Why Do Donkeys Have A Cross On Their Back? (7 Reasons)

Ever looked at a donkey and wondered what that strange cross was doing on their back?

Here’s why donkeys have a cross

Evolutionary biologists believe it’s an ancient form of camouflage. Like zebras, from which donkeys share a common ancestor, it’s a heritable marking that could have helped them avoid the sight of predators. But there are also one or two interesting spiritual theories too.

The truth is there’s a lot of interesting facts about donkeys and this strange marking!

In this article we’ll cover:

  • Why donkeys have a cross
  • The legend of the donkeys cross
  • The greater symbolism of the cross

Keen to learn more?

Let’s dive in!

What Kind Of Donkeys Have A Cross On Their Back?

All kinds of donkeys, regardless of the breed, have a cross marking on their backs. Although it may be obscure (especially on traditionally long-haired types like the Poitou), shave a donkey down and you’ll definitely see it.

Both miniature donkeys and mammoths (popular breeds in the U.S.) have this cross. As do all other types of donkeys living across the world.

It usually starts between the ears (at an area called the “poll”) and runs down the spine to the tip of the tail.

Between the shoulders is where the cross runs horizontally.

Do All Donkeys Have A Cross On Their Back?

Almost all donkeys have this cross on their back. Where it becomes difficult to see is when color “hides” it. It can be hard to spot on really dark donkeys and can sometimes be a very light marking on others.

This “dorsal cross” is one way to tell a donkey from a horse. As well as having a more curved back, horses also lack this clear marking.

Do Mules Have Crosses On Their Backs?

Mules rarely have this same marked cross that donkeys have. Their backs closely resemble horses. Something that’s made more obvious from the slightly curved shape.

How Did Donkeys Get A Cross Marking On Their Backs?

It’s a mystery as to how exactly donkeys got a cross marking on their back. In evolutionary terms, as part of the equine family, they’re closely related to both zebras and horses. Their “cross” could be something left over as phenotypic trait after genetic divergence from a striped ancestor.

Outside of science, there’s another cool theory. This comes from Christianity and the role of the Nubian donkey.

The Nubian wild ass is the ancestor of the domestic donkey that is now presumed extinct [1].

Here’s more on that theory…

The Significance Of The Donkey Cross

In Christianity a donkeys cross is a symbol of the Nubian donkeys that were said to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. This happened in the events leading up to Palm Sunday.

Jesus’ entry on a donkey into the Holy City was said to be a sign of peace.

What Is The Legend Of The Donkey Cross?

The legend of the donkey cross goes further than Jesus’ passage into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. It’s about the animal witnessing the trial Jesus was facing and the suffering that followed.

The cross was said to be given to them by God as a reward for their love of Jesus.

Another legend goes something similarly.

A donkey spared by a farmer was tied up to a tree on the road to Jerusalem and was taken by Jesus’ disciples. As it followed Jesus in, it stood in the shadow of the cross and its shadow fell across the donkey’s back.

This all fits a story of prophecy told 500 years before these events. The prophecy said the Messiah would ride into a Jerusalem on a donkey.

The Donkey And His Cross Poem

There is also another interesting story as to how the donkey got its cross in a poem written by Larry R Linville.

The poem summarizes parts of the legend of the donkey cross outlined above.

Here’s a stanza describing the donkey’s feelings…

The cross wasn’t something for Christ to bear.

He reasoned “I should have carried it there.”

He grieved as he turned his back to the sight

and bowed his head as he felt so contrite.

The Donkey And His Cross by Larry R Linville

What Does The Cross On A Donkey Mean?

To summarize, the cross on a donkey can serve as a reminder of both Jesus’ sacrifice and the caring role the animal played in the events leading up to his death.

The reason the story is referred to as legend is because there isn’t an actual Bible passage mentioning it.

Related Questions

Other Animals With Crosses On Their Backs

The donkey is the only animal in the world with a single cross across its back.

Other animals from the equine family that have similar patternings, but not exact crosses include:

  • Mountain zebra
  • Plains zebra

Other ungulates:

  • Okapi
  • Bongo
  • Nyala

Other species:

  • Striped Skunk
  • Striped Marlin
  • Eastern Chipmunk

What Are Some Other Symbols Of A Donkey?

Besides its familiar cross, most symbols of a donkey come from its character. Stubbornness, loyalty, and both stupidity and intelligence are common ones.

Related: Donkey Meaning & Symbolism: 23 Things From Literature, Religion and Spirituality

Final Thoughts

If you enjoyed reading and learning a bit more about the humble donkey, then make sure you check out our guides.


Image Credit: @otiv345 at Unsplash

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