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Why Do Donkeys Have a Cross on Their Back?

Why Do Donkeys Have a Cross on Their Back?

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Like other domesticated animals, donkeys have been loyal companions of humans for thousands of years. Their outstanding resilience, adorable features, and quirky character have won the admiration of adults and children alike.

If you love donkeys, you are probably aware that most have a mysterious cross on their back.

Scientists believe the cross on a donkey’s back is a primitive marking that helped donkeys stay hidden in the wilderness. Meanwhile, Christian scholars believe Nubian donkeys have a cross on their back because they carried Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

The cross on the donkey’s back is a dark line that runs along the length of the spine and across the donkey’s shoulders. In many ways, it is similar to the primitive markings of ancient horse breeds such as the Przewalski’s Horse or Norwegian Fjord.

While science says the cross is a genetic trait passed down through generations, those with faith in Jesus and God are convinced the cross has biblical significance.

Whatever the case might be, everyone is free to make up their own minds about the donkey’s mysterious cross.

Do All Donkeys Have a Cross on Their Back?

While almost all donkeys have a cross on their back, there are a few exceptions. For example, The Somali wild ass subspecies in Ethiopia lacks the dark cross seen in other donkeys. The marking may also not be visible on donkeys with a dark coat, although it is still there.

Donkey with a cross on it's back

Naturally, the greater the contrast between the cross and the donkey’s coat, the more visible the marking is. This trait is most easily seen on donkeys that descend from the African wild ass, as this species has a very light coat.

The dark cross can also fade as the donkey ages and may be less visible on older animals.

Are Donkeys Born With a Cross?

Donkeys that are genetically meant to have the marking are born with a cross. Their parents will also have crosses as the trait passes from parent to offspring.

While the exact purpose of these primitive markings is unclear, it likely has to do with camouflaging. According to Claire Wade, a professor of computational biology and animal genetics at the University of Sydney, the crosses make donkeys harder to see when standing in the bushes. (Source: ABC News)

Scientists also believe the gene responsible for creating the donkey’s dark cross is the same gene that causes striping on other animals in the Equidae family. Some horse breeds also have primitive markings on the back and legs, while zebras are covered in stripes head to toe.

Also read: What is the Difference Between a Horse and Donkey?

Do Mules or Any Other Animals Have Crosses on Their Backs?

As their genetic makeup is half donkey, mules can sometimes have crosses on their backs. However, this is relatively rare, and the coloration of most mules is similar to horses.

With the exception of mules, donkeys are the only animals with a single cross on their back. There are other animals that have stripes and primitive markings, although never exact crosses. A few examples are:

  • Tiger
  • Zebra
  • Okapi
  • Nyala
  • Bongo
  • Striped Skunk
  • Eastern Chipmunk

Biblical Significance of a Donkey’s Cross

Donkeys occupy a special place in the Christian faith and religion due to their role in Biblical events. Among others, they symbolize humility, service, suffering, and peace.

The Donkey Tried to Help Jesus Carry the Cross

One legend tells the story of the donkey carrying Jesus to Jerusalem and asking if it could help carry his cross. However, the donkey couldn’t pass through the crowd and so was unable to help Jesus.

After the crucifixion, the donkey walked up to Jesus and stood behind the cross as the sun went down. The shadow of the cross was cast upon the donkey’s shoulders and became a permanent marking on every donkey.

Ariel view of the cross marking on a donkey's back

God Blessed the Donkey for Its Love for Jesus

According to a different legend, Jesus told God about how generous the donkey had been carrying him to Jerusalem and offering to help. After hearing of the donkey’s good deeds, God blessed the animal and placed his cross on the backs of all donkeys to mark them as holy.

Jim Powell, a pastor of Tennille and Union Hill United Methodist churches, said the meaning of Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was that he was coming in peace. Legend has it that the donkey was aware of the pain and suffering Jesus was facing.

Seeing the horrific events of the crucifixion, the donkey turned its back to the cross as it couldn’t bear the sight of Jesus in pain. To reward the donkey’s loyal and humble love for Jesus, God made the shadow of the cross fall on the back of every Jerusalem donkey. (Source: The Messenger)

An Abandoned Donkey Carries Jesus to Jerusalem

A third legend tells the tale of how the donkey came to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. According to the tale, a poor farmer near the city had a donkey that was too small to be of any use. As a result, the farmer was going to kill the donkey, but his children begged him to spare it.

Following his children’s suggestion, the farmer tied the donkey to a tree on the road to Jerusalem for someone to take it. He was then approached by two men who said Jesus needed the donkey, so he gave the animal away.

The donkey went on to carry the Messiah into Jerusalem on its back, just like it was prophesized 500 years before.

Donkey and foal in a desert
Jill Lang /

Also read: Can Horses & Donkeys Live Together?

Interestingly, none of the above legends actually appear in the Bible, according to Angela McCarthy, a senior theology lecturer at the University of Notre Dame. Regardless, the tale of the donkey has been part of Christian literature and storytelling for hundreds of years. (Source: ABC News)

In Israel, this particular donkey is considered to be the first town planner. Dr McCarthy believes this is because the donkey could find the best way up the mountain, which is where the roads would be built.

The religious significance of the donkey is further highlighted by the fact that it is the only animal besides the serpent to speak in the Bible. The donkey also plays an important role in various Christian prophecies.

In popular culture, donkeys are stereotypically regarded as stubborn, modest, and in a way, both dumb and intelligent. They have also played the role of loyal and quirky companions in many children’s books and movies such as Shrek. It’s plain to see that these hard-working animals are now an integral part of our history and culture.