Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ownerless Donkey

The rabbit has a charming face;
Its private life is a disgrace.
I really dare not name to you
The awful things that rabbits do.

—   Anonymous contributor to The Week-End Book, 1925.

Any idea what inspired this Tibetan epithet for 'rabbit' (ri-bong):  bdag med bong bu?

Donkeys (bong-bu) have long ears.  They don't do what anybody tells them to do once they've made up their minds not to.  They dig in their hooves and you can yank all you want for all the difference it will make.

Don't try to contact me or dissuade me.  I'll be in temporary blog retirement nirvana for the next few months. My loyal readers — both of you — will have to find something better to do for awhile.

It's spring, you know?

The frontis-hare is from the Church of SS. Lot and Procopius, at Mt. Nebo, Jordan.  Here are some more mosaics, including another rabbit, at this site of the Franciscan Archaeological Institute.

The final palm-rabbit you see below is from the mosaics of the Byzantine church at Petra, Jordan (more mosaics from there here).  I'll call it, The Rabbit at the Ends of the Palms.  You'll see why.  Most Jordanian mosaic rabbits I've seen seem to be frolicking amongst the grapes.

Look here for a rabbit mosaic at Beit Shean.
And here for another at Kisufim in the northern Negev Desert.

What you will see in this next picture is, well, something like an donkey, a tired one, with nary an owner in sight.

Clue: It's not a mosaic.  

I don't want to say what it is exactly.  
That's for you to know or find out.

Think you can puzzle it out?

From the monastery (laura) of Euthymius in the Judaean Hills.

Are all the pieces there?

They say the donkey is just the domesticated form of the wild ass.

From folio 118 verso of the materia medica work of Jampal Dorje (1792-1855). The author was a multi-lingual Mongolian prince (tho-yon/toyin) who spent much of his adult life doing research in Tibet (he made a collection of rare Kadampa texts that he collected by traveling all over the Tibetan plateau, to give another example of his wide-ranging interests). I haven't yet seen the article by P. Banzragch & B. Gerke, Some Notes on the Famous Mongolian Pharmacologist Jambal Dorje, Ayurvijnana vol. 8 (2002).

Here's the best blog about mosaics I know about.

Here is something for you to look up in your local library if you can:

W.T. Blanford, Notes on a Large Hare Inhabiting High Elevations in Western Tibet.  Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 44 (1875), pp. 214-5.
To get an inkling of what Tanachic Judaism and particularly Christianity have had to say about the hare, look here, and turn to page no. 66, if the Google-guards permit you. Basically, they are said to be wise enough to run away as fast as they can or to take refuge in secure places.  (To see the remarkable images, you would have to buy the book, unfortunate since, in the physical book, you could behold the hares of the four directions in a circular array.)  Notice how the same book, on p. 97, etymologizes ass:  "The ass gets its name because men sit on it (a sedendo), but this name is more fitting to horses."  This doesn't agree with etymologies found elsewhere.  It looks like it goes back to the Etymologies of Isidore (d. 636 CE).  Just search for "a sedendo" once you get to the link, and you'll find these words: 
Asinus et asellus a sedendo dictus, quasi asedus: sed hoc nomen, quod magis equis conveniebat...

§  §  §

A final mysterious note: In Nicholas Sihlé's article Lhachö and Hrinän (contained in: Henk Blezer, ed., Religion and Secular Culture in Tibet [Tibetan Studies II], Brill [Leiden 2002], at p. 190), is an example of a ritual effigy of a rabbit, in which the word for rabbit is bo-rang. This form of the rabbit-hare name found in northern Nepal (Baragaon) is very interesting to me, since Zhang-zhung language also has a word for 'rabbit' that appears variously as 'bo-la, bo-la, 'bo-la-sti, bho-la, 'bol-la. ('Bo-la is the form that actually occurs in the texts of the Mdzod-phug cosmological text.) It might be significant that many Tibeto-Burman languages, especially in western Tibetan areas, have a word for 'thumb' (or sometimes 'toe') that looks a lot like bola. One of the usual Tibetan words for 'thumb' is mthe-bong, and there we see that bong syllable again.  Perhaps that, in turn has something to do with the Tibetan word for 'clod,' bong-ba? Would the bong syllable have something to do with 'swollenness' or something like that?  A common Tibetan verb that means 'to swell up,' is sbo-ba.  Perhaps sbong-ba, 'soak, drench' ['make bloated'] belongs in the same word group?  Just wondering aloud. An intransitive form of sbong-ba would lose the 's' and likely be 'bong-ba, wouldn't it?  (I don't know of such a verb, but 'bong-ba means 'roundness.')  Just thinking out loud some more. Perhaps a real linguist could step in about now and set me straight.

§  §  §

A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey.

— A Sufi saying (is it really?)


  1. I believe I can remember one behavior that medieval bestiaries reported about rabbits. I'll leave at that.

    I have a theory about the intention behind the image of the donkey in this context, but I guess I wait to hear from the author what was actually intended---just to see if I'm right.

    Have a great vacation. I bet you need it after all the work you've been trying to finish.

  2. Tired donkey.
    Donkey tired.

  3. Dear Dan T. Logic,

    I have no intention to contact you with this, but before you hop away (spring = breeding season --> temporary retirement?) I'd like to convince you that there are no rabbits in Tibet, and that you seem to be mixing up two different species, namely rabbits and hares.

    I don't know who started to translate ri bong as rabbit. I think it means mountain donkey, or, if you prefer, hare, certainly not rabbit. Is there a difference between ri bong and yos? Some dictionaries make us believe that these two are synonyms for, well, hare? Or maybe not? One day I shall gratefully read how you split this hair.

    Hop Hop Hooray!



  4. So, smart person, can you identify whether the mosaics are rabbits or hares? In my native tongue, the word 'hare' isn't even known. They're all rabbits. If animal scientists want to make this distinction, and insist that it's a crucial one, more power to them. I'm not sure what it has to do with me and my language, necessarily. Do you? And no, I don't know how to distinguish between ri-bong and yos. Help me, somebody.

  5. Um, they say that the jackrabbit was originally called the jackass rabbit, which would seem to be another clue. To quote National Geographic, the jackrabbit is "actually" (wait a minute - which level of actuality are we on?) a hare.

  6. Once back in college days I told my father that a banana is a berry, just like a tomato is a berry, since neither one grows on a tree. I was lucky I was working my way through school. If my father had been giving me money for tuition, he would have stopped right then and there. I sort of understand his point. We make different classifications based on practical interests that for others might be impractical and even, like here, a little bit too crazy.

    The 'Jam-dpal-rdo-rje materia medica gives yos and ri-bong as synonyms along with Sanskritic ba-sha-sha (I guess that's just Sanskrit śaśa, as far as I know meaning rabbit every bit as much as hare).

  7. Dear Logic,

    I feel that in between your lines you are calling me a donkey. But I don't mind. If you are not prepared to accept that rabbits are not hares and vice versa it's fine with me. But since you refer to Sanskrit śaśa, have you noticed that this term is related to English hare? (Cf. Monier-Williams). I wish I was an "animal scientist" and that all my ordinary distinctions were labelled "scientific". Even in my own native tongue (which is Esperanto) we distinguish leporo (hare) from kuniklo (rabbit). No doubt, your first mosaic depicts a
    hare. The second was a Skvader, until you photoshopped it.

    With all good wishes for your retreat,


    P.S. If you have time to read a good book why not try Richard Adams' Watership Down (about rabbits, not hares).

  8. "What? Behind the rabbit?"
    "It is the rabbit!"

    This link is not recommended to children or other sensitive beings.

  9. Dear Arno, as one of my most highly valued readers, I'd be sad if you ever decided you needed to read between my lines. It's not that I'm not prepared to accept the distinction. I accept it. I'm not convinced that the distinction was a significant one in most of the world for most of the people most of the time. If only Balaam's disobedient ass could speak. Yours, D

  10. Thank you ever so much for your post about the wild hare and the ass.

    Many Tibetans, and most particularly those from Dolpo, commonly refer to rabbits as "old uncle."

  11. I am at this moment appending a photo of the 'rabbit / hare' entry from Jampal Dorje's materia medica book.

  12. They are two rather different creatures, you know?

    It is my observation that they have no particular affinity for each other, neither is there enmity. They simply co-exist. Sometimes the hares will bite off higher branches on the bushes, and then leave them for the rabbits to discover. I have seen this, but this is the only communicative behavior between them I have ever seen.

    They do not interbreed. Hares are precocial. Rabbits are altricial. Hares sleep sitting beneath bushes, whereas rabbits make burrows and sprawl about.

    Rabbits are quite openly social creatures, whereas hares are secretive. Very rarely, you might see a number of hares gather, and seem to dance in a circle. It is a most unusual sight. Rabbits commonly get together and play leap-frog -- and other unmentionable naughtiness.

    A rabbit can become impregnated with litter B whilst already pregnant with litter A, delivering at intervals. They can also reabsorb a pregnancy. Finally, they can become pregnant without having known a male. We do not believe that hares share these traits.

    Rabbit heart is a common ingredient in Tibetan traditional medicine, but as it has no particular nutritional value, I wonder how effective it may be.

    There is also the widespread belief in Tibet that ghosts sustain themselves by milking rabbits at night.

    Oh, do please include something on the Three Rabbits, won't you kind sir?

  13. Jampal Dorje's illustrated materia medica entry doesn't mention the use of the heart, although it says that the brain can be used to clear up shooting pains in the intestines. I was hoping you would tell us about the Three Rabbits.

  14. Have you noticed this freshly posted page at "History Hunters"?

  15. "Finally, they can become pregnant without having known a male."

    Claims Alexandra David-Néel?

    By the way, in Rgyal rong they refer to the hare as ka la. [---> ka la lo]

    Cf. Btsan lha Ngag dbang Tshul khrim's recent Rgyal rong-Chinese-Tibetan English Dictionary.

    Bests, Arno

  16. Arno, you sure made it a lot further reading into that fat new Rgyal-rong dictionary than I did. On p. 52, you can see once again that ri-bong and yos can be, and are, used as if they were identical in meaning. But really, I'm with you. Not against you or Tenpa. Ri-bong ought to mean your wild and woolly extra-long-eared 'hare' while yos ought to mean your fuzzy pet bunny wabbit. But I see myself doing something like 'ethnoscience,' trying to elicit categories indigenous to the particular people and place. And so far I'm coming up with hardly anything on this distinction, and lots that can demonstrate the non-distinction. Should I scold my sources? Try to discipline them? Well, should I?


  17. Dear Anonymous:
    I do not know about the Frenchwoman's breeding habits, and only base my comment on what many rabbit fanciers have personally observed. For further reference, you may consult Frances Harcourt-Brown Textbook of Rabbit Medicine.

    Dear Dan:
    The three (and sometimes four) rabbits are one of those little mysteries, like the 13th Karmapa's rabbit, or the Tilopa Ornament that offer diversion greater than the goal: like finding your wallet while searching for your keys.

    But, I am working up to it.

  18. Dear Arno,

    I strongly suggest you Google "rabbit parthenogenesis," and I'll predict we'll make you a believer after an hour or so of web wandering. And whoever said that Madame David-Neel was unreliable? Is that something you heard, or did you come to your own conclusions from actual reading? I don't go along with that idea of yours either. I think you're just afraid that the male of the species might be found to be unnecessary, something I understand some women have known for a very long time now. (Including Madame David-Neel, who spent most of her married life away from her husband.)

    I usually think I can rely on your judgement, but I feel you might be slipping here.


  19. Dear Dan and Tenpa,

    And I thought hare coursing was banned in large parts of the civilized world!? Yet I feel as if two hounds were closing in on me. But, dear Frankensteins, has anyone ever observed natural cases of mammal parthenogenesis, e.g. in rabbits? It doesn't seem to exist in the wild, and parthenogenetically activating freshly ovulated rabbit oocytes by applying electric fields onto the plasma membrane is perhaps a different cup of tea.

    It's weird that as soon as someone quite innocently mentions a rabbit, sooner or later everything boils down to (a)sexual reproduction. These little creatures deserve much better, as Ronald Lockley has so aptly shown.

    Madame David-Néel (I admire her!) and her married life is perhaps not the most convincing example to demonstrate the redundancy of the male.

    With metta,


  20. Dear Dan:

    Just a distinction here between pseudopregnancy and parthenogenesis.

    Pseudopregnancy is common in domestic rabbits, lasting for 16 to 18 days rather than the 31 to 32 days of actual pregnancy.

    In 1936, Pincus of Harvard was able to induce parthenogenesis in a rabbit, and if you read his paper on the subject The Eggs of Mammals, you see that he wrote even if he never called.

    News of this reached the rabbit breeders (rabbits were popular during the 1930s, for reasons I don't like to think about), and in consequence, I believe many breeders began confusing pseudopregnancy with parthenogenesis. When there was no issue, this was explained away through reference to the reabsorbtion ability I mentioned elsewhere.

    Some people think very highly of Mde David-Neel. She inspired two entire generations of French citizens to take up interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Today, the French countryside is littered with Tibetan temples, monasteries, and the like -- and when you do tsog, you can employ fascinating wines.

  21. Dear Arno,

    I shudder to think what would be involved in an effort to observe natural cases of mammalian parthenogenesis. I'm sure it would not be non-invasive to say the least. A window in the poor creature's stomach? (Or in thousands of them, given the odds.) And then they would have to observe the absence of sperm? I concede that it's difficult, even if I never made the least argument that proof (of uninduced mammalian parthenogenisis) would be an easy task. But I believe it has not been scientifically established that 'natural' (meaning for present purposes without human intervention) mammalian parthenogenesis doesn't happen or cannot happen. Or has it?

    Anyway, nobody here has argued against the redundancy of the male, so I guess that fact is well enough established.


  22. Oh, wait! I found this nice page that threatens to supply us with words for rabbit from all over the known world. And the only thing I find there that somehow resembles Tib. yos is this:

    Burmese youn


    Nathan Hill mentions Burmese yun at p. 181 in his review of Matisoff's book:

    (I suppose linguists could find reason for the s/n variation in functional suffixes that got 'absorbed' over time. But that's just a 'suppose' statement.)

  23. Concerning the etymology of the yos hare (which seemingly hadn't entered the lexicon in the early 9th century), perhaps one could consider the context in which it occurs (astronomy). Is it not the case that when referring to a hare year, yos is exclusively used? ri bong lo is quite impossible, isn't it? Does this lead us anywhere?

    The 16th year of the "Spor thang gi lugs" is sa mo yos. This corresponds to the 13th year of the 60 year cycle in the "Stod 'grel gyi lugs", namely myos ldan. (Also in the Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v. myos ldan.)

    This is coincidence, no doubt, but still myos and yos sound similar...

    Consider also this pair:
    lcags mo yos (28th year)
    bong bu (25th year)

    The donkey comes into play!

    All nonsense, I know, but what to do?


  24. In the end, even against our better judgement, I think we're forced to accept nonsense for what it is and go on to try to find more of it. As much as we can, in fact, until there's no time left for us. Until the ridiculous end.

    I believe that Matisoff does supply a Proto-Tibeto-Burmese form for the word for 'rabbit' even if he doesn't seem to explicitly mention the Tibetan form yos.

    Let's see if I can find it in the PDF. Here it is on p. 199 (with more on p. 449):

    *b-yew-n (BUT you need to turn the 'e' upside down).

    There is a notion hiding in there that words for 'rat' (Tib. byi-ba) are entangled in the word's history. Might even have gotten interchanged in one place or another. (He gives Jingpho/Karen yu and yun as meaning 'rat' rather than 'rabbit'.) I fail to see how anybody anywhere could ever confuse rabbits with rats, but who am I to say it couldn't happen?

    The PDF of the Matisoff is freely downloadable. Just schmoogle something like "Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman" and you should get to it quickly if you want to.

    I'm going off to pray for the intercession of our bunny-rat of perpetual virgin motherhood. That should bring me some analytical wisdom, if anything.

    Think Lear (not the king).

  25. Oh, another thing, Anon, it occurred to me that we tend to choose single-syllable English animal names over multiple-syllabled ones when translating the names of the 12 animal cycle years. Of course with dragon we don't have much choice, since so few people recognize that Worm could be an epithet of the dragon. No choice with the tiger, either. We choose Hen or Bird year over Chicken year for this reason, I think. The same with the yos lo being translated hare year. Not because we really think that yos technically means hare when we could argue with some likelihood that it ought to mean rabbit. Just because it has one syllable. What do you think of this theory of mine?

  26. Oh, and one funny detail I forgot to mention. Matisoff refers to the rabbit / hare as a Wanderwort. I guess that means that the mobility of the word is correspondent to the mobility of the animal. Both can hop around at will. So we'll be hard put to keep the words still long enough to establish lines of derivation.

    But therein (somewhere) lies the irony, which is that while yos has the PTB pedigree awarded by Sino-Tibetan linguists, ri-bong has the earlier mentioning (including two weird occurrences in the Old Tibetan texts of the OTDO website... there you do find the use of yos-bu, not yos, as a year name, but no other clear usages of the yos in the meaning of rabbit / hare).

  27. Hmm. I don't know how I neglected this until now, but the Mahâvyutpatti, dated early 9th century, does list a word for rabbit / hare in its no. 4800.

    For the Sanskrit śaśa it gives the Tibetan translation as ri-bong. Yos doesn't appear (in my two digital versions) at all as a rabbit / hare term. This might (I said might) help argue that the ri-bong is not just one of those metaphors that got raised (or lowered) to the status of an ordinary noun. But where did the yos come from?

  28. Well, yes, hen beats chicken, you may be right.
    But in the Chinese context everyone seems to speak of "rabbit" (兔) when it comes to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Therefore I am wondering why in the Tibetan context yos is almost always rendered as hare.
    Since the 12-year cycle (lo 'khor bcu gnyis) as the oldest known calendar attested in Yar lung dynasty Tibet uses the names of the Chinese/East Asian cycle, there is little reason to suddenly speak of hare. Had the Tibetans back then wanted to call it a hare they could have easily used ri bong, which (as you pointed out) was already part of their lexicon in those years. Instead they started to use yos bu, later yos. For me this evidently shows that ri bong and yos are not one and the same creature. The former ought to mean "hare", the latter "rabbit", which is what I tried to say in my first comment. If yos is a Wanderwort (the latter usually spread in connection with trade I have learnt from the Wikipedia entry), then perhaps it entered Tibet thanks to an Armenian merchant who imported rabbit meat from Burma and sold it in his little takeaway at the foot of the Yum bu bla sgang. It is possible, you know.



    P.S. You have forged history by deleting and rewriting your Mahāvyutpatti comment!

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. I'm always forging history by reforging what I've written. Over and over again. Especially if that means negligent typos easily fixed. I'm a fraud.

    I feel our rabbit vs. hare argument is not going to float anywhere even if your Armenian theory does hold some water. And that one- vs. two-syllable theory of mine seems to be dissolving in front of my eyes as we speak. Rabbits know enough to head for their holes. I see nowhere to go. I'm hopeless.

    Did you see that blockbuster Tibetsploitation film "2012"? Not to change the subject, since it's about floods and other disasters and taking refuge. And finding deliverance.

  31. I enter this blog expecting to find this entry, proverbially, seated in total silence---or the "donkey tired" asleep in bed---and ... BAM! ... I find 30 (thir-ty) comments. This has got to be a record for the blog. Get you on your vacation (finger wagging in front of Dan's face) or no "wabbit stew" for breakfast tomorrow!

  32. P.S.--- Tell us when you'll be back.

  33. The answer probably lies in the 22nd chapter of Watership Down:

    "We do not take the moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. It does not reveal, but changes what it covers."

    If one likes movies where Tibetans are played by non-Tibetans, "2012" is a must-see.

    I think I have used up enough space of your mchan 'grel section. Looking forward to your future musings.


  34. Dear commentators,

    I guess deep in my unconscious mind, the part that doesn't know it's thinking, I was hoping to best Early Tibet for number of comments. His latest blog entry has already reached 32 right now as I write. Of course most of the comments here are my own. Which means I've been stuffing my own ballot box. Some may find this unfair.

    I need this little vacation in order to work, not in order to rest and play. But you guys (I love all three of you) can go on doing the bunny hop into the deepest hours of the night. (Btw, this dance, or at least the name of it, is only slightly older than I am. I guess you needed to know that.)

    My favorite scene from 2012? Not the part where the tsunami shoots up over the wall of the Himalayas. No, not at all. I liked the part where the helicopters are flying over the mountains of Tibet with giraffes and other large sentient beings hanging beneath them.

    Hi ho! Hi ho! It's off to work I go.


  35. Today I looked at Early Tibetblog and saw to my shagreen that Sam's up to 34 comments at this very moment!

    Well, as of this comment, Tibeto-logic pulls ahead at 35! Go Tibeto-logic!

  36. Go ... on ... vacation, and let commentator Karmey tear apart earlyTibet in peace!

  37. OK, OK, it's not like I'm not gone already!

  38. "A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey."

    Not atleast for some Tibetans. It is said that once when the Dalai Lama spoke on a telephone, the person at the other end respectfully prostrated three times to his receiver before he picked it up and replied.

    People may well prostrate the donkey, with much devotion.

  39. Dear Anon,

    I can't deny that what you say is correct. I, too, am the sort of person, if I receive a new holy book or picture, or if one of those things accidentally falls on the floor, I touch them on my head. And if H.H. Himself were to call me on the phone, I have no idea what I would do. But I suppose you might be faulted for taking the Sufi saying in a literal way. What I hear it saying is that it's pretty useless to have your head stuffed with religious knowledge if you just go on acting like an ass in your everyday life. If this is the case then all that learning is just a burden. Some knowledge is good for life, work, entertainment, inspiration, and transformation for the better. What isn't just tends to clutter the attic.

  40. You are right, or rather I should say you may be right. Because I don't know anything about the Sufi(sm) and about the history and traditional interpretation of that classical line, I can't say with certainty that you are right, nor can I say that you are not right.

    I think, one cannot say someone is "faulted", simply because s/he has attempted to interpret a line its literal meaning. A line of composition carries meanings, such as that of literal, symbolic, ethical and secret. Saying that someone is faulted, because s/he has interpreted the line literally is tantamount of saying that the line has no literal meaning!

    Sorry, I don't mean it.

  41. Dear Anon,

    That's OK, I didn't mean it either. Nobody should be faulted for anything, and if I did so it's my fault, and I mean that literally.


  42. This comment has been removed by the author.


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