, especially when stubbornness is actually a human trait. It should be the other way around. Perhaps a donkey might say to another donkey: “You are as stubborn as a man!”

The donkey is a modest, diligent, and hardy animal with a mild temperament, but not everyone thinks so. In the perception of many people around the world, the donkey is a sluggish, stupid, defiant, and stubborn animal. Those who look at a donkey with more respect recognise many virtues in him: he is very lively, hardworking, durable, and even beautiful.

The donkey as a symbol of punishment in literature

Donkeys appear in various ways in literature; mostly in a negative context as a symbol of human flaws, weaknesses and failures. Rarely are they portrayed as a being worthy of respect and admiration. Here I will give a few examples of the donkey in well-known literary works.

In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (The Golden Asse), the main character, Lucius, is turned into a donkey. Lucius was not turned into any animal, but into a donkey because he was the least valuable and the most hated creature on earth. In ancient times, the donkey was considered a symbol of stupidity, laziness, shame, and humiliation. His only purpose was to carry a heavy load. The transformation of the main character into a donkey symbolises man’s moral stumbling and a life unworthy of a human being. After searching in vain for happiness in bodily pleasures, Lucius goes into solitude and realises that happiness is in spiritual values, and then he becomes a man again.

Apuleius The Golden Asse

Another example in literature, when turning humans into donkeys is considered the greatest possible punishment, is in the story of Pinocchio written by Carlo Goldoni. The boys in the story were turned into donkeys so they could work in salt mines as slaves! It was also a punishment for lazy and mischievous behaviour.

The donkey also experiences unfair discrimination especially in relation to its horse relative. While the horse is normally considered a noble and beautiful animal that belongs to a higher class, the donkey is seen as an animal that serves and suffers beatings and humiliation. The fact that horses were ridden by knights and donkeys ridden by their servants also classifies this animal in a lower class.


Sancho Panza and Dapple

Fortunately, the donkey not only entered literature as a symbol of stubbornness and stupidity, but also as a symbol of patience, humility, and loyalty. An example of a humane and emotional attitude towards a donkey in literature is in the character Sancho Panza’s relationship with his donkey called Dapple. In Miguel de Cervantes’s famous novel about a brave knight called Don Quixote, the master rides a horse and his servant Sancho Panza rides a donkey called Dapple, treating him as a very reliable animal that deserves respect. The servant’s attitude towards the donkey is one of the brightest examples of the humane attitude towards that animal in literature.


Sancho Panza often talks to his donkey during the trip and repeatedly shows how much he cares about the animal by calling him, “a child of his bowels… a treasure to his children… a delight to his wife… the ease of his burdens—a source of well-needed income since his donkey earns twenty-six marvedis a day… “a sum that covers half his daily expenses.”

The donkey can be seen here as a reflection of his master, who is a loyal, hard-working servant. He is only what he is, and that is considered a virtue – just being who you are.

The donkey’s 15 minutes of fame in the Bible

Donkeys have deep symbolic meaning in the Bible. They are mentioned 173 times. Only sheep are mentioned more than them. Among these 173 mentions of donkeys in the Bible is perhaps the most famous story about Jesus’s glorious entry into Jerusalem while riding a donkey. Here again, the donkey is a kind of reflection of the one who rides him.  Jesus places humility and service on the pedestal of all virtues. According to the writings of the evangelist Matthew, the people shouted: “Hosanna to the son of David”. In that scene, the donkey is a creature worthy of respect and admiration, not some stupid creature that is otherwise beaten and humiliated. The donkey also carried the pregnant Mary all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem where she gave birth to Jesus.

The donkey in Aesop’s Fables

The donkey has a large number of roles in Aesop’s fables. It’s a character who always suffers because of his naivety and desire to be someone else and change his identity.  In the fable “The Donkey in the Lion’s Skin”, donkey behaviour is a warning to man who wants to transcend his limitations and pretend to be what he is not. According to Aesop, man and his position in society is determined by his origin. The donkey is limited in origin, just like all members of the Greek community. In relation to his character, an arrogant attitude towards the despised persons of the lower class is reflected. Will those who want to change society end up like donkeys? This lesson might have a demotivating effect on the need to change unjust social order, and we want to teach young readers that change in society is necessary and possible, right? Another interpretation of the donkey’s behaviour could be as a message to the reader to be authentic and not try to imitate others in order to succeed. In any case, a lot can be learned from a donkey in fables.

Donkeys in picture books: “The Doctor Donkey”

The donkey is a favourite character in one of my picture books for children called  ‘The Donkey Doctor’. It is a touching and encouraging story about the difficult and exhausting life of a donkey on an island. One day, a boy with a special connection to animals comes to visit the island with his parents. In the crowd of tourists who take photos with tired donkeys and ride them in the unbearable heat, he shows compassion towards a donkey and promises to return to the island one day to help.

This story teaches children that donkeys can be more than just entertainment for people. Like all other animals, they are our friends who deserve to be treated kindly.