The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Once upon a time, as with so many witchcraft animals, the humble donkey was venerated and held sacred. It was no coincidence that Christ chose to ride a donkey on his fateful entry into Jerusalem but fulfillment of prophecy. Dionysus rode a donkey, too. The Greek goddess Hestia has a donkey for a companion (or her consort). The most famous donkey in the Old Testament belonged to the sorcerer-shaman Balaam; it spoke, protested when beaten and was able to see an angel when its master could not.
Donkeys were first domesticated in the Nile Valley in pre-dynastic Egypt. Among their early tasks was helping thresh grain, leading to their close identification with the Corn Mother. This practice would degenerate into base cruelty: donkeys were blindfolded or even blinded so they’d walk in endless circles, turning the mill wheel.
Donkeys were once synonymous with phallic energy and the phallic organ itself, particularly in ancient Egypt, where the phonetic elements for their word for donkey (“a-a”; “hee-haw”?) were represented by the ideogram for donkey and a phallus. The veneration today reserved for the stallion was once given to the donkey. Roman couples carved donkey heads on their beds in hopes of enhancing fertility. Donkeys had close associations with the summer solstice (Midsummer’s Eve), as they were believed to ritually mate at that time, just like people celebrating that fertility festival. Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to the donkey’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In medieval Europe, donkeys became identified with rampant, uncontrolled, sinful lust. They were prominently featured in the Feast of Fools; donkeys were understood to be among the devil’s favorite guises.
The popular festival known as The Feast of the Ass was celebrated in Northern France during the Middle Ages. Held annually on January 14th, it allegedly commemorated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. A young girl holding a baby was seated astride a donkey and lead through the streets and into the church. It was a raucous, somewhat sacrilegious festival with many elements reminiscent of pagan, fertility, and, specifically, Dionysian rites. The donkey was actually brought into the church where it was given food and drink on a table, similar to a sacrificial offering. The festival concluded with a midnight mass, which the officiating priest ended by braying three times. This feast was suppressed by the Church in the fifteenth century, although it lingered in places for a long time afterwards.
Unlike cats or crows, the donkey’s disreputable and demonic associations pre-date Christianity. Their associations with sex, magic and dangerous, unpredictable deities already lead many to be ambivalent toward them. The donkey was among the Egyptian deity Set’s sacred animals. Despite periods of popularity, Set, Lord of Magic, especially sex magic, was an ambiguous, volatile deity, a disreputable and dangerous god.
The associations between donkeys and Set were strong and images of Set with a donkey’s head were engraved on magical talismanic gems. The Egyptians identified Set as the god of foreigners, most especially their Semitic neighbors. (The invading Hyksos kings, believed to be of Semitic origin, adored Set.) Set was also identified (by the Egyptians) with the god of the Jewish people who even then bore an ancient reputation as powerful magicians. (One of the Jewish god’s names (γah) sounds similar to io, the Coptic word for donkey.)
Dionysus, to whom donkeys are sacred, also became increasingly suspect and disregarded. As the Common Era loomed, there was little room or official sympathy for a wild shamanic god of intoxication, sex, and ecstasy, especially a god who encouraged women to dance wild, free and independent. King Midas was punished with donkey’s ears when he dared to suggest that a satyr was a finer musician than that Hellenic golden boy, Apollo. Satyrs were worshippers of Dionysus and on one level the story may be understood as a rebuke towards Dionysus.
By the dawning of the Common Era, conventional society and religion regarded donkeys poorly. No longer sacred, they were associated with foreigners, practitioners of magic, lechery and uncontrolled sex, and heretical strange religions, symbolic of lust and immorality. To accuse someone of worshipping an ass was considered the ultimate insult. That insult was frequently made:
In Alexandria, Greek propaganda accused Jews of worshipping a donkey’s head.
Throughout their vast empire, Roman propaganda accused Christians of worshipping a donkey’s head.
To suggest someone “worshipped the donkey” was also an allusion to Dionysus and his suppressed Bacchanalia.
Hidden within the intended insults, perhaps what authorities were using the donkey to symbolically express was that these varied spiritual traditions were stubbornly persistent and dangerously defiant.
These familiar accusations survived into the Christian era, although accusers and targets changed. Christians, once accused of worshipping donkeys themselves, now accused the Knights Templar of worshipping a mysterious idol named Baphomet. Among the forms suggested for Baphomet was that of a donkey’s head. Witches were accused of adoring Satan in the form of a donkey with huge, erect phallus while engaged in orgies at bacchanalia-like sabbats.
According to folklore, the donkey is the animal into which victims of witchcraft are most likely to find themselves transformed, the most famous example being Lucius Apuleius who was turned into an ass when he tried to steal a sorceress’ magic in the second-century CE book, The Golden Ass.