Mule: All Things Emanate From Her

On personifying animals in myth, and an excerpt from Martín Adán’s “Cardboard House”.


When a jack donkey meets a mare you might get a mule. In real life the mule is usually sterile. In fiction the mule can be the creator of worlds. For why not?

Hold that thought.

Nonhuman characters throng mythologies and religions in symbolic roles. Lions, eagles, horses, snakes, dragons and their kin. The powerful, the swift. What about the stolid or the fickle?

Perhaps the most easily forgotten are those who carry the world on their shoulders, unseen. (Not Atlas, though, he’s had his fair amount of press coverage, even siring a common noun.)

I remember the weird plausibility of Terry Pratchett’s idea when I first read it: four elephants carrying his Discworld, while standing on a turtle that swims through space. The notion may or may not derive from anecdotes in Hindu mythology.

Telescoping world-holding responsibility appears elsewhere too. For example, going back a few centuries, there are Kujata and Bahamut, a bull and a fish, whom I discovered through Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. Here’s how he introduces them:

In Moslem cosmology, Kujata is a huge bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, and feet. To get from one ear to another or from one eye to another, no more than five hundred years are required. Kujata stands on the back of the fish Bahamut; on the bull’s back is a great rock of ruby, on the rock an angel, and on the angel rests our earth. Under the fifth is a mighty sea, under the sea vast abyss of air, under the air fire, and under the fire a serpent so great that were it not for fear of Allah, this creature might swallow up all creation.

Note the ordering of the stack: angel, ruby, bull, fish, sea, air, fire, serpent, the fear of Allah. Mystical lists are ordered meaningfully, so studying who-holds-what-where in a given cosmogony reveals how certain entities are regarded. Just making it into a list raises that species’ profile. In this case, the planet is balanced precariously and needs the middle-of-chain fish and the bull to stabilise it from earthquakes.

By Zakariya Qazwini Public domain, <a href="">via Wikimedia Commons</a>
By Zakariya Qazwini, via Wikimedia Commons


I’d like to believe that, taken together, the cultures of the world would balance themselves out and lead to a democratic appreciation of all animals. And that’s not including the discussion on wildlife conservation.

Before reaching the humble mule, consider the deifying potential of its father, the humble donkey or ass.

In the Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges also describes an Ass with Three Legs, reaching us from as far back as Zarathustra. It has three hooves, six eyes, nine mouths, two ears and one horn. It stands in the middle of the ocean, eating spiritual food, being righteous, and producing glassy, yellow excretions, for the dung of the three-legged ass is amber. Spirituality converted to amber? The alchemy of cosmogonies certainly invites curiosity.

And the most accessible method for sating one’s curiosity is also the most powerful: let us imagine.

Let us imagine a mule from whom all things emanate.

Quote: The afternoon arises from this slow-moving, dapple-gray mule with a long stride. It emanates from her in waves that make visible the light of three o’clock postmeridian and reveal the canvas of the atmosphere, a movie screen — but a round one that does not need shadows; all things emanate from her. At the end of each sheaf of rays: a house, a tree, a lamp, myself. This mule is creating us as she imagines us. Through her I feel the solidarity of my origins with the animate and the inanimate. We are all images conceived during a calm and supple trot, images that become foliated, plastered, and fenestrated, or dressed in drill, or topped with a glass helmet. Cosmic logic divides us up into undefined species of only one kind . . . window and I . . . sea gull and I . . . With each step the mule takes — a step that is duplicate, rotund, eternally inalterable, predetermined by a divine genius — my being trembles at unknowable destiny. At this moment the mule has never existed. The mule has been cancelled as she turns a corner. Now the afternoon is itself — atheistic, autogenetic, romantic, liberal, desolate.

—Martín Adán, The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver)

The Quote is crammed with ideas, koans almost:

  • round movie screens without shadows,
  • ideated half-rays that end in instances of this world,
  • the connectedness of one half-ray with all the others at their point of origin,
  • cosmic logic that divides everything into only one kind,
  • the predetermined genius of the creator contrasted with the unknowable destiny of the created,
  • and the abrupt cancellations forced by corners (for in the coordinate system of the circle, corners are bane).

What about the last sentence of the Quote, do you agree with it?

Now the afternoon is itself — atheistic, autogenetic, romantic, liberal, desolate.

I’m doubtful.

The iconoclastic provocation of a mule giving birth to an afternoon was cancelled the moment she turned a corner—the mule’s motherhood, spiritual or carnal, was annulled with one mistaken turning—and the afternoon was returned to the world in its previous, dubious state.

But we have read the passage and its seeds have been sown only to sprout in some more fertile futurity.

Therefore the afternoon, ultimately, can never be as atheistic or as desolate as before.

On the other hand, its autogenesis is romantic (think of the Phoenix), so let’s grant those adjectives on principle.

Finally, liberal is a choice that can be pursued. Be liberally imaginative: if mules can create worlds in an afternoon, you can too.



This is part of a series about Martín Adán’s only novel The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver). I analyse his vivid lyrical prose and learn from it.

On Figures of Speech:

  1. Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots
  2. Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar
  3. Idea: A Rugged Rope

On Personification:

  1. Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies
  2. Mule: All Things Emanate From Her

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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