Mules: Homer and Darwin

Yet another beneficial device that dates from prehistory (see earlier posts) is the breeding of mules.

Homer mentions them repeatedly. They are the animals that bring back Hector’s body from the Greek camp on a carriage; elsewhere in the Iliad it is mentioned that they are far better than oxen for drawing the plough; and they are used for bringing down timber from the mountains. In the Odyssey (IV.636), Noemon says that he has in Elis ‘twelve mares with patient mules at the teat, unbroken,’ and he wants to fetch one to break it in.

In Odyssey Book VI, Alcinous does not hesitate to put Nausicaa and her girls, unaccompanied, in charge of two strong mules that will take their clothes down to the river in a cart. And here we find one of the features of this animal that makes them so desirable. Mules are, in fact, better working beasts than horses. They are as strong, or stronger, and they are more even-tempered, more persistent, with more stamina, much more surefooted in mountainous country, and more affectionate. Furthermore, they are more long-lived, easier to feed and healthier.

On a road near Delphi, August 1959

Charles Darwin in his Journal of Researches*, shows his usual capacity to notice and to marvel, when he narrates how he travelled with mules in the Andes. He notices their qualities, and marvels.

‘In a troop, each animal carries, on a level road, a cargo weighing 416 pounds (more than 29 stone), but in a mountainous country 100 pounds less; yet with what delicate slim limbs, without any proportional bulk of muscle, these animals support so great a burden! The mule always appears to me a most surprising animal. That a hybrid should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance, and length of life, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here outdone nature.’

A male donkey is called a jack, and the female a jenny. The best way of breeding a mule is to mate a jack with a mare. The Latin word for mule is mulus, and the Greek ἡμίονος (half-ass).