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Beasts Without Understanding? Considering the Recommendation of Psalm 31:9 LXX

Ippolita Giannotta
June 14, 2024

Septuagint Psalm 31, verse 9, offers a recommendation:

 

         “Do not become like horse and mule, which have no understanding,

         but whose jaws must be controlled by bridle and muzzle …“

 

         (μὴ γίνεσθε ὡς ἵππος καὶ ἡμίονος, οἷς οὐκ ἔστιν σύνεσις,

         ἐν χαλινῷ καὶ κημῷ τὰς σιαγόνας αὐτῶν ἄγξαι …)

 

This lesson is echoed in Proverbs 26:3, suggesting that a believer who chooses to remain ignorant will eventually need to redeem themselves for their sin. The negative comparison involves a mule and a horse, highlighting the absence of σύνεσις (understanding). This reflects the ancient belief that animals lacked intellect, a view prevalent in Greek and Roman times[1]. The term ἡμίονος reveals the mule’s dual nature: being half horse and half donkey, it seemingly inherits all the negative traits from its paternal genes. The evaluation, both literary and social, regarding the image of the horse and donkey from the archaic age onwards is distinctly opposite. Attitudes towards individual domestic animals have always depended on certainty on the relative benefit of a given species for the community, and according to this rule of thumb, donkeys and mules have always occupied a modest position[2]. Although such animals must have been a familiar and undoubtedly indispensable presence for light and heavy transport of many kinds, references to donkeys and mules in archaic and classical literature are few and generally full of contempt[3]. Literature, proverbs, and fables tend to characterise donkeys and mules, insofar as they mention them, as lazy, obstinate, lascivious, greedy, and stupid[4]. The opposition between horse and donkey mirrored a series of important cultural contradictions – war and commerce, sport and economy, entertainment and work, the privileged and the oppressed[5]. These contradictions are embodied by the mule, which combines the donkey's humble working efficiency with the horse's strength[6]. Despite this, horses are sometimes portrayed as foolish, as noted by the Latin playwright Plautus, who compares a dazed person to a horse[7]. The bad reputation of mules persisted even in Greek scholia and lexicographic traditions, where they are described as slow-witted and foolish[8]. The prototype of the ignorant, stubborn donkey was so common in antiquity that it influenced later perceptions of humans. Expressions like “You can dress a donkey in Atlas blankets, but it will always be a donkey,” remain vivid and divisive to this day. While the horse is usually associated with battle or noble action, and the mule has a central role in both agriculture and military logistics, the donkey’s image has redeemed itself over time. Donkeys assumed divine aspects, especially in Eastern cultures. They played a role in the cult of Ceres and Dionysus[9], and were notably connected to the Egyptian god Seth/Typhon[10].

 

The cultic aspect of the donkey became prominent within the Jewish community, particularly due to prejudices held by the Greeks during the first century in Alexandria[11]. According to Flavius Josephus[12], the Greek grammarian Apion falsely claimed that Jews worshipped a donkey’s head in their temple services. This calumny spread to the Roman Empire, and donkey worship was eventually attributed to both Jews and Christians, illustrating the deep-seated prejudices of the time[13]. Despite this forced association born of an insulting will, the donkey became an important figure in the Sacred Text. Mentions of this animal appear over one hundred and fifty times in Scripture[14], unlike the term mule, which recurs less frequently. The donkey holds a prominent place as a faithful companion of man’s work, required to rest on the seventh day (Exodus 23:12) and never to be exploited beyond its due (Exodus 23:4–5). In biblical narratives, the donkey often symbolises peace and humility. It is the animal upon which the Virgin Mary travelled and which carried Christ into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–10; Luke 19:29–40; John 12:12–19). Numbers 22:21–35 notably legitimise the donkey’s capacity for divine understanding, depicting the animal as wise and submissive to God’s will, unlike its master, Balaam. In contrast, horses frequently appear in Scripture in the context of battle and aggression, symbolising martial strength and earthly power[15]. While the mentions of the horses have negative connotations, the mule’s image remains divided. Mules are depicted both as noble animals used by princes and as humble beasts of burden. A similar tale of divine recognition involves a mule. According to legend[16], Saint Anthony of Padua was challenged by a heretic to prove the sanctity of the Eucharist. The heretic’s mule, unfed for three days, bowed to the consecrated host, demonstrating its recognition of the divine presence.

 

Inside the Psalter, there is no mention of the donkey. The mule is referenced only once, in Psalm 31:9 LXX (32:9 MT), where it is used as a negative example of a beast without understanding. However, in Theodoretus’ Commentary on the Psalms, the mule appears twice more and always in positive terms. In his commentary on Psalm 24:1 LXX (25:1 MT), Theodoretus mentions royal mules, suggesting their role with princes and kings. In his commentary on Psalm 49:5 LXX (50:5 MT), the mule is depicted as a means of transport for the blessed and the faithful. The horse appears five times in the Psalter, always in a negative light. In our Psalm 31[32]:9, it is defined by its intellect, but in the other instances (Psalms 19[20]:8–9; 32[33]:16–17; 75[76]:7; 146[147]:10–11), the horse is criticized for its physical strength. As an earthly force, it embodies bestial elements not granted to man and is consequently punished by God.

 

By these examples, it is appropriate to believe that these stories illustrate the biblical perspective on human and animal interactions, emphasising submission and devotion as the path to redemption. Animals in Scripture, as the Psalm shows, often mirror human qualities, serving as reminders of the need for spiritual awareness and understanding. The sacred text establishes a disciplinary belief regarding the interconnections between humans and animals. We are all creatures fashioned by the same Creator, united in praising God and drawn to the same eschatological end. To see animals is to reflect on human nature—governed by instincts and urges, striving for redemption through submission and devotion, much like Balaam’s donkey and Saint Anthony’s mule. Those who persist in ignorance remain like beasts without σύνεσις.



[1] Aristotle’s De generatione animalium and Plutarch’s De sollertia animalium and Bruta animalia ratione uti are just a small example.

[2] This concept was deepened by S. Lonsdale, Creatures of Speech: Lions, Herding, and Hunting Similes in the Iliad. Stuttgart, 1990, 24.

[3] See Semonide fr.7 W; Ar. Rh.1405b,2327; Pl.Ps, 136; Luc. D.Mer.14.4; Juvenal 16,2225.

[4] This dualism is traced also in Homer, in Il. 11.558-565, Ajax is compared to a donkey instead in Il. 6.506, 15.263, Paris and Hektor are instead compared to horses. About Ajax, see R. LaPrentice Trapp, Ajax in the "Iliad", CJ LVI/6,1961, 271–275; about Paris und Hektor see C. Moulton, Similes in the Iliad, Hermes CII/3, 1974, 381–397.

[5] See J. Gregory, Donkeys and the Equine Hierarchy in Archaic Greek Literature, CJ CII/3, 2007, 193-212; M. Levanat-Peričić, Književno breme "našega" tovara, Croatica et Slavica Iadertina IV, 2010, 265267; J. Bough, The Mirror Has Two Faces: Contradictory Reflections of Donkeys in Western Literature from Lucius to Balthazar, « Animals » I, 2011, 5660.

[6] On these aspects, see T. Howe, Domestication and Breeding of Livestock. Horses, Mules, Asses, Cattle, Sheep, Goats, and Swine, in G. L. Campbell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life, Oxford 2014, 99108; G. Kron, Animal Husbandry, in G. L. Campbell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life, Oxford 2014, 109135.

[7] See Cistellaria 291; Menaechmi 395; Miles 217.

[8] In scholia ad Platonem, Symposium 221e, Syn κ 63 Cunnigham, Phot. κ 155 Th., Suda κ 313 it is defined as βραδὺς νοῆσαι ἀφυής.

[9] See Nonnus, Dionysiaca 37.

[10] Plutarch in Is. 31, 50 mentions this connection and mixes the Egyptian god tradition with the Judaic tradition. The writer reports some beliefs that Typhon (or Seth) fled for seven days on a donkey and when he came back, he became the father of Hierosolymus and Judaeus.

[11] The confusion arose from the fact that the Greek word for Yahweh (Iaō) sounded like the native Egyptian word for donkey (eiō or simply iō). More details in M.D. Litwa, The Donkey Deity, in M.D.Litwa (ed.), The Evil Creator: Origins of an Early Christian Idea, Oxford 2021,1539. About the tension in Alexandria in the first century, see C.D. Elledge, Jews, Greeks, and Romans, in idem (ed.), Early Jewish Writings and New Testament Interpretation, Oxford 2023, 157186.

[12] Ap. 2.7f.

[13] About those details, see N. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demon: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, London 2000, 58.

[14] See R.I. Zanini, Pecore, uccelli e asini: che zoo la Bibbia, Avvenire 22/08/2018.

[15] On the acquisition of a certain negativity inherent in the figure of the horse and its association with the horsemen of the Apocalypse, see J. Brnčić, Životinje i Bibliji i biblijskoj duhovnosti, in. S.Marjanić, A. Zaradija Kiš (eds), Kulturni bestijarij, Zagreb 2007, 5383; Levanat-Peričić 2010 (vide supra, n. 5), 270f.

[16] About this story see V. Gamboso, Vita del Dialogus e Benignitas, Padua 1986, 508–512.