An Ode to the Donkey

Total Croatia News

On our quest to bring you the sights and sounds of Dalmatia, we bring you the story about its most important animal – the donkey, written by one of the most prominent writers and poets in Dalmatia and Croatia – Jakša Fiamengo.

Total Croatia News has always tried to bring you closer to the traditions of Croatia, and on May 5, 2016, we start with the symbols of Dalmatia, first one being the donkey. This brilliant text, taken from an equally brilliant book Dalmacija, hrvatska ruža svijetova, was written by a renowned poet and writer Jakša Fiamengo.

Donkey, the stoic from the karst terrain

They could have chosen anyone, a cow, goat, sheep, frog, snail, worm, snake…They could have lashed out at any living creature, they could have belittled and humiliated any other animal…But no! – the people have chosen the donkey. Tovar (as we call it in Dalmatia), ass, donkey…This hard working grey creature, the one that is stoic and hard working under any amount of pressure. The one who is always greeted with a curse and a stick, foot or a fist. They could have chosen anyone to add all those derogative adjectives about being stubborn, lazy, tone deaf…But no! People really had it in for the donkey, the most hard-working animal, a mule for all terrains, especially karst ones. The Dalmatian tram as some named it. The endearing worker, four-legged proletarian renowned for its short stature and (most often) grey colour, the archetype of the Mediterranean world, a biblical animal with the pose of a lone philosopher. Most patient among the patient ones, most enduring among the enduring ones, most tenacious among the tenacious ones, the long-eared and long-tailed master chaser of flies.

It is a fact that no other animal has been mocked as much as much as a donkey. But also, it evoked sympathy, even compassion. Many paintings, apart from the colourless ones from the Bible, were graced by a donkey (Picasso, Chagall…), while many renowned composers and songwriters in Dalmatia (Runjić, Bebić, Papić) perceive the death of the little grey animal as a true tragedy.

The donkey receives a lot of sympathy from its masters, but not always in the right way, and from some of our writers, such as Ante Cettineo, one of the greatest poets of the last century in his Donkey eclogue. Even Marko Uvodić, a great annalist of the life of old Split writes about the tragic fate of a donkey followed by many others from Frano Ivanišević to Tolja (Anatolij) Kudrjavcev. Even Apuleius mentioned it in his book The Golden Donkey back in ancient times, describing how he became a donkey after drinking a potion but kept a human soul.    

But who is this animal, this hardworking and faithful follower of farmers, the same one that was ridden by real and fictional characters such as St. Francis, St. Eusebius,Nassreddin Hodja, Sancho Panza and many others, even Jesus on his way to Jerusalem? The same one to whose milk Cleopatra owes her beauty? Surely, a donkey is the epitome of poverty, even when there are no comparisons to the wealthy, it is a symbol of life in suffering, of patience towards unpredictable and not always gentle actions of its masters. The one who gives all and receives a beating, who carries the famous (in China immortals ride a white donkey) is barely called by its name. Even some Bible interpreters are not on his side- even though Jesus gloriously rode a donkey on his way to Jerusalem and even though its breath kept baby Jesus arm in the manger along with an ox and later on carried him during his escape from Herod to Egypt, they still see satanic characteristics in the donkey.        

In India donkeys are only ridden by the most notorious divinities, in Egypt, a red donkey is one of the most dangerous creatures met by the souls in the afterlife. There’s a saying in France: you’re as bad as a red donkey! In the Apocalypse, it can be identified as the hidden beast and in some religions, it is the symbol of ignorance. The symbolism towards the donkey is truly ruthless. All in all, history could be called history of injustice towards the donkey.       

So, what do they hold against the donkeys? Nothing, actually. Why is it considered dumb? Probably because it’s hard working. The donkey is many things but it is certainly not lazy. Ok, sometimes it will stay put and won’t budge. It becomes stubborn. But who doesn’t? It probably gets into its own zone, its own phobias. Nothing odd about it in the anthropomorphic system.   But that’s when a volcano of insults and beatings is thrown upon them.   Even if we can understand that because of its endurance it can stand great physical strain with occasional painful braying, how can it stand all the verbal abuse? Even when people start calling each other donkey or an ass, or when they say you’ve fallen from a horse to a donkey (you’ve traded down)? It really shouldn’t be an insult to another person when someone calls him a donkey because of his behaviour, it’s an insult for a donkey.  


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A donkey is happy with the little things, even when it “sings” its own serenade in a key only known to his species. It is not aware of its happiness, just like the donkey from the famous poem by Arsen Dedić is not aware that it is holding a four-leaf clover in its teeth. It’s as if happiness is ephemeral to a donkey and unnecessary in excessive amounts. And yet, a donkey is the greatest stoic philosopher growing on our karst terrain. It sets an example that being good will not get you far because you will always experience some form of Socratic humiliation. The donkey remembers and it can find its way home without its master.

Then again, who knows, maybe our planetary donkey will not always stay this way, maybe it will revolt, kick with its hoof…I’ll be on its side when it rises against the evil masters, those dumb-ass abusers and they can call it what they want. And then we will all have a hearty meal made out of cod, the sea donkey, the one that reminds us of its mainland counterpart with its dull grey colour. 




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