To walk on palms was the sign of triumph, as in Apuleius' description of the Egyptian Goddess Isis: "On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory." Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 170
According to the gospel story, at the height of his popularity Jesus rides into Jerusalem while crowds sing his praises and lay branches in his path. Traditionally the crowd is said to have waved palm leaves. The palm was symbolic in the Mysteries. Plato writes of "the palm of wisdom of Dionysus." The great festival of the Mystery godman Attis began with the "Entry of the Reed-Bearers," which was followed by the "Entry of the Tree," an evergreen pine upon which was tied an effigy of the godman." One scholar remarks:
"It is impossible to ignore the associations with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem surrounded by palm-bearers, and his bearing of the cross or tree which became his chief symbol."
The gospels relate that Jesus goes out of his way to make sure he is mounted on a donkey. In vase representations, Dionysus is also often pictured astride a donkey, which carries him to meet his passion. The playwright Aristophanes writes of "the ass who carried the Mysteries."
When the crowd of pilgrims at Athens walked the Sacred Way to Eleusis to celebrate the Mysteries, a donkey carried a basket containing the sacred paraphernalia, which would be used to create the idol of Dionysus, while the crowds shouted the praises of Dionysus and waved bundles of branches. In this way, like Jesus entering Jerusalem, Dionysus rode in triumph to his death.
The mythical motif of "riding on a donkey" is often taken as a sign of humility. It also has a more mystical meaning, however. To the ancients the donkey typified lust, cruelty, and wickedness. It symbolically represented the lower "animal" self, which must be overcome and subdued by an initiate of the Mysteries. Lucius Apuleius wrote a story called The Golden Ass, which was an allegorical tale of initiation. In it Lucius is transformed into a donkey through his own foolishness and endures many adventures, which represent stages of initiation. At his final initiation he is transformed back into a human being. This story is symbolic of the initiate being overcome by his lower nature and then, through initiation into the Mysteries, rediscovering his true identity.
The Egyptian goddess Isis tells Lucius that the donkey is the most hateful to her of all beasts. This is because it is sacred to the god Set, who in Egyptian mythology is the murderer of Osiris. Plutarch recorded an Egyptian festival in which donkeys were triumphantly pushed over cliffs in vengeance for Osiris’ murder. Set is symbolic of the initiate’s lower self, which slays the spiritual Higher Self (Osiris) and must be metaphorically put to death for the spiritual Self to be reborn.
The donkey was also a common symbol of the lower "animal" nature in the Greek Mysteries of Dionysus. A vase painting represents a ridiculous donkey with an erect phallus dancing among the disciples of Dionysus. A design on a wine pitcher shows donkeys having sex. In another design a pilgrim is shown stopping to pull the tail of a donkey.
A favorite representation of afterlife sufferings in the Underworld was the figure of a man condemned to forever plait a rope that his donkey continually eats away, symbolic of the lower self constantly trying to eat away the spiritual achievements of the Higher Self. The figure of the godman riding in triumph on a donkey symbolized that he was master of his lower "animal" nature.