Asinine Head in Profile
Asinine Head in Profile, detail of bore hole

56. Pendant: Asinine Head in Profile

Accession Number77.AO.81.24
Date500–400 B.C.
DimensionsHeight: 48 mm; width: 59 mm; depth: 19 mm; Weight: 16.6 g
SubjectsAnimals; Inclusions
View in Collection


–1977, Gordon McLendon (Dallas, TX), donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1977.


The piece is broken off at the neck area at a fissure; the tip of the left ear is missing. There are overall surface cracks. Large fissures are found at the jaw, at the mouth, on the cheek, and on much of the surface of the reverse. The surface has a thick, pale yellow deterioration crust, but little flaking has occurred; there is a cloudy area at the jaw. In ambient light, the piece is entirely opaque, predominantly yellowish tan, with patches of reddish brown on the nose and the temple area. In other areas, such as below the eye, the ear, and at the back (neck area), the amber is gray. In transmitted light, the piece is light orange. There are numerous inclusions.


The obverse is convex and figured with the animal’s head and neck facing left. The head is long and elliptical; the neck terminates at the right side in a curved irregular line that runs from the withers to the throatlatch. There is no indication of a mane. The eye is almond-shaped and has thick eyelids. The outside canthus turns downward. The bridge of the nose is rounded, and the nose has a large tip and rounded nostril. The mouth is open as if in laughter. Only the left ear is represented. It is upright and leaf-shaped, with the helix indicated by a raised line; the ear opening is recessed.

The form of the head seems to take advantage of the natural protrusions and undulations of the amber piece from which it was carved. The amber’s shape may have been very like the finished product and may even have directed the subject and its disposition: the mouth seems to have been worked from a cleaned-out fissure and the jaw and eye from natural protuberances, the long ear appears to incorporate a depression, and the eye may have been formed from a small dome raised above the surface of the face. On the back of the head, near the break, is a section of the suspension perforation. The pendant is drilled with three large stopped bores, all about 5 mm in diameter. One bore enters just under the chin, proceeding upward for about 11 mm; a second, about 4 mm deep, enters the rear of the head and passes horizontally toward the front of the pendant; the third bore is on the reverse of the figure and proceeds to a depth of 13 mm.


The terms ass and donkey are often interchanged today, and there appears also to have been some confusion in antiquity concerning representations of the nonhorse species of Equus equidae. Despite the schematic nature of the carving, the maker of the amber has emphasized the subject’s asinine character: the animal is maneless, the ears are long, the nose is cupped at midlength, the muzzle is rounded, and the mouth is open as if braying. It seems even to be a specific breed, the wild ass, which, originally found in Africa, was domesticated by the third millennium B.C. (Variants of the wild ass have been bred for thousands of years and include donkeys.)

One other possible asinine-form amber is a head in the Vatican collections (findspot unrecorded), which, until now, has been considered a horse.1 It is said to belong to a fibula (although it looks like a pendant) and was acquired at the same time as a second (much degraded) figured amber, which represents a bearded male in half-figure, who is carrying a pithos on his back (his arms reach backward). The head shape, ear position, ruff of hair on the jaw, and sparse mane, as well as the toothy grin, suggest to me an asinine rather than an equine subject. The style of the Vatican amber is entirely different from that of the Getty head. They differ also in manufacture.

Why an asinine amber? The association of asinine beasts with Dionysos, whose link with amber is well established, may be one reason. The ass served as transportation for Dionysos, and its presence might indicate the “hidden god” by association. An Attic rhyton in the form of a braying ass from Tomb 43 at Melfi-Pisciolo (Basilicata), a male tomb from the second half of the fifth century, is a tangible recognition of the Dionysian presence.2 As Sarah Iles Johnston points out, the ass, the bird of prey, the horse, and the wolf were “the four animals whose traits the child-killer [demon] borrows in extant sources.”3 The ass is not usually a demonic animal in ancient Greece or anywhere else: the two exceptions are the association of the ass with the Egyptian Seth or Typhon and with the Near Eastern Lamashtu.4 Johnston explains,

Lamashtu is often shown with ass’s teeth and ass’s ears on amuletic plaques and these teeth and ears are mentioned in ritual texts. Once, she is said to have an ass’s form. Once, she is adjured to go away, like a savage ass! Body parts of asses can be used in amulets against Lamashtu, which may be a case of similia similibus.5

Like the hyena, the ass was believed to have several obstetrical and pediatric uses, judging by Pliny’s remarks in Book 28 of the Natural History,6 where an ass’s liver, worn as an amulet, was said to protect babies from epileptic fits. In Johnston’s view, most recommended uses for ass parts in the magical papyri refer to the asinine form of Seth-Typhon and the “significance of the ass eventually became more broadly applied, too, so that it became a sort of all-purpose demonic animal, and its body parts became all-purpose amulets.”7 Campbell Bonner links the subject of the ass with aggressive amulets for women’s pain in the abdomen (which in antiquity included the womb).8 The roughly carved Getty pendant might even be said to be ugly, which might have aided its efficacy.9 At the very least, an asinine amber was a potent amulet of healing. To be buried with a clamoring ass would be to be interred with an alert animal, ready to bray and avert danger.


  1. Vatican Museums, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, inv. 13410.
  2. Melfi, Museo Archeologico Nazionale del Melfese “Massimo Pallottino” 51488: , p. 70; and , p. 123, pl. LI.
  3. , p. 375.
  4. Ibid., p. 377.
  5. Ibid., nn. 40–41 (with important references).
  6. Pliny, Natural History 28.77.
  7. , p. 385.
  8. , p. 121.
  9. As , p. 372, n. 3, points out, “Like demons throughout the world, child-killing demons generally are described as ugly.”


Bonner 1950
Bonner, C. Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian. Ann Arbor, 1950.
Johnston 1995
Johnston, S. I. “Defining the Dreadful: Remarks on the Greek Child-Killing Demon.” In Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, edited by M. Meyer and P. Mirecki, pp. 361–87. Leiden, 1995.
Magie d’ambra 2005
Magie d’ambra: Amuleti e gioielli della Basilicata antica. Exh. cat. Potenza, 2005.
Popoli anellenici 1971
Popoli anellenici in Basilicata. Exh. cat. Potenza, 1971.