no Juvenal kidding: Milesian tales, Asinarius & Brothers Grimm

With the exasperated exclamation “if only this were nonsense,” the first-century Roman author Juvenal in Satire 6 brushed aside criticism that he was letting satire put on the high boots of tragedy. Apuleius, writing about a century later, prefaced a story of a step-mother falsely accusing her step-son of rape and poisoning by declaring that he wasn’t telling a tale (fabula), but was moving from the soft shoe of comedy to the high boots of tragedy.[1] Juvenal and Apuleius’s indications of tragedy extend to historical understanding of the sexuality of donkeys and men. From ancient Milesian tales to the medieval Latin fabula Asinarius to the Brothers Grimm, masculine sexuality has been historically devalued.

asinarius updated

Ancient authorities wrote of women seeking to have sex with male donkeys. Juvenal explained that, without willing men, a sexually excited woman will turn to a male donkey for sexual pleasure.[2] A recently discovered fragment of third-century papyrus, probably from a Milesian tale, narrates a women’s sexual encounter with a donkey:

Kissing the donkey, who was in {love} pain as soon as she had fallen down with him, and beseechingly she says: “Wow, it’s fat and big as a roof-beam. Wait! Little by little. Don’t put it all the way in.” [3]

A notable aspect of this text is the woman’s appreciation for the wondrous physical dimensions of the donkey’s erect penis. The fragmentary text ends with a sense that the woman wasn’t satisfied. She came to realize that she wanted it all.

In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, a woman had it all. A married woman fell passionately in love with a donkey. She purchased from his keeper a tryst. In a luxuriously arranged bedroom to which the donkey was led, the woman got naked. She then anointed herself and the donkey with perfume. While neither party continually and affirmatively consented to sex, the woman encouraged the donkey sexually:

she kissed me ardently, yet gently, not such kisses as are usually given in a brothel, the prostitutes’ kisses-at-a-price or their customers’ kisses-with-a-hand-on-the-purse — no, she bestowed pure, sincere kisses and the most flattering words on me: “I am in love with you,” and “I want you,” and “I love you alone,” and “I can no longer live without you,” and the other phrases that women use both to lead others on and also to express their own desires [4]

The male donkey, as men commonly do, showed concern for the woman and fear of punishment predominately directed at men:

But I felt quite anxious, reflecting with great fear how, with so many and such huge legs, I would be able to mount the delicate lady, or embrace her body of milk and honey, so translucent and so tender, with my hard hooves, and kiss her dainty lips, gleaming red and ambrosia-bedewed, with such a large mouth, so enormous and misshaped because of its rock-like teeth; and finally, how the woman, even if she was titillated from top to toe, could receive such a formidable penis. Woe is me, when I have broken this well-born woman apart, I will be thrown to the beasts [5]

The woman, however, comforted the male donkey suffering from male bodily anxiety and fear of unjust punishment:

she redoubled her tender words and continuous kisses and gentle cries with gazes that touched me to the quick — in short, she said: “I have you, I have you, my fond dove, my sparrow,” and as she spoke she demonstrated that my worries had been unfounded and my fear foolish. For she clung to me very tightly and received me entirely, but fully and entirely. [6]

The woman left the donkey, exhausted from hours of male sexual work, just before the light of dawn. Before she left, she arranged to pay the donkey’s keeper again for another night of similar pleasure.

Subsequent stories of women and donkeys depreciate the physicality of masculine genitals and the pleasure that male sexuality offers. The medieval Latin Asinarius (Donkey Tale), written about 1200, provides key insights into that transformation over the long duration. Asinarius probably drew upon a Sanskrit donkey tale that traveling musicians helped to transmit orally from India to western Europe.[7] Asinarius also contains literary associations with ancient Greco-Roman epic texts concerning the Trojan War.[8] But the oral and literary streams that flowed into Asinarius are even richer. In that work, when a king asks a little donkey, “Do you like our daughter?” the donkey, apparently indignant with the suppression of male sexuality, responds:

Amazing! Why do you ask? O king, why do you labor to know? Why ought I not like her? [9]

Like the donkey in Apuleius’s Golden Ass, the donkey in Asinarius appreciates the physical beauty of women:

I like her, I like her, I like her very much. … Certainly the man who does not like her at all is made of iron. Her fair face, suffused with rosiness, brings delight, as if I should contemplate lilies mixed with roses. And I like her hair; her ivory-white neck brings delight; and I confess that I like her whole body. [10]

The donkey and the daughter get married. When night comes and the couple goes to their marital bedroom, the bridegroom inexplicably “puts off his donkey garb.” To all who have read the Golden Ass or its Greek source Onos, the bride’s reaction represents a complete reversal:

The maiden, seeing the noble body of a handsome man whose appearance previously had been repulsive, having marveled before long at the unbelievable charm of her spouse, rushed headlong into the bond of lovemaking. [11]

The maiden’s reaction represents the accumulation of more than a millennium of Christian doctrine and ideology of sexual renunciation. As male animals, a man and a donkey have similar genitals, but a donkey’s penis is typically much larger. In the sexual context of Asinarius, the man is now characterized as noble, handsome, and charming, and the male donkey, repulsive. The fundamental biological form of the male reproductive organ was celebrated in ancient sculpture, public parades, and literature. By the European Middle Ages, the phallus had been devalued relative to cultural constructions of nobility, appearance, and charm. A leading scholar of Asinarius has described it as emphatically misogynistic.[12] It is also deeply misandristic.

By the nineteenth century with the Brothers Grimm, the situation had become far worse. The Brothers Grimm created a fairy tale from the medieval Latin text Asinarius. While Asinarius drew upon the ancient idea that a woman and donkey mating makes for an interesting spectacle, the Brothers Grimm sent a servant to watch secretly because “the king wanted to know whether the donkey would behave himself really nicely with courtesy and good manners” in having sex with the princess.[13] As Apuleius’s Golden Ass makes clear, males are worthy of trust in their mating with females. In addition to casting off the form of a male hung like a donkey, the Brothers Grimm added as sexual foreplay the little man seeking the woman’s approval of his being:

he then cast off his donkey skin all at once and stood there as a handsome, royal youth, who said: “You see who I am and that I have been worthy of you.

That sort of male approval-seeking typically doesn’t give women sexual tingles. The new fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm continues without any sexual vigor. The bride relates to her new husband, that fairy-tale descendent of Apuleius’s fully pleasing ass, just like she would relate to her dear mother:

the bride was overjoyed, kissed him, and loved him with all her heart. [14]

Fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and their cultural followers have prompted many women today to relish Fifty Shades of Grey. More importantly, fairy tales have prompted initiatives to suppress men’s sexuality in harshly unjust, trust-smashing, pleasure-destroying ways. Now more than ever, Western culture desperately needs more appreciation for classical and medieval literature.[15]

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[1] Juvenal, Satire 6.434: altum satura sumente coturnum (“letting satire put on the high boots of tragedy”). Apuleius, Golden Ass, 10.2.14: non fabulam legere, et a socco ad coturnum ascendere (“you aren’t reading an amusing story, but are rising to a higher level, exchanging the low slipper of comedy for the high boot of tragedy,” trans Zimmerman (2000) p. 68). In id. 10.2.1, the narrator offers the story ut uos etiam legatis, ad librum profero (“in order that you too may read it, I will put it on the record”). The unusual phrase ad librum profero (“put it on the record”) suggests both book and legal/theatrical performance.

[2] Anthologia Latina 360 (R365) describes a father named Burdo (mule) who monstrously fathered a daughter. Latin, with English translation in Rosenblum (1961) pp. 158-9 (poem 79). Cf. Job 11:12. Hildegard of Bingen, on the other hand, expressed concern that sexually desperate men were fornicating with cattle. See appreciation for men’s sexuality in Hildegard’s Causae et curae, particularly note [8]. Anthologia Latina 137 (R148) describes a man (a lawyer) fornicating with a mare. Latin, with English translation in Kay (2006) pp. 52, 248.

[3] From Greek trans. May (2010) p. 63. Aristophanes’ comic plays from fifth-century Athens indicate, using metaphorical references, the appeal of large penises to women. Aristophanes, Peace (Pax) ll. 1349-1350 (last choral song), Roche (2005) p. 331: “His fig is big and strong”; Acharnians (Archarnenes), ll. 785-7, Roche (2005) p. 42: “ruddy great thick ‘un”; Lysistrata, ll. 23-24, Roche (2005) p. 420: “God, it’s huge, and God, it’s weighty.” Alternate translations of Aristophanes are freely available from Perseus. The penis references, as well as additional ones, are given in Papademetriou (2009) p. 55, ft. 22.

In Greek myth, Pasiphae, the immortal daughter of Helios, longed for sexual intercourse with a bull. Her longing was fulfilled. She thus conceived and delivered the hybrid bull-child Minotauros.

[4] Apuleius, Golden Ass 10.21, from Latin trans. Zimmerman (2000) p. 275.  All subsequent quotes from the Golden Ass are from id., unless otherwise noted. In the misnamed spurcum additamentum to the Golden Ass 10.21, the woman cleans the donkey’s penis before sex:

And, by Hercules, she cleaned my round scrotum, my balls, with perfumed wine and rosewater of Chios. And then with her fingers, thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finder and little finger, she withdrew the foreskin, and cleared the shaft of my penis of the plentiful whitish dirt.

Id p. 434. The donkey enjoyed this action:

And when the beautiful woman arrived very soon at the top of my penis from my testicles, braying and lifting my teeth toward the sky, I got, through the regular friction, an erection of the penis, and while it moved up and down I often touched her belly with it.

Id. The spurcum additamentum is generally thought to be not original and to date perhaps from the twelfth century.

[5] 10.22. Onos, a Greek source for the Golden Ass, similarly shows the donkey’s concern for the woman. After stating that he had never before had sex with a woman, the donkey remarks:

this fact aroused in me an excessive fear that the lady could not accommodate me and she would be torn apart and I would have a harsh penalty to pay as her slayer.

Onos 51, from Greek trans. May (2010) p. 68, adapted slightly. In the Golden Ass, 7.21, a slave boy falsely accuses the donkey of rape and attempted rape. The slave boy claims that the donkey would have split a woman in two:

if the clamor of her womanly wailing and weeping hadn’t brought at a run the assistance of fellow-travelers, if she hadn’t been snatched from between that ass’s hooves and set free, that poor, pitiable woman would have been rammed and split in two

Trans. Relihan (2007) p. 149. The mendacious slave boy evidently lacked appreciation for women’s sexual capacities. Relihan mis-inflates his translation of the donkey’s concern in 10.22:

how in the world will this woman, even if she has the itch all the way to her fingertips, receive an organ as Brobdingnagian as mine? Curses!

Id. p. 222. Regarding the donkey’s vastum genitale, Zimmerman (2000), p. 284, notes, “the narrator uses a polite word {genitale} for his large penis.” Genitale is a biological term without any connotations of boasting.

[6] Zimmerman (2000), p. 284, has the woman’s words as: “I’ve got you, I’ve got you, my little dove, my sparrow.” The corresponding text above is from the translation of May (2010) p. 69. The latter seems to me a better translation.

Modern demonization of men’s sexuality has made men less able to distinguish between what persons say about penises and what they actually mean. For example, an anthropologist studying a Greek nomadic shepherding community (Sarakatsani) reported of the women:

There is a great deal of bawdy reference to the male sex organs, and women constantly speak of their dislike of sexual intercourse and the absence of physical pleasure they find in it. A bride, during the last days before her wedding, is kept company by those unmarried kinswomen who live close at hand. … The girls sympathize with the bride, but say that they will never leave their homes to submit themselves to a strange man. The bridge applauds their decision, and says that she will secrete a knife upon her person and that when the bridegroom comes to her she will castrate him.

Campbell (1964 ) pp. 275-6. The women’s words no more indicate castration culture than they do women’s dislike of men’s penises. These non-literary women are engaging in ironic banter that highly educated, modern persons fail to perceive.

Martial provides related banter among men in Epigram 7.14. Addressing another man, the speaker (Martial’s voice) describes his own girlfriend lamenting the loss of her twelve-year-old lover “whose cock was not yet eighteen inches long.” Perhaps this twelve-year old had a cock whose length was slightly less than eighteen inches long. The primary point isn’t that the poet’s girlfriend prefers the length of the boy’s cock; it’s the speaker’s implied boast that his cock is that length.

[7] Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 219-25. Id. relates Asinarius to The Story of Vikramaditya’s Birth. The latter is attested no earlier than in a thirteenth/fourteenth-century manuscript, but plausibly dates from much earlier.

[8] Praet (2013).

[9] Asinarius, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2007) pp. 345-6. The subsequent three quotes are from id. pp. 346. 348.

[10] In Asinarius, the donkey’s description of the king’s daughter is a “classical descriptio puellae (‘description of a girl’) so typical of the lyric and poetry of the courtly fin’amors.” Praet (2014) p. 209. The Golden Ass similarly includes a descriptio puellae. See above. Apuleius’s Golden Ass isn’t well attested in Europe about the time Asinarius was written (c. 1200). But it may have been known. Carver (2007) p. 78.

[11] The Latin refers to novus homo: Extemplo sponsus asinium ponit amictum; / Exposita veteri pelle novus fit homo (“Presently the groom laid down his asinine cloak. / His old skin shed, he became a new man.” Asinarius, ll. 309-310, trans. Praet (2010) p. 210). Cf. Ephesians 4:24. In Christian understanding, the new man is the spiritual man succeeding the carnal man in the renewal of creation. Discussing the Biblical references in Asinarius, Praet concludes:

Incongruently enough to bring a smile to the reader’s lips, noble man’s quest for God through Wisdom is thus humorously juxtaposed with the basest of animals finding his way into an eager princess’ bed. In the end, no spiritual conversion or unfolding takes place; the Prince is not created a new man in Christ, he merely drops his trousers.

Praet (2014) p. 219. But what that act reveals lacks the massive significance it had in earlier Latin literature.

The revered troubadour love poetry of the Middle Ages showed appreciation for a male donkey’s penis. The thirteenth-century troubadour Montan (the Mounter) sang:

And I come towards you, Lady, with my trousers lowered,
with a larger cock than any randy donkey,
and will fuck you with such an outburst
that you’ll have to wring your bed-sheets the day after
—and say thereafter that they need to be washed;
Neither I, nor my huge nuts will leave
unless I fuck you until you pass out.

{ Et eu vas vos, dompn’, ab braga bassada,
ab maior viet de nuill az’en despan,
e fotrai vos de tal arandonada
que los linzols storzerez l’endeman
— e pos diretz c’ops i es la bugada;
ni mais no·m leu ni mais mei coillon gran
se tan no·us fot que vos zaires pasmada. }

“Eu veing vas vos, Seingner, fauda levada,” stanze 2, Occitan text and English translation from Trobar. Consistent with modern narrow-mindedness about medieval Europe, this troubadour song is rather under-appreciated within the whole troubadour poetic corpus.

[12] Ziolkowski (2007) p. 208.

[13] Brothers Grimm, The Donkey (Das Eselein), based primarily on 1819 edition, from German trans. id. p. 354. The subsequent two quotes are from id.

[14] In the ancient Greek Onos, after the donkey becomes the man Lucius again, he arranged another tryst with the married woman, his former donkey-lover. In the bedroom with her, Lucius:

took off all my clothes and displayed myself in the nude, fondly imagining that compared with a donkey I should be quite irresistible. But she was so disappointed to find that I was in every respect a normal human being, that she actually spat in my face. … “O, for God’s sake, don’t you understand?” she exclaimed, “It was the donkey I fell in love with, not you! And I did so hope that there’d be one thing left, at least, to remind me of that splendid great animal — but just look at you — you’re nothing but a wretched little monkey!”

From Greek trans. Paul Turner in Hansen (1998) p. 104. That’s a strident affirmation of the raw physicality of the masculine member. It’s inconceivable in today’s culture.

Praet traces the donkey-tale transformations to recent decades. His insightful analysis indicates that Erich Ackermann’s “Das Eselchen,” in Märchen des Mittelalters (2007), and M. Jean Craig’s The Donkey Prince (1977) further diminish masculine sexuality even relative to the Grimm’s tale. At the donkey’s transformation into a dandy in a private screening of the film La Belle et la Bête (directed by Jean Cocteau, 1946), Greta Garbo reported yelled out, “Give me back my beast!” Praet (2014) pp. 357-376.

[15] Literary learning involves being able to interpret stories other than as literal instructions for action. For those lacking in literary learning, here’s a plain message: having sex with a donkey can be deadly. For further instruction, consult the famous thirteenth-century Persian Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, commonly known among English-speakers as Rumi. Rumi’s masterpiece Masnavi describes, in verse, two women who had sex with a donkey. One woman cleverly placed a gourd with a hole in it over the donkey’s penis to lessen risk of damage to her body. The other woman, ardently seeking pleasure with the donkey, didn’t have the donkey use the gourd. The donkey’s penis tore into her intestines. She died. See Rumi, Masnavi, Bk 5, ll. 1333-1364, trans. Nicholson (1930). Nicholson switched from English to Latin in translating the verses on sex between the women and the donkey.

Concerned readers should also know that having a larger penis does not necessarily provide more sexual pleasure. The leading early-modern German surgeon Guilhelmius Fabricius Hildanus (1560-1634) confronted the case of a woman suffering serious pain and wounds from her husband’s too-large penis. Hildanus developed an ingenious device for shortening the operational length of the penis. The device worked much like the gourd for the donkey in Rumi’s Masnavi. It allowed the woman and her husband to enjoy, without adverse effects, sexual intercourse of reproductive type. See Kompanje (2006).

[image] Illustration from Crane & Evans (1874) p. 6.


Campbell, John. 1964. Honour, family, and patronage: a study of institutions and moral values in a Greek mountain community. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Carver, Robert H. F. 2007. The Protean ass: the Metamorphoses of Apuleius from antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crane, Walter, and Edmund Evans. 1874. Beauty and the Beast. London & New York: George Routledge and Sons.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kay, N. M. 2006. Epigrams from the Anthologia Latina: text, translation and commentary. London: Duckworth.

Kompanje, Erwin. 2006. “Painful Sexual Intercourse Caused by a Disproportionately Long Penis: An Historical Note on a Remarkable Treatment Devised by Guilhelmius Fabricius Hildanus (1560-1634).” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 35 (5): 603-605.

May, Regine. 2010. “An Ass from Oxyrhynchus: P. Oxy. LXX.4762, Loukios of Patrae and the Milesian tales.” Ancient Narrative. 9: 59-83.

Nicholson, Reynold Alleyne. 1930. The Mathnawí of Jaláluʼddín Rúmí: edited from the oldest manuscripts available with critical notes, translations and commentary. London: Luzac.

Papademetriou, John-Theophanes A. 2009. “Romance without eros.” Pp. 49-80 (Ch. 4) in Karla, Grammatiki A., ed. Fiction on the fringe novelistic writing in the post-classical age. Leiden: Brill.

Praet, Stijn. 2013. “The Trojan Ass: Asinarius as Mock Epic.” Viator. 44 (3): 157-173.

Praet, Stijn. 2014. Fairy Tales and the Latin Tradition: A Literary-Contextualising Approach. Ph.D. Dissertation. D. Litt. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. Universiteit Gent.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Roche, Paul, trans. 2005. Aristophanes. The complete plays. New York, N.Y.: New American Library.

Rosenblum, Morris. 1961. Luxorius: a Latin poet among the Vandals; together with a text of the poems and an English translation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zimmerman, Maaike, ed. and trans. 2000. Apuleius. Metamorphoses {The Golden Ass}, Book X: Text, Introduction and Commentary. Groningen: E. Forsten.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2007. Fairy tales from before fairy tales: the medieval Latin past of wonderful lies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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