Jackass Political Cartoon with donkey kicking

Why is a Donkey called a Jackass?


“Jackass” is compound of two words: "jack” from the 14th century, a generic name applied familiarly or contemptuously to a young man of the lower class (i.e. Jack-of-all-trades), and "ass” which is a synonym for donkey. A male donkey is known as a Jack, while a female donkey is called a Jenny. The compound word “jackass” has been in use since the 17th century to reference the very best and worst of both males and donkeys - stubbornness, braying sounds, but a hardworking necessity. Did you know humans started to domesticate donkeys about 7-8,000 years ago (~5500 B.C.E) in East Africa?



After Africans domesticated donkeys, they quickly became a major export out of the continent, carrying on their backs every major civilization since. This is about 1,500 years before the domestication of horses in the Eurasian Steppe (modern-day Ukraine and West Kazakhstan) around 4000 B.C.E., and before Arabs domesticated dromedary (camels) around 3500 B.C.E.

Donkeys and jackasses from 1888 "Pin the tail on the Donkey" and from Cairo, Egypt from 1899 and 1904

Once both donkeys and horses were domesticated, we get mules from a male donkey mating with a female horse, and hinnies which is a male horse mating with a female donkey. It’s no wonder that asses have made their way into religion, faith, and society-building. The word "burro" is Spanish for "donkey." In case you were wondering, donkeys do not need shoes like horses do, but mules and hinnies sometimes do. 

Speaking of Hardworking

Early 1900s antique carpenter's work bench from Industrial Artifacts


Starting with the world’s current oldest religion, Hinduism, Kalaratri is one of the forms of Mahadevi, seen on the seventh day of Navratri. In her tattered state, her dependable transport of choice is a donkey (below, bottom-right). Contrast that to the Quran that states Allah’s “Law are like donkeys that carry books and not understand what they carry,” (62:5) and “The ugliest of all voices is certainly the braying of donkeys,” (31:19). In antiquity, the Greek god, Dionysus, is often seen riding a donkey, (below, bottom-left). and donkeys are associated with the Egyptian Sun God, Ra. In fact, Egypt has some of the most fascinating art and reliefs of donkey’s including below, as controlling one’s ass was done by holding the nose and ears or by whipping the tail. Bridles wouldn’t be invented until horses were domesticated.

Kalaratri, Dionysus, and Egyptian depictions of donkeys and jackasses

We see the most varied uses of donkeys in the Bible, where donkeys were literally the “burden bearer” for humans. But like with the above faiths, the ass was still considered slow, stubborn, and difficult… certainly less majestic than horses. Those that read the Bible will know the story of Balaam's talking donkey, found in the Bible at Numbers 22:21-35. Unless one thinks that a donkey literally spoke, one can understand the greater lesson of the story, to treat our asses well, and to listen to our ass as it may recognize the presence of god before we do.

Balaam and his donkey with Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren political cartoon

But even then, the Bible poses a contrasting view regarding Jesus Christ riding a donkey in Jerusalem in Mark 11:1-11. This was a moment of honor, and a fulfillment on Zachariah 9:9 which states, "Daughter Zion, rejoice! Daughter Jerusalem, shout! Your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” Donkeys presented with such a spectrum gives the indication that donkeys have personalities much like humans, and earning their trust comes with effort, an effort human beings barely even give each other. So we get this spectrum between those who view asses with a dignified honor, and those that view them as a difficult necessity.

Now we're talking

Jackass thumbnail for Mule Hide Shingles at Industrial Artifacts


It’s probably why in art and literature, donkeys are equally varied. Everyone’s favorite childhood donkey, Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend, Eeyore (perhaps a metaphor for clinical depression), is similar in view as Benjamin in George Orwell's novella "Animal Farm,” including elements of cynicism and skepticism. A 1914 Spanish prose poem written by Nobel Prize winner (1956) Juan Ramón Jiménez named “Platero and I,” has Platero the donkey as an adventurer, "so big and clumsy" and naive, and the children’s book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig has Sylvester the donkey with similar simplemindedness.

Donkeys and Jackasses in political cartoons of the 1800s

It was the 1828 "Let the People Rule" campaign of Democrat Andrew Jackson when opponents of Jackson referred to him as a jackass because of his stubbornness. Jackson didn't mind being the "jackass," and he started to incorporate donkeys into his own advertising. Ever since, donkeys have been used by the opponents of the Democratic party before the party accepted the jackass with pride. Outside of politics, donkeys have been portrayed in a variety of derogatory ways, including this borderline traumatic scene from Walt Disney's 1940 classic film, Pinocchio.

Turkish Coffee Pot Delight

Mid-century Turkish copper coffee pot with brass embellishments at Industrial Artifacts

Despite their reputation, jackasses were instrumental in helping prospectors during the gold rush (below, left). Mark Twain's cabin was on Jackass Hill, where he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” launching his career as and American icon (below, center-left).ƒ;Nine years before the Pony Express, the Jackass Express was established as the first mail route between Sacramento, California and Salt Lake City, Utah (below, center-right). Jackasses were a necessity to the completion of the railroads across the country, including the Transcendental Railroad (below, right). 

Jackasses in prospecting, Mark Twain's Jackass Hill Cabin, Jackass Express

Throughout art and literature, asses are given the characteristics of being either slow, stupid, stubborn, and/or mean. And yet in so many other cultures with gods from multiple faiths where donkeys were revered and honored. There seems to be a remarkable correlation between how people treat each other, and how people treat the strongest working animal in their civilization. It explains this vast discrepancy between those who find assess difficult and stubborn verses those who found asses honorable, and dependable, royal enough for Jesus Christ, and loyal enough to be buried with Pharaohs. That’s probably because, according to Donkey in Shrek (2001), “Donkeys don't have layers. We wear our fear right out there on our sleeves.” 

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