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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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Miniature Donkey Foal

Miniature Donkey Foal

Yesterday I promised to blog about donkeys. This donkey post was meant to be a towering work of research covering many different aspects of these lovable albeit stubborn equines.  I was going to write about their domestication in remote prehistory, their profound utility to human society throughout the long millennia, and their importance in the most ancient art and literature.  I was even going to make references to the wild onager, an exquisite endangered species of donkey which runs faster than thoroughbred racehorses (and is very nearly the world’s fastest land animal).  But then it occurred to me that I could write about all of this in the indefinite future and, for today, write a picture-heavy post about adorable miniature donkeys!

Miniature donkeys snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie with a toddler (photo by David Caird via the Daily Mail)

Miniature donkeys snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie with a toddler (photo by David Caird via the Daily Mail)

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Geldings playing soccer 3 c lg

The miniature donkey is more properly the Mediterranean miniature donkey.  They were originally bred in Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy as dray animals, but a far-sighted American donkey enthusiast imported them to the United States in the 1920s just because he liked them. The largest miniature donkeys stand a majestic 9 hands tall at the withers when fully grown (for non-horse people this translates to  91 centimeters (3 feet) tall at the shoulders), but most are smaller. Miniature donkeys can pull carts, act as shepherds or companion animals, and generally do whatever their ancient forbears did, however, in today’s world the miniature donkey is largely kept as an endearing pet. They are particularly successful as therapy animals—they go and cheer up the elderly, the disabled, or children with terminal illnesses (which presents a touching picture of their gentle temperament).

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MAKING FRIENDS !  HAPPY BIRTHDAY GLADY'S  99YEARS YOUNG

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Miniature donkeys acting as therapy animals (look how fancy they can dress up!)

Miniature donkeys acting as therapy animals (look how fancy they can dress up!)

These little donkeys can be gray, brown, black, sorrel, or spotted (or rarely white).  Most donkeys have pale “points” around their eyes and muzzles and a “cross” of longer fur which runs down from the top of their head to their tail and meets with a stripe of fur running from shoulder to shoulder up across their withers (Christian mythology claims this cross denotes a blessing from Jesus to all donkeys for their loyalty and friendliness–but donkeys’ cross-shape manes long predate the New Testament). Donkeys in general–and miniature donkeys in particular–are noted for their great intelligence.  This intellect also makes them recalcitrant to certain human projects: stubbornness is a noted feature of donkeys (although patient & mild-tempered trainers assert that this famous obduracy largely stems from mishandling).  Miniature donkeys have similar habits and needs to horses, but they have longer lives.  The average life span for these tiny donkeys is 30 – 35 years!  If you are blessed with sufficient acreage and outbuildings, and you feel that you will live long enough to have miniature donkeys as pets, it is important to remember that they are highly social  heard animals and will suffer without constant companionship from other donkeys and horses (although people who keep them as shepherds aver that a flock of goats will also keep them occupied).   These donkeys are so cute!  I just love them (and I couldn’t help but notice a shocking number of the photos of them feature people hugging on them), but I think my housecat would object to having one in Brooklyn…to say nothing of my landlady or Mayor DeBlasio!

Here's one with an alpaca!

Here’s one with an alpaca!

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

Could a bat become a god in Chinese mythology?  You need to read the story of the immortal Zhang Guo Lao!

The Chinese underworld illustrates how Chinese mythology portrays existence as a struggle through many different levels of enlightenment.  The damned souls of the “dark mansion” (aka hell) are at the bottom of karmic heap.  At the top of the pantheon are gods, spirit beings, bodhisattvas, and great magicians.  Zhang Guo Lao was one such entity.  This mythical figure was apparently based on a one-time real person, a hermit/mystic who lived on Mount Tiáo in Héngzhōu during the Tang dynasty.

One of the oldest of the eight Taoist immortals, Zhang Guo Lao was originally a fangshi (a sort of highly literate gentleman-alchemist).  It was this mastery of potions which enabled him to step free of mortality (and he reputedly continues to make magical wines and elixirs from various berries, shrubs, and mushrooms).   An eccentric among eccentrics, Zhang Guo Lao would frequently perform strange magic tricks to delight himself and was frequently found  sipping from poison flowers and toxic plants for fun.  Using his own “drunk kung fu”, he was capable of killing animals and people by pointing at them.  Sometimes he would lie around dead and festering for months before leaping up and skipping through the woods.

Zhang Guo Lao

Zhang Guo Lao is known by his long flowing white hair, his extreme age, and by his pet donkey which he is often pictured riding on (backwards of course).  This white donkey was no ordinary beast of burden:  when Zhang Guo Lao had reached his destination he would fold the wondrous quadruped up into a tiny slip as thin as a slip of paper.  He would then keep the donkey in his cap box.  When he needed to travel he would reconstitute the creature with a jet of water from his mouth.  The ancient immortal also carried a “fish drum. To quote Perceval Yetts’ article The Eight Immortals (published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society), “[Zhang Guo Lao] is easily recognized by his pao pei, a curious object which to Western eyes resembles a diminutive golfer’s bag containing two clubs. Actually it is a kind of musical instrument called a “fish-drum”, composed of a cylinder, often of bamboo, over one end of which is stretched a piece of prepared fish or snake skin. What look like two projecting golf clubs are the ends of long slips of bamboo used as castanets.”

Earlier, I wrote that Zhang Guo Lao started as a fangshi.  This is to ignore his long history of lives before he ascended to near-divinity.  Stories say that Zhang Guo Lao claimed to have been a court minister for Emperor Yao in a former life.  Additionally, elsewhere in the canon of Taoist literature, Yeh Fa-shan, a fabulist wonder-worker, told a story about how Zhang Guo Lao started out as a bat.  Indeed Zhang Guo Lao is frequently portrayed with auspicious bats (a symbol of good fortune) and is said to be able to transform himself into a bat.  The idea that a virtuous bat could rise up through the ranks of being–first into a man, then into an emperor’s minister, then into an alchemist/monk, and finally into an immortal quasi-god is a “rags-to-riches” story that Horatio Algiers could never conceive of.  Zhang Guo Lao’s path to godhood illustrates that America holds no monopoly on Cinderella dreams.

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