My first academic venture with animals was not driven by an interest in animals per se. Animals were, rather, standing in the way of my understanding the texts I like best: the early Christian narratives of the adventures of the apostles. Animals appear throughout these texts (bedbugs in the Acts of John, the dog in the Acts of Peter, lions in the Acts of Paul, etc.), sometimes literally standing in the apostle’s way—as does the colt of an ass in the Acts of Thomas act four, demanding that Thomas ride on his back. The apostle does not immediately agree. He has questions: “Who are you? To whom do you belong?”[i] When the colt identifies himself as a member of the family (genea) of both Balaam’s ass and the colt on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, Thomas is still reluctant to climb on his back, but as the reader I at least have some sense of what the animal is doing here. I’ve read its relatives in similar roles.
The first animal that truly stopped me in my tracks is in the same text, a few chapters later.[ii] For the purposes of this short essay, I’ll use this animal as just one example of the many ways in which animals in these narratives complicate and contradict an overly neat early Christian schema of opposites, in which Christians, humans, divinities, and rational beings are opposed to pagans, animals, and irrational creatures. To be sure: the writings of many of the early Christian authors most closely associated with negative evaluations of animals are, upon closer inspection, much more complex than a cursory reading might suggest.[iii] But—at least for me—the subtleties of homilies and treatises are much easier to recognize once I have spent time with similar themes in narrative form.
Wild ass in the Acts of Thomas
In the Acts Thom. act eight, the apostle once again speaks with an ass—this time not a domestic beast of burden, but a wild ass (or “onager,” Gr. onagros). Thomas is on the road again, on his way to the home of a captain, who has begged the apostle to cast out the demons that have possessed his wife and daughter. This possession is explicitly sexual and violent: it first happened as the two women were on their way to a wedding; mother and daughter were attacked by a man and boy, respectively, who “put their hands on” them; these demons now stay with them, they constantly “throw them down” and “strip them naked”; they don’t allow them to eat (a torment familiar from Greek love magic), and they “throw them on their beds.”[iv] But as the apostle hurries with the captain towards his home, their journey grinds to a halt: the animals drawing his cart are too exhausted to continue. Thomas sees in the distance a herd of wild asses and commands the captain to go call them, to tell them that Judas Thomas, the apostle of Christ, has need of their services. The captain is afraid of the herd, but Thomas insists, and the captain relents. The wild asses, for their part, respond to the call enthusiastically, racing each other for the privilege of being yoked to apostle of Christ’s cart. These new animals draw the cart to the captain’s house, miraculously knowing the way without being told.
When they arrive, progress stalls once again: Thomas simply doesn’t know how to handle the situation, he doesn’t know what to do next. He prays out loud: “Why do we stand here idle? Lord Jesus, the hour is come; what do you demand be done?”[v]While no response from Jesus is reported, the apostle does act—or, at least, he delegates. Thomas tells one of the wild asses to go in and call the demons out: “Go into the court and, standing there, call the demons, and say to them, ‘Judas Thomas, the apostle and disciple of Jesus Christ says: Come out here! On account of you and for your kinfolk (eis tous diapherontas humin kata genos)[vi] I have been sent to destroy you and to pursue you to your place, until the time when your end comes and you go down into your depth of darkness.’”[vii] Unlike the captain, the wild ass is a very willing envoy, delivering a speech much longer than what Thomas commanded, ending with the command “Go out in the presence of all the people here and tell me of what breed (genos) you are!”[viii]
The demons obey the wild ass, and a confrontation with the apostle follows, ending in his casting out of the demons and the apparent death of the captain’s wife and daughter. Thomas is once again at a loss, to the exasperation of the wild ass, who turns Thomas’ own words back upon him: “Why do you stand there idle, apostle of Christ the most high? … Why are you just standing there, herald of the hidden one? … Why are you silent, you who work magnificent [deeds] in the name of the Lord? For your master urges you … Do not fear: for he will not abandon your soul, which belongs to you according to your kind (kata genos)!”[ix] Here, the wild ass’s speech is not instigated by Thomas. To the contrary, the wild ass now seems to be both envoy from Christ to Thomas and envoy from Christ to the crowds, turning to them and exhorting them to believe in Christ and beware false apostles and prophets of lawlessness: “False apostles will come, and prophets of lawlessness; those who, not satisfied with one wife, destroy many women; those who, while saying they think slightly of children, destroy many sons; … And they say one things with their mouths, but they think another in their hearts … they command others to keep away from fornication, theft, and greed, but all these things—they live their lives in them.”[x] This speech spurs Thomas to action. He prays to the Lord and finally asks that the women’s souls be healed. They immediately recover, and the episode closes with Thomas accompanying the wild asses to the city gates, dismissing them, then watching as they disappear in the distance.
Wild ass in natural history
This episode gave me some pause when I first read it, not least because I simply did not know what a wild ass was. But, unlike most exegetical impasses, the way out of this one was quite clear in the many natural historical treatises of Greco-Roman antiquity, where the wild ass—and specifically the Indian wild ass—is described at some length. Aelian, in his De natura animalium, reports the following: the wild ass was a creature of great speed (“much faster than not only asses, but even horses and deer”); it was incredibly strong and quite dangerous (“nothing survives when struck by [their horns]”); its horns, moreover, were thought to have healing properties (“they say that one who has drunk from this horn does not know and has no experience of incurable diseases”).[xi] This is helpful information already: this is an animal that the captain might reasonably fear to approach; this is an animal that the whole town would turn out to see yoked to a cart. Oppian, in a second century CE work on hunting dedicated to Caracalla, offers information even more relevant to our narrative. He writes:
The tribes of the swift-footed wild asses are quite jealous and they adorn themselves happily with many wives. The females follow wherever the husband leads: they hurry to the pasture whenever he wants to command them, and to the river springs, the wine of beasts, and back to their bosky homes when evening brings sleep. A wild and shameless frenzy excites jealousy in all the males against their own infant sons. For when the female is in the labor of Eileithyia [goddess of childbirth], the male sits nearby and waits fort his own offspring. And when the infant foal falls at its mother’s feet, if it is a female, the father is fond of his child and, licking it with his tongue, greets his dear offspring warmly; but if he sees that it is a male, then indeed the ravenous beast stirs up wrath with deadly jealousy about the mother and he attacks, eager to cut his child’s genitals with his jaws, lest afterward a new clan should flourish.[xii]
This information, described also by Pliny[xiii] and others, goes a long way toward explaining what this animal is doing here. Keeping in mind that it was a herd of wild asses that Thomas saw wandering in the wilderness and that, in several manuscripts, they are designated explicitly as “colts” (pôlous), it is likely that our author (and the episode’s early readers) imagined the wild asses to be castrated males—as, essentially, a community of eunuchs wandering in the desert. The wild ass’s warning against false apostles and prophets of lawlessness, moreover, is entirely appropriate: the castrated male wild ass is intimately familiar with men who are“not satisfied with one wife” but “destroy many women”; men who “command others to keep away from fornication” while participating in it; men who “say one thing with their mouths”—literally with their bite—while practicing the opposite.
That early Christians did indeed associate wild asses with asceticism is confirmed in the first Christian natural history text, the Physiologus, where we find the following in chapter 9:
Concerning the wild ass: It is written in Job, “who has set the wild ass free?” The Physiologus has said concerning the wild ass that he is the leader of a herd, and should any of the roaming females give birth to males, their father cuts all their genitals, so that they not produce seed. For the patriarchs sought to sow bodily seed, but the apostles, [to sow] noetic children, practiced encratism, seeking heavenly seed, as it is written, “be of good cheer, sterile woman who does not give birth; bread out and shout, you who do not have birth pangs; for the children of the desert are more than those of the woman who has a husband.” The old is the seed of promise; the new is of encratism. The Physiologus spoke well about the wild ass.[xiv]
Leaving aside several interpretive stumbling blocks here (if the apostles are the colts, who is their father?), it is clear that the Acts Thom. is not the only early Christian text to find in the wild ass an example of self control and sexual abstinence.
Animal in human form?
When a narrative depicts an animal taking human voice and preaching against hypocritical fornicators, we might quickly categorize it as anthropomorphism: the author has attributed human characteristics to an animal for narrative purposes, probably (in the explanation we so frequently fall back on) to entertain the reader while also delivering a more substantive message. But here, while the human capacity for speech is surely added to the animal, it is the wild ass’s own characteristics—the real animal as known to natural historians of the time—that lie at the center of the episode. Here a particular behavior (the abstention from sexual activity), for which the narrative consistently advocates, is presented in animal form, that is, zoomorphically. Is a talking, asexual/ascetic wild ass an animal anthropomorphized with the characteristcs of an ideal Christian? Or is the ideal Christian here zoomorphized in its most likely animal form?
In an essay describing the interplay between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism in Sanskrit epic, Wendy Doniger surveys a series of texts that, in their association of sexual behavior with animality, are something like the inverse of our Acts Thom. She writes: “A liminal space between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism is marked out by a mythological cluster about talking animals and humans who commit the fatal error of mistaking sexual humans for animals.”[xv] These stories include reports hunters who mistake humans in flagrante delicto for animals, with lethal consequences for both animal (that is, the sexual human) and hunter. Doniger also describes the more straightforward zoomorphism of the Kamasutra. There, human beings are distinguished from animals precisely with respect to their sexuality: humans need a manual (like the Kamasutra), while animals do not. At the same time, however, the Kamasutra describes and categorizes sexual humans with animal metaphors—that is, zoomorphically. Doniger concludes the essay by noting that “anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are two different attempts to reduce the otherness between humans and animals, to see the sameness beneath the difference.”[xvi]
Doniger’s texts share with the Acts Thom. both an interest in animals and an interest in human sexuality (not to mention an Indian setting), and so, despite their rather different attitudes towards sexuality, a very brief comparison is instructive. If the Ramayana and Mahabharata depict the danger of mistaking sexual humans for animals, while the Kamasutra casts sexual humans with animal metaphors, what do we make of Thomas’ wild ass, who would seem, rather, to affirm the animality of sexual humans, while simultaneously offering in both his words and his animal body an example of asexuality? Surely our wild ass also occupies some liminal space between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, but is it ultimately the sameness or difference between human and animal that is emphasized? Inasmuch as the “natural” characteristics of an animal are leveraged to push humans towards a lifestyle that is seemingly “unnatural” for them, it is ultimately the sameness, or, at least, the inextricability of human and animal that we are left with.
Animals in the family
Twice in the short selections above there are queries about kinship. In the Acts Thom. act four, Thomas asks the ass who he is and whose he is, to which the ass replies that he is from the family (genea) of other biblical asses. In act eight, the wild ass commands the demons to say what “breed” (genos) they are, and they do: they are the children of a father who “prepares punishments and tortures,” who “offers everlasting destruction.” They are the family (genea) that opposes Christ’s family.[xvii] This confession is not news to the onager, who as already called them “children of Gehenna and destruction” (tekna tês tekna tês geenês kai tês apôleias).[xviii]
An interest in such family relationships is, in fact, a consistent theme throughout the Acts Thom. Who are your kin, to whom do you connect yourself (in marriage and otherwise)? These are questions that are returned to again and again—in different forms and of different characters (human, animal, and demon) throughout the narrative. In act three (concerning the murderous snake who is in love with a human woman) the apostle asks the animal: “of what seed and what breed (poias sporas kai poiou genous) are you?”[xix] The snake identifies himself as the perpetrator of a long list of biblical crimes, from speaking to Eve in Paradise to prompting Judas to deliver Jesus to death; finally, he calls himself the “kinsman” (sungenês of the devil or antichrist.[xx] Notable is that, while this animal is predictably kin of the devil, the ass and wild ass clearly are not. Moreover, as we have seen, when the demons that torment the captain’s wife and daughter take independent physical form, it is the human form of a man and boy. There is a clear opposition in the Acts Thom. between the divine and the demonic, but each side includes both animals and human beings.
[i]Acts Thom. 40.
[ii]I treat both ass and wild ass at (rather too much) length in Animals in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 199–221.
[iii]On this point, see, e.g., P. Cox Miller, The Poetry of Thought in Late Antiquity: Essays in Imagination and Religion (London – New York: Routledge, 2001); Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing attitudes to animals in Greek, Roman and early Christian ideas (London – New York: Routledge, 2006); L. Hobgood-Oster, Holy Dogs & Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (Urbana – Chicago: University of Illinois, 2008); on animals in Greco-Roman thought more broadly, see esp. R. Sorabji, Animal Minds & Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); J. Heath, The Talking Greeks: Speech, Animals, and the Other in Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); M. Payne, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); on animals in late antiquity, particularly in rabbinic thought, see Beth Berkowitz, “Animal,” in Late Ancient Knowing (ed. C. M. Chin and M. Vidas; Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 36–57.
[iv] Acts Thom. 63, 64 and 73.
[v] Acts Thom. 73.
[vi] Or more literally: “those belonging to you according to kinship.”
[vii] Acts Thom. 73.
[viii] Acts Thom. 74.
[ix] Acts Thom. 78.
[x] Acts Thom. 79.
[xi] Aelian, Nat. an. 4.52.
[xii] Oppian, Cyn. 3.191–207.
[xiii] Pliny, Nat. 8.46.
[xiv] The critical edition is F. Sbordone’s, Physiologus (Mediolani: [etc.] in aedibus societatis, 1936).
[xv] Wendy Doniger, “Zoomorphism in Ancient India: Humans More Bestial than Beasts,” in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (ed. Lorrain Daston and Gregg Mitman; New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 27.
[xvi] Ibid., 37.
[xvii] Acts Thom. 76.
[xviii] Acts Thom. 74.
[xix] Acts Thom. 31.
[xx] Acts Thom. 32.
Janet Spittler is an historian of early Christian literature and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. She is currently working on a commentary on the apocryphal Acts of John.