Posted by: mattcolvin | April 20, 2013

Plowing with an Ox and an Ass


While reading Padraic Colum’s The Adventures of Odysseus to the kids last week, I came across this scene:

“And that the messenger, Palamedes, might believe he was mad indeed, Odysseus did a thing that no man ever saw being done before—he took an ass and an ox and yoked them together to the same plough and began to plough a field.”

I’m not sure what the source is for Colum’s version. Possibly it derives from Bulfinch, who gives the animals as an ox and ass, but it takes a bit more digging to find Bulfinch’s source.

The first century mythologer Hyginus records that Odysseus yoked two different animals, but they are an ox and a horse, not an ass:

And so when he learned that spokesmen would come to him, he put on a cap, pretending madness, and yoked a horse and an ox to the plow. Palamedes felt he was pretending when he saw this, and taking his son Telemachus from the cradle, put him in front of the plow with the words: “Give up your pretense and come and join the allies.” (Hyginus, Fabulae 95)

Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid says only that the two animals were “different”:

… cum enim ille (sc. Ulixes) iunctis dissimilis naturae animalibus salem sereret, filium ei Palamedes opposuit. quo viso Ulixes aratra suspendit, et ad bellum ductus habuit iustam causam doloris.

…for when he was sowing salt with animals of different natures yoked together, Palamedes put his son in front of him. As soon as Ulysses saw him, he halted his plow and when he had been led off to the war, he considered this incident as a warranted grievance.
(Maurus Servius Honoratus. In Vergilii carmina comentarii, ad Aen. II.81)

The Routledge Handbook of Classical Mythology lists schol. Lyc. 384 as the source for the animals being an ox and the ass. But I wonder if this may not be another ancient near eastern influence on Greek culture. For this is the combination of draft animals forbidden by Deuteronomy 22:10:

You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. (Deuteronomy 22:10 ESV)

The most commonly consulted Christian commentators are of almost no help. For it is an almost absurd law: an ox and an ass cannot pull a plow together, and only a madman would so yoke them. John Calvin says the law is a warning against “departing from simplicity”. Calum Carmichael sees the law as a coded allegory of the intermarriage of Jews with Gentiles, especially the story of Shechem and Dinah. Shechem’s father is Hamor, “ass”, while Dinah is avenged by Simeon and Levi, whose father Jacob curses them, saying that they “hamstrung an ox” — thus showing that the ox is a symbol for Jacob himself, weakened in his relations to other nations. I’m not sure I buy Carmichael’s interpretation, or even if I’m remembering it aright. It has been years since I read it.

I don’t know what to make of it, but the discovery of Odysseus doing the very thing prohibited by the law in Deuteronomy is a spur to further thought about this verse.


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