Little donkeys aren’t just for Christmas

In honour of the animal's heroic efforts, here are some favourite little donkeys from our collection.

By Helen Babbs

  • Story

Donkeys negotiate dusty roads

Black and white photograph of a mountain pass. A rough road runs between steep rocky cliffs, with wooden buildings balanced on them. A man and his donkey are in the foreground.

Donkey domestication is thought to have begun about 5,000 years ago in Africa. Since then, they've enabled us to carry larger loads over longer distances. This photograph shows the Nankow Pass in China. Sure-footed and sturdy, donkeys helped tradespeople negotiate the rough, rocky terrain.

Donkeys carry precious loads

Drawing of a female Indian goddess sitting side-saddle on top of a donkey.

Donkeys can carry people as well as packages, and sometimes they carry deities too. Sitala is the Indian goddess of smallpox and other epidemics. She's always pictured sitting on a donkey, with a broom in one hand and a pot of water in the other.

Donkeys power enormous prams

Black and white photograph showing a dark brown donkey pulling a wooden cart with several young children in it (all wearing hats). the donkey and cart is being led by a female nurse wearing a white, ankle-length apron.

Donkeys can also power carts and carriages. This donkey-pulled pram has room for 18 toddlers. It's another precious load to be entrusted with, but a heavy one.

Donkeys mock medics

In this colour illustration a young boy standing on a stool shaves the face of a donkey, which is poking its head through an open window.

The donkey has become a symbol as much as a mode of transport. When we say someone's behaving like a donkey or an ass, we're implying they're lazy, stupid or ignorant, or all three! Here a young boy shaves a donkey, likely poking fun at the intelligence levels of barber-surgeons and their customers. Graphic satire was often used to mock the medical profession, and its quacks and quackeries, from the 17th century on.

Donkeys are stubborn

Coloured wood engraving showing the side profile of a human head with 30 different images inside.

Meanwhile the reluctant little donkey that appears inside this symbolical head is used to represent "firmness". The head contains over 30 images showing the phrenological faculties.

Donkeys turn things upside down

A colour cartoon depicting a series of scenes where animals and humans have swapped roles.

Everything is topsy-turvy in the world of our final little donkey. A horse forcibly feeds straw to a man, people eat grass while sheep-shaped shepherds look on, and, in an especially refreshing reversal of roles, a donkey rides on a man's back.

About the author

Photograph of Helen Babbs

Helen Babbs

Helen is a Digital Editor for Wellcome Collection.