The Malleus Maleficarum was a 15th-century text that presented bizarre (but, unfortunately, influential) theories about witchcraft and magic, as well as commentary on subjects such as supernatural monsters, demons and other similarly diabolical creatures. Its authors, the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, did not simply write a dry treatise on the convoluted assumptions of witch hunters and demonologists; they also spiced up the text with supposed first-hand accounts of what they personally witnessed as inquisitors, and they also recorded tales of folklore presented to them by their co-workers. Many of these paranormal yarns are depressing reads, as they often end with the death of an accused (and most likely innocent) witch. Yet, some of the tales preserved by the inquisitors are so bizarre that they come across as quite humorous, which is a delightful change of pace from the otherwise dark and frustrating sections of the Malleus Maleficarum. One such comical digression appeared in part II, question 2, chapter 4 of the text—which featured a sailor who allegedly lived as a transformed donkey for over three years on the island of Cyprus.
To set the scene, a merchant ship was said to have pulled into port at the city of Salamis, in Cyprus, where it loitered for a time to sell its wares and restock its hull with new cargo. The protagonist of this strange tale was an unnamed member of the merchant ship crew. He was something of an antihero, for he seemed to be a loner who was at the bottom of the ship’s hierarchy of importance. While the rest of the crew set about loading and unloading goods, or accomplishing other such tasks, our protagonist was given the menial chore of buying a batch of eggs. In pursuit of this goal, the lone sailor went not to the city market, but to an isolated house which was situated near the beach. Outside of this dwelling, the sailor found a woman who was strolling around her property and enjoying the seaside breeze. The unnamed woman, according to the story, was not all that she appeared. She was allegedly a powerful witch and a member of a significant coven operating in Cyprus.
As the sailor said his greetings and asked to buy some eggs, the woman sized up the stranger with the eye of an intuitive predator. She could tell that he was a disrespected loner who was far away from home—the type of person who might be overlooked if he happened to suddenly disappear. While thinking these thoughts, the woman agreed to sell some eggs to the sailor, asking him to wait outside while she gathered them from her house. After some time, she reappeared from her abode with a basket of very special eggs, which the sailor purchased without any second thoughts. Leaving the mysterious woman behind, the sailor returned to the port, and finding that his crewmates had not returned to the ship, he decided to wander around the docks.
The rest of the crew was apparently having a grand time in the city, and did not intend to return to the ship any time soon. As such, the lone sailor on the docks had only the basket of eggs for company, which inevitably made him bored and hungry. Before long, he decided to snack on one of the eggs, and he found the morsel so delicious that he ultimately ate the whole basket of eggs as he waited for the return of his crewmates. Yet, as mentioned earlier, these were very special eggs, prepared with extra care by an alleged witch. The sailor soon began to feel odd, and started to show peculiar symptoms. As the Malleus Maleficarum exclaimed, “behold! an hour later he was made dumb as if he had no power of speech” (part II, question 2, chapter 4).
While the unfortunate sailor was being attacked by the effects of the bad eggs, the other members of the merchant ship began wandering back to the docks. None of them made notice of the dazed and muted sailor who could now only move by crawling about on all four limbs. Although the lone sailor was not noticed by his comrades, he saw that the crew was finally returning to the ship. Still feeling odd, the sailor crawled his way back, probably hoping they had some sort of medicine or antidote on board for whatever ailed him. As soon as the sailor attempted to board the ship, however, his former crewmates looked on him with shock and annoyance—those nearby even went so far as to pick up sticks and brooms to shoo the poor sailor away. They called his such names as ‘beast’ and ‘animal,’ and before long our protagonist began to piece together what had happened. In the zoological sense of the word, the sailor had become a total ass.
The crew of the merchant ship apparently cared little for their missing crewmate, and they set sail despite the sailor’s absence from the ship. Stranded, the donkey-sailor wandered about Cyprus, searching for food and shelter. It was a rough life, for, as the Malleus Maleficarum rightly said, “since everybody thought he was an ass, he was necessarily treated as such” (part II, question 2, chapter 4). The sailor-donkey eventually realized that only one person on Cyprus would be able to see through his transformed appearance. Therefore, he returned to the city of Salamis and retraced his steps to the seaside house of the alleged witch who had caused his transformation. She agreed to feed and house the sailor-donkey, but there was a catch—in exchange, she wanted him to be her beast of burden for the foreseeable future. The sailor-donkey, so the story goes, accepted the witch’s terms and would spend the next three years hauling supplies, such as lumber and grain, back to the woman’s seaside home.
Life with the witch was a bittersweet existence for the sailor-donkey. On the one hand, he had been unwillingly turned into a beast of burden and was now living a servile existence on the estate of the person who had caused his transformation. On the other hand, the witch and her coven were the only people on Cyprus who knew the sailor’s identity, and while they were away from prying eyes, the witches would give the sailor-donkey the ability to speak. They even reportedly had quite amicable conversations.
Despite being fed, sheltered and allowed to speak from time to time, the sailor-donkey was not happy. As the tale was recorded in a religious-themed text, it may not be surprising to learn that one of the main complaints that the sailor had was that the witches refused to allow him to go to church. During his fourth year as the witch’s beast of burden, this church-deprivation became too much for the bewitched sailor. As the tale goes, our cursed protagonist was one day hoofing through the streets of Salamis with the witch when he heard the sound of bells ring out from the local church. Hearing those beckoning tones, the sailor clopped his way to the location of the church. Yet, as he still apparently looked like a donkey, he feared to enter, lest he should be shooed away by the congregation. Therefore, he stayed just outside the entrance and knelt in prayer as best he could in his awkward animal form. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, he “knelt down outside by bending the knees of his hind legs, and lifted his forelegs, that is, his hands, joined together over his ass’s head, as it was thought to be, and looked upon the elevation of the Sacrament” (part II, question 2, chapter 4).
Unfortunately, the sailor-donkey was not allowed to pray for long, as the witch had followed him to the church and promptly started beating him when she discovered what he was doing. Fortunately, the outlandish sight of a praying donkey with outstretched hooves had caught the attention of some people on the street, and they subsequently saw the woman appear and smack the donkey with a stick as punishment for the animal’s show of piety. The onlookers found this whole situation incredibly suspicious and they decided to make a citizens’ arrest. They then dragged the woman and the donkey before a local judge. As the story goes, the accused witch confessed after being tortured, and she was able to change the sailor back to normal after they were both escorted to her seaside home. Once the sailor was released in human form, the accused witch was thrown back in jail. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, “she paid the debt to which her crimes merited. And the young man returned joyfully to his own country” (part II, question 2, chapter 4).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Taming of the Donkey by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1841–1871), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).