Pope Benedict has asserted in his latest book on Christ that no donkeys or oxen were present at the birth of Jesus because animals are not mentioned in the gospel. He maintains that the inspiration to include them might have come from pre-Christian traditions. A source could be the Book of Habakkuk, a portion of the Hebrew Bible, likely to have been written by an early prophet in the seventh century BC. But he said that his doubted that his scepticism would have much of an impact as the image of donkeys or oxen beside the manger are so deeply embedded in the nativity that they would survive.
There are a lot of things not mentioned in the Bible. The descriptive side of things is extremely thin so just because something was not mentioned does not mean it was not there.The Bible accounts were written at a time when attention was paid to signs and symbols. The donkey, at that time was a complex representation with a long history.
It was said that Mary and Joseph rode a donkey into Egypt. The Christ rode a female donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The fact that it was a she donkey is highly significant. Contrary to the negative connotations of the male, the female symbolised knowledge, humility, poverty, courage and peace. Actually indications are that to ride a donkey at that time was seen as a representation of richness that befitted the House of David. This connotation was reversed to fit the changing social landscape when horses became the mode of transport for the wealthy. To ride a donkey was downgraded to symbolise poverty.
Donkeys had already figured in earlier stories.The Lord of Lower or Northern Egypt, Seth was represented by a big-eared imaginary animal with red hair resembling a donkey. He was associated with the desert and storms.( The Greeks associated Seth with their god, Typhon) He was renowned for killing his brother Osiris. I will go into that in more detail in another blog soon as that story is not as straightforward as it appears. Donkeys were very important to the Egyptian economy. They were not treated well as they were beaten for their stubborn nature. Overland trade was dependent upon them. The state even imposed a donkey tax. Later, camels became the norm as they were very hardy and carried water.
Donkeys were seen as an adversary of the ancient egyptian gods. 77 donkeys attempted to prevent Ra, the sun god from rising. During the New Kingdom the Donkey of Seth was killed with a lance at the festival of Osiris. At Busiris, a centre of the cult of Osiris, the sacrifice was altered to a symbolic representation.A donkey’s picture was impressed upon sacrificial bread.
The Egyptians dealt with the possibility of interference by Seth’s agents symbolically which was how they dealt with all manifestations of what they considered to be evil. They pierced the hieroglyph of the donkey with a knife, to make it harmless. Those who had died had spells cast over them
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… (After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site[)
Why were there 77 donkeys who opposed Ra? What is the significance of this number? It is a master number because of two sevens conjoined which amplifies the properties of the number 7.
The number 7 is represented in seven days in a week, seven levels of development,the term the seventh heaven, seven angels in the hierarchy, seven rose petals to name a few. The number 7 appears 77 times in the Old Testament. It represents energy and moral principles.
To ancient egyptians, the number represented eternal life as it described the whole cycle, a dynamic perfection. Each lunar phase lasts for seven days. Four of these phases complete the lunar cycle (7 x 4=28). 1+2+3+4+5+6+7=28. This matches the number of the complete lunar cycle, 28. The sum of number 4, the symbol of four sides of the Earth, and number 3, the symbol of heaven, is number seven that represents the whole Universe in motion.
There are seven colors of a rainbow and seven notes in the musical scale consisting of five tones and two semitones, i.e. a major and minor scale. Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC), the most influential physician of antiquity who is known as the father of medicine, said number seven ”keeps together all existing things with his secret power and it has effect on planets”. All numerologists agree that it is a magical number.
7 completes the changing of man’s 6 natures Bible math teaches us to count the 7th day of the Creation as 777 to match the genealogy of the Son of God, who is Jesus (http://www.mark7publishing.com/bible-numerology.html)
So, looking at the symbol of the donkey led to many interesting revelations about its symbolic links in the eyes of the ancients. My late mother left some money for the Brook Animal Hospital to set up a donkey/horse shelter in Egypt. We are waiting to hear whether it will be in Edfu or Aswan. It will be where it is most needed. I am pleased that I now have more insight into what the donkey signified to the Egyptians. I will write a post about the shelter in the future and include pictures.
So when you see a nativity crib, take a look at the donkey and remember that it represents much more than it appears to.