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  • The Ass Who Became a Saint January 13, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Yesterday Beachcombing visited the doghead legend of St Christopher and today, in sympathy for that early canine holyman he thought that he would recount the remarkable canonization of an ass. The version that Beachcoming is about to give appears in a rather obscure but very worthwhile book: The Life and Adventures of Nathaniel Pearce (1831) describing the doings of a ruffian Brit in nineteenth-century Abyssinia. This book has many interesting passages, some of which Beachcombing hopes to visit on another occasion. Unfortunately the story that Beachcombing is about to recount is somewhat disconnected from the narrative and is without any temporal indicators. More’s the shame!

    An old negade, or Muslim trader, of Gondar, who had made several journeys from Gondar to Massowa, is passing through Hamazen when his beloved ass, Berke took ill and died. The negade decided to do right by his loyal servant and bury him:

    Poor Berke!… he has made nine journeys with me, and I am determined that the hyenas shall not eat him. So brothers help me to make a pit for him’

    His men dug a pit and uncovered, quite by accident, a spring of water where they buried Berke ‘and the old man proceeded on his journey’.

    Some time afterward the shepherds of the country observed this pile of stones and a moderate spring of water, which they were certain was not there many days before; they made this known to their respective villages, and [Christian] priests visited the spot, to pass their opinion upon it. It was immediately announced that some saint had died in heaven, and had been brought down by the angels and buried there. Accordingly, the whole of the neighbouring country assembled, and built a wall round this holy water, and the priests named it Kedaner-merrit. The circumstance soon became public throughout the whole country, and the lame and the blind, and those afflicted with disease, frequented it to wash and pray, and it acquired a great name; superstitious prejudice leading people to believe that numbers had been cured by this water, and it is held in veneration until this day.

    Beachcombing has been unable to find Kedaner-merrit: perhaps one of his readers will have better luck? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    In any case, back to the inevitable and painful denoument

    About six years after the death of poor Berke, the old negade happened to pass that road again, and, being curious to see the grave of his ass, he walked towards the spot, where he beheld a church, and a wall round, and a number of priests, and people afflicted with diseases. The old man started for some time, quite amazed, and at last said to a priest, ‘What, in the name of God, has caused the people to build a church here in this wild place?’ The priest, in reply, told the old man that it was the grave of a saint, who had sent forth water from the earth, that cured all sorts of people who prayed to him on account of their diseases. The old man called out, in great surprise, ‘A saint’s indeed! I say it is no saint’s grave, but the grave of my old ass Berke!’

    The old man was naturally beaten for this blasphemy and then dragged in front of the regional governor at which point it was decided to dig up the ‘saint’ to test his bones.

    ‘The old man remembered the right place, and several of the attendants went to work, and soon turned up the bones, when the old negade cried out: ‘There is poor Berke’s skull and jaws! There are my poor old servant’s legs, that never failed me up and down the mountain Taranta!’ and the old man wept as if they had been part of the remains of his mother. The priests though at first confused after consulting, said, it was not unusual for saints and angels to appear in the form of horses, and that they could prove the fact.

    Beachcombing was surprised to find the priests using the Book of Revelations to demonstrate that saints and angels appeared as horses (!?!) – the four horsemen? The negade, meanwhile, got off – he was lucky – with ‘a present of a little pepper, cloves, a bottle, or what not from the sea-coast’ to the governor and the priests.

    Genuine story or an Islamic tall tale to poke fun at over-serious Christian Ethiopians? Beachcombing would put his money on the second, but he wishes, nevertheless, that he could have shared this with Hippolyte Delehaye.

    30 Dec 2014: Bruce writes ‘That’s an old and widespread tale in the Muslim world. It normally involved Sufis or Shiites both of whom have a cult of saints. I’ve heard two versions, the one you cited but with one of the above groups involved. The other is my favorite, the father is an Mullah at shrine in Afghanistan, and has become very wealthy from pilgrims visiting the shrine. When the Mullah is dying he calls his four sons in to sickroom so he can divide his estate. To one he leaves his money, to another his land, and to the youngest the shrine, to the oldest he leaves the an ass. The oldest son is enraged and begins berating his father. The father asks him to come closer and orders the other sons out. He tells the son to calm down and listen to why it was done that way. He tells the son “When my father died he left my brothers everything, to me, the eldest, he left an ass. For years I wandered with it and at this well it died. I did the decent thing by poor beast and buried it. Soon after I became the Mullah of this shrine.” The son goes,”So? You wandered around with an ass for half your life, had the luck to have it die here, by the shrine of a saint, and became a wealthy Mullah maintaining the shrine. What good is that that tale going to do for me, left with nothing but an ass?” The father pulls him close and whispers, “What do you think is buried in the shrine?”.’ Thanks, Bruce!