Donkey Work

While brainstorming for a Kemetic D topic this week, a bunch of people started throwing out random words starting with ‘D’ as potential topics.  My friend Vieva suggested, jokingly (I think), ‘donkey’.  Interestingly enough, the donkey has quite a few ties to my particular brand of Kemeticism as it is a Setian animal and, well, I belong to Him.

The modern domestic donkey (Equus asinus) was developed from wild asses in Asia and Africa and, in fact, significant breeding and domestication work was done in Ancient Egypt.  Two African sub-species, the Nubian ass (Equus africanus africanus) and the Somali ass (Equus africanus somaliensis), are thought to have been involved (although there’s some recent thought about the Somali ass not contributing genetically to the modern donkey).  Both subspecies remain in existence today but their range is nowhere near what it once was and, in fact, both are on the IUCN Red List.

The donkey was mostly used in Ancient Egypt as a beast of burden – unlike in Asia, there are few records of donkeys being ridden.  Prior to the introduction of the camel in the first millennium BCE, overland travel and commerce depended on the use of the donkey; their worth can be easily noted through the many tomb paintings and carvings in which they’re depicted (see image above)  as well as the fact that donkey skeletons have been found entombed in several pre-dynastic sites, including Abydos.

Being Setian animals, donkeys embody chaos (this is actually funny to me as I’ve spent quite a bit of time with donkeys and can attest to their sometimes chaotic behavior!)  At least one of the tellings of Ausir and Set involves Set in donkey form, and there was a royal ritual during the Middle Kingdom that equated Ausir as barley and Set as the donkeys that thresh grain by trampling it.   There are spells to ward off chaos that mention donkeys – a hieroglyph of a donkey pierced with a knife is followed by these words:

Another spell for warding off the donkey. To be spoken by the Osiris NN:
On your face! Do not devour me, for I am pure! I am one who has come by himself. You shall not attack me. I am one who has come because he was called. You do not know. I am the master of your mouth. Retreat before your “myrrh”!
“O you bald back of the head, pierce Seth!” say the existing ones…
(translated from German translation)

In modern Egypt, donkeys are still used routinely.  They carry both goods and people from place to place, including carts of bricks from the hundreds of brick kilns set up around Cairo.  Donkeys are also widely used in rural farming.  Unfortunately, while important to the workings of the economy, donkeys in Egypt suffer from lack of veterinary care, poor harnessing, and brutal working conditions.  The plight of Egyptian donkeys is well-documented by The Donkey Sanctuary which works to provide better care for the animals ranging from free veterinary checks and training of donkey owners in better husbandry practices to new stables and yards…and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in working with an equine charity.

I’ll probably donate to them during Opet this year…but that’s a topic for another post.


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