The Donkey in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Name:

Aa-hemet or Eeyore



038hshsfxsdf.jpgThere is evidence that the ancient Egyptians domesticated donkeys over 5,000 years ago. Descended from the African Wild Ass, the donkey in Egypt stood four feet (1.2 meters) high at the shoulder and weighed about 600 pounds (272.16 kilograms), much larger than a modern donkey. Donkeys played an essential role in ancient Egypt, as they still do today in the Nile valley, as the principal load-carriers. (The horse and camel were introduced fairly late in Egyptian history.)

Donkeys were kept in pens or were allowed to roam in herds, watched over by a herdsman. The donkey was highly valued as a beast of burden, and are often shown in tombs carrying sheaves and grain in saddle packs, or pulling carts. Female donkeys were kept as dairy animals. Like pigs and cattle, they were employed for threshing, a job for which their sharp hooves made them particularly suitable.

Donkeys were also used to pull the plow, and two New Kingdom texts refer to donkeys pulling a chariot. Three Old Kingdom reliefs portray the owner being transported to the fields in an elaborate palanquin suspended over the backs of two donkeys. It was considered undignified to ride a donkey, unless it was on a litter. Overland trade was completely dependent on donkeys until the introduction of the camel.

Possessors are recorded as having taken care of their sick donkeys. The attitude to the animal is expressed in an ancient Egyptian proverb: "When there is work to do, get a donkey. When there is fodder, fetch an ox."

The purchase price of a donkey was fairly high, donkeys being worth more than a goat, sheep, or pig, about as much as a cow. No distinction was drawn between male or female donkeys, so variations in value reflect the quality and age of the animal. Only the wealthy could afford a donkey - peasants rented the animal from the more prosperous. Owners bragged about their large herds of donkeys, and the pharaoh Aha was buried with the remains of ten donkeys to accompany him in the afterlife. These donkeys were accorded the same importance as court officials, and occupied their own special tombs.

Starting during the Middle Kingdom, the donkey became associated with the evil god Set, who was said to take the form of a red donkey. A myth states that 77 donkeys opposed the sun-god Ra and stood in his way to try and prevent his rising. During the New Kingdom, the "Donkey of Set" was ritually killed with a lance at the festival of Osiris. At Busiris the sacrifice was symbolic: a donkey's picture was impressed upon sacrificial bread. The hieroglyphic of the donkey came to be bound or pierced with a knife, to render it harmless.

ty_CHE_R4_tb_anes.jpgThere were many Egyptian proverbs concerning the donkey:

"Do not tie your donkey's foot to the palm tree lest he shake it."

"The hissing of the snake is more effective than the braying of the donkey."
Donkey hieroglyphic pierced by a knife

"The waste of a donkey is carrying bricks."

"One does not load a beam on a donkey."

"If a donkey goes with a horse it adopts its pace."

"One does not praise a donkey carrying a load because it brays."

Livestock of Ancient Egypt