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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Apuleius (c. 125–c. 180)

Vicissitudes of a Donkey

From “The Golden Ass”

WHEN the keeper of the horses had taken me to the country, I found there none of the pleasure or the liberty I expected; for his wife, an avaricious, bad woman, immediately yoked me to the mill, and frequently striking me with a green stick, prepared bread for herself and her family at the expense of my hide. And not content to make me drudge for her own food only, she also ground corn for her neighbors, and so made money by my toil. Nor, after all my weary labors, did she even afford me the food which had been ordered for me; for she sold my barley to the neighboring husbandmen, after it had been bruised and ground in that very mill by my own roundabout drudgery; but to me, who had worked during the whole of the day at that laborious machine, she only gave, toward evening, some dirty, unsifted, and very gritty bran. I was brought low enough by these miseries; but cruel fortune exposed me to fresh torments, in order, I suppose, that I might boast of my brave deeds, both in peace and war, as the saying is. For that excellent equerry, complying, rather late, indeed, with his master’s orders, for a short time permitted me to associate with the herds of horses.

At length a free ass, I capered for joy, and softly ambling up to the mares, chose out such as I thought would be the fittest for my concubines. But here my joyful hopes gave place to extreme danger. For the stallions, who were terribly strong creatures, more than a match for any ass, regarding me with suspicion, furiously pursued me as their rival, without respect for the laws of hospitable Jupiter. One of them, with his head and neck and ample chest aloft, struck at me like a pugilist with his forefeet; another, turning his brawny back, let fly at me with his hind feet; and another, with a vicious neigh, his ears thrown back, and showing his white teeth, sharp as spears, bit me all over. It was like what I have read in history of the King of Thrace, who exposed his unhappy guests to be lacerated and devoured by wild horses; for so sparing was that powerful tyrant of his barley, that he appeased the hunger of his voracious horses by casting human bodies to them for food. In fact, I was so worried and distracted by the continual attacks of the horses, that I wished myself back again at the mill-round.

Fortune, however, would not be satisfied with my torments, and soon after visited me with another calamity; for I was employed to bring home wood from a mountain, and a boy, the most villainous of all boys, was appointed to drive me. It was not only that I was wearied by toiling up and down the steep and lofty mountain, nor that I wore away my hoofs by running on sharp stones, but I was cudgeled without end, so that all my bones ached to the very marrow. Moreover, by continually striking me on the off-haunch, and always in the same place, till the skin was broken, he occasioned a great ulcerous cavity, gaping like a trench or a window; yet he never ceased to hit me on the raw. He likewise laid such a load of wood on my back that you might have thought it was a burden prepared for an elephant, and not for a donkey. And whenever the ill-balanced load inclined to one side, instead of taking away some of the fagots from the heavier side, and thus easing me by somewhat lightening, or at least equalizing the pressure, he always remedied the inequality of the weight by the addition of stones. Nor yet, after so many miseries which I had endured, was he content with the immoderate weight of my burden; but when it happened that we had to pass over a river, he would leap on my back in order to keep his feet dry, as if his weight was but a trifling addition to the heavy mass. And if by any accident I happened to fall, through the weight of my burden and the slipperiness of the muddy bank, instead of giving me a helping hand, as he ought to have done, and pulling me up by the head-stall, or by my tail, or removing a part of my load, till at least I had got up again, this paragon of ass-drivers gave me no help at all, however weary I might be, but beginning from my head, or rather from my ears, he thrashed all the hair off my hide with a huge stick.

Another piece of cruelty he practised on me was this: he twisted together a bundle of the sharpest and most venomous thorns, and tied them to my tail as a pendulous torment; so that, jerking against me when I walked, they pricked and stabbed me intolerably. Hence, I was in a sore dilemma; for when I ran away from him, to escape his unmerciful drubbings, I was hurt by the more vehement pricking of the thorns; and if I stood still for a short time, in order to avoid that pain, I was compelled by blows to go on. In fact, the rascally boy seemed to think of nothing else than how he might be the death of me by some means or other; and that he sometimes threatened with oaths to accomplish. And, indeed, there happened a thing by which his detestable malice was stimulated to more baneful efforts. On a certain day, when his excessive insolence had overcome my patience, I lifted up my powerful heels against him; and for this he retaliated by the following atrocity: he brought me into the road heavily laden with a bundle of coarse flax, securely bound together with cords, and placed in the middle of the burden a burning coal, which he had stolen from the neighboring village. Presently the fire spread through the slender fibers, flames burst forth, and I was ablaze all over. There appeared no refuge from immediate destruction, no hope of safety, and such a conflagration did not admit of delay or afford time for deliberation. Fortune, however, shone upon me in these cruel circumstances—perhaps for the purpose of reserving me for future dangers, but, at all events, liberating me from present and decreed death. By chance perceiving a neighboring pool muddy with the rain of the preceding day, I threw myself headlong into it; and the flame being immediately extinguished, I came out, lightened of my burden and liberated from destruction. But that audacious young rascal cast the blame of this most wicked deed of his on me, and affirmed to all the shepherds that as I was passing near the neighbors’ fires, I stumbled on purpose, and threw my load into the blaze. And he added, laughing at me, “How long shall we waste food on this fiery monster?”