The Golden Ass

1 first metamorphosis

Apuleius was a Latin writer who lived in the second century AD (about 124-170 AD). He is the last major writer of (surviving) classical Latin, a relic of the stable world of the Pax Romana, soon to be disrupted by German invasions from the North. Like his contemporary Lucian of Samosata, Apuleius was a travelling speaker who entertained people in the forums of the Empire’s cities. But we read Apuleius mainly because he wrote a prose romance often thought of as one of the earliest surviving novels. It was called the Metamorphoses (the Transformations). We also call it the Golden Ass, as that is the shape the hero becomes in the course of the narrative (the ‘golden’ refers to the beautiful way it is written).

We don’t know anything about Apuleius’ life or even his full name. ‘Apuleius’ was his family or clan name. His personal name is unknown, and so is his nickname (for want of a better word); and much of his parentage, career and life story has to be deduced from his writings. He came from a town on the border of modern day Morocco and Algeria, in his day the Roman provinces of Numidia and Gaetulia near the SW edge of the Empire. He was a member of the Roman administrative class, a kind of provincial gentry, and may have been of Berber stock (though equally well his ancestors could have come from elsewhere in the polyglot Empire: the Romans were not particular about ethnic origins, only about which order their forebears were: patrician, equestrian or plebeian). Apuleius was a wealthy man through inheritance, and married a wealthy widow. He worked as a rhetorician because he wanted to show off his skill as a speaker and composer, not because he needed to earn a living. He wrote many works on philosophy and rhetoric which haven’t survived, but one novel, which has.

Just to digress about the novel format: I think it a type of narrative which explores the feelings of its hero or heroine, and originated in 16th and 17th century Europe in the cult of sentimentality. It was preceded by prose narratives often called romances, or adventure tales, which continued to be written after the novel was invented and are still written today. We can see the crossover to what was called new or ‘novel’ in The Princess of Cleves (1678) or in Robinson Crusoe (1719) for example, and the full blown product in Sterne’s Sentimental Journey of 1768 or Austen’s Sense and Sensibility of 1811. Laurence Sterne is at the crossroads: equally influenced by Rabelais and so Apuleius and by the cult of sentimentality. Apuleius wrote not a true novel but an adventure story. And an entertaining one.

2 Apuleius' world

Scholars think Apuleius may have had in front of him a Greek original. He did much more than translate it, if this was true. The Golden Ass combines a somewhat bawdy tale of someone turned into an ass with erotic results (as in the HK film Sex and Zen) with an exploration of the Greek mystery religion of Isis, to which Apuleius’ hero Lucius is converted, a second transformation (Apuleius was a priest in the religion of Isis), and alongside these he also includes a number of short stories, one of which is the charming tale of Cupid and Psyche. The Golden Ass is what you could call a mixed bag. It’s structure is not unlike the earlier Satyricon of Petronius, which tells the adventures of some homosexual grifters, has much about Stoicism, and includes tales such as the Widow of Ephesus. The Satyricon is a treasure house of contemporary street Latin, though, while the Golden Ass is an example of rhetoric at its best. Petronius is bitingly satirical, while Apuleius adopts a tone of mock-pompous irony that leaves it unclear whether he is mocking himself, you the reader, or his characters. Perhaps he and you are the characters. Behind these romances is the powerful influence of the Odyssey.

Amorous asinine adventures

From its casual beginning: “And I—well, let me string some tales together for you, stories of all sorts, in what they call that ‘Milesian’ manner”, we are made aware that the Golden Ass was of a genre, even a category, of ancient literature which has almost entirely vanished. Some guess 90% of classical literature has not survived the years, and one type that hasn’t is the so called Milesian Tale, a ribald, sometimes obscene, adventure story, named for a book of that name set in the city of Miletus, and far more popular with readers than the Attic drama or the Dialogues of Plato. Apuleius in fact isn’t writing a Milesian Tale. He’s the kind of author that relies on irony a lot for humour, and here he is merely preparing readers for the scandalous part of his story. He has much more to say, some of it serious, all of it elegantly written. He wants readers to notice and admire his style, which unfortunately non second century Romans find hard to do.

It might seem contradictory, but that style is conversational and anecdotal (though elegant and highly finished). It’s like a literature professor telling a dirty story in a pub. You could imagine each chapter as a story told for a few beers and getting progressively more and more tasteless. While the anecdotal style is intentional, Apuleius has no intention of being dirty. That’s part of his irony.

3 Witchcraft

After a number of tales involving witches in Thessaly, Lucius, Apuleius’ hero, after experiencing a run of bad luck, tries to use a magic ointment to turn into a bird, but ends up an ass. Many of the anecdotes and stories in the book are told from an ass’ eye viewpoint, which gives added humour, pathos and poignancy to the tales. We are meant to stand back at some stage and reflect how misguided the practice of magic is, a perilous guide to the underworld of spirits, and how preferable the wisdom contained in the religion of Isis.

Eventually an amorous woman, entranced by Lucius’ ass size penis, falls in love with him and arranges with his owner to spend the night with him. It seems that even in ancient times men had a suspicion that the way to a woman’s heart was through her vagina, and that size did matter: “Then she stripped away every last over layer, even the band that held bound her beautiful breasts. She stands next to the lamp, and from a jar made of an alloy of silver and lead she anoints herself bountifully with oil of balsam. Then she rubs me with it as well most generously, but with much more lavish care and attention she pours it over my nostrils in particular. Then she presses her insistent kisses upon me…But I was simply suffocated in my soul, and with no footling fear the thought went through my mind: How could I, with my legs, so many and so massive, mount this delicate matron? How could I embrace with my hard hooves flesh so soft and radiant, limbs a confection of milk and honey? How could I kiss, with a mouth so gross, so hideously large, so transformed—its molars like millstones—ruby lips so fairly proportioned, glistening with ambrosial liquors? Last but not least: how in the world will this woman, even if she has the itch all the way to her fingertips, receive an organ as Brobdingnagian as mine? Curses! Thrown to the beasts I’d be, made a spectacle in my master’s gladiatorial games, for splitting a high-born wife in two!

In the meantime, she kept repeating her soft, seductive whispers, her constant coaxing kisses, her mellifluous, melodious moanings—her eyes ate me alive—and, in a word, You’re mine, she said, all mine, my love, my dove, my sparrow. And with that word she shows to me that pointless were all of my ponderings and foolish was all of my fear. She wrapped her arms around me, you see, as tight as she could, and took me in, absolutely all, and I do mean all. And every time I tried to spare her and backed my buttocks up, she came toward me with a rabid insistence, grabbing hold of my spine and clinging to me in ever-tighter concupiscence, and I thought in consequence that there was something missing in me, that I couldn’t satisfy her sexual appetite; I felt that Pasiphaë, the Minotaur’s mother, might have been right to take delight in her mooing paramour. And so a sleepless night is spent in donkey-work; the woman shuns the critical eye of daylight and rushes off, having arranged to pay the selfsame sum for another nighttime yet to come”. Lucius survived the ordeal. It’s a sobering thought that to the Romans this was funny; but to us it is obscene, and furtive reading.


Tale of Cupid and Psyche

One of the most widespread stories in the world owes it’s origin to Apuleius, the story of Cupid and Psyche, Love and the Soul. It’s a major part of the Metamorphoses, almost one fifth, the longest story in the book. It begins as a typical fairy tale would: “Once upon a time there were, in a certain city, a king and a queen, and they had daughters, three in number, astonishing in loveliness. Though the two eldest by birth were exceptionally appealing in appearance, it was thought that their glories could be appropriately sung in human songs of praise. But as for the youngest—her beauty was so exceptional, so outstandingly radiant, that in the poverty of human speech it could not have its measure taken, could not even be approximately praised…”

Poor Psyche (that was her name) made the goddess Venus jealous, for the people gave to Psyche the offerings due to her, the goddess of love. She called her son, Cupid, and bade him find some ignoble man whom he could make fall in love with Psyche, and bring trouble on her head. Venus wanted vengeance. But no man will wed Psyche, and, sadly, the oracle of Apollo tells her to prepare for death. She is lifted mysteriously into the air and transported to a remote valley in a distant mountain range. She finds a palace full of wonderful things, and invisible voices tell her all these things are for her. But at night she has a visitor, an invisible lover.

Then, so alone and so unguarded, Psyche is afraid for her virginity; in fear and trembling, she lies quaking, and more than for any evil she is in mortal terror of the unknown. And then the unknown husband is there: he had climbed into the bed, he had made Psyche his wife, and before the sun had risen he had hastily gone away. And instantly the waiting voices that had been stationed in her room attend to the new bride for the virgin life just taken. And over time, all this long time, these actions are repeated, in just this way”. Meanwhile, Psyche’s sisters think she is dead, and she persuades her mysterious lover to let her see them again. He agrees, but warns her she must not accede to their request to see him. The sisters, when they finally visit Psyche, are consumed by jealousy, and ask just that. They convince Psyche her husband is a spirit, and offer to take her away and find a human husband for her. Psyche is broken by grief. Her husband has told her she must not look on him, or he will vanish. Yet she feels she cannot remain wed to a spirit. At her sisters’ suggestion she takes a lamp to the bedroom, and while her husband sleeps, lights it. There in her bed is the beautiful god Cupid. Poor Psyche. Because she has not trusted him, Cupid has now vanished. Separated, both are miserable.

5 Cupid and Psyche2

Cupid has vanished, but Venus is still angry. She pursues and punishes Psyche. She also gives her three tests, and with help poor Psyche manages to pass them. Then she sends Psyche to Hades, but again Psyche has help, and survives. Finally Cupid hears what has happened to her, and intervenes. “[Cupid] can no longer endure the prolonged absence of his Psyche. He slips out of the window, high above in the wall in the room in which he had been imprisoned, and on wings now recovered after his considerable rest he flies forward at a far faster pace. He rushes to his Psyche. Thoroughly and thoughtfully he daubs the sleep away and restores it to its original home inside the bottle; he rouses his Psyche with the point of his arrow, and it does not harm her. ‘Would you look at this!’ he said. ‘You’d lost your life again, poor little girl, sticking your nose in, just as before. But in the meanwhile, you really must bring to completion without hesitation the mission that was enjoined upon you at my mother’s command; and I—I will see to everything else.’” Finally Jove intervenes.

“‘Take this, Psyche,’ he says, ‘and be immortal. Cupid shall never stray from his bond to you; no—this marriage shall endure forever for you both.’”

The scholars debate whether this story was invented by Apuleius or whether he found it somewhere (perhaps in one of the mystery religions) and added it to his book. No-one knows, or can know, so it continues to be debated. You can take either view. If you want to be post-modernist you can take both. Actually, in Apuleius’ day originality wasn’t valued, and even if the story had been invented by him he would have said he got it from elsewhere (as he did say). There is another Golden Ass, a summary of one anyway, in the works of Lucian, and perhaps Lucian copied it from Apuleius, though scholars say the opposite.

The Goddess Isis

Apuleius was a priest in some of the Greek mystery religions. It is possible he also participated in the religion of Isis, which in his time began to incorporate many of the other mystery religions, and was in fact one of the faiths of ancient times with the greatest number of followers. It had a great influence on the cult of Mary the mother of god in Christianity. Isis comes in answer to Lucius’ prayers and puts an end to his tribulations. He has a vision of her in all her splendour.

6 Queen Isis

Look at me, Lucius! By your prayers have I been moved, and here I am—I, the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the firstborn offspring of the world of time; I, the highest of the powers above, the queen of the shades below, the first of all who dwell in the heavens; I, the one true face and manifestation of all the gods and goddesses. At my nod, I set in place the lights and heights of heaven, the salubrious sea-breezes, the silences of the despairs of Hell. My power, unequaled, unchanging, is worshiped throughout the world, behind manifold images, through myriad rites, by uncountable names. Accordingly, the firstborn Phrygians call me the Pessinuntian Mother of the Gods; here the aboriginal inhabitants of Attica call me Cecropian Minerva, there the wave-washed citizens of Cyprus call me the Venus of Paphos; the bow-and-arrow men of Crete call me Diana Dictynna, the trilingual Sicilians call me the Proserpina of Ortygia,the ancient people of Eleusis call me the Ceres of Attica. Some call me Juno, some Bellona; here they call me Hecate, there they call me Rhamnusia; but both races of Ethiopians—those on whom the sun-god shines at his rising and those on whom he sets—and the Egyptians, those paragons of ancient lore and learning, who worship me in ceremonies that are truly my own, call me by my true name, QUEEN ISIS”.

Lucius regains his human shape, and after suitable preparation becomes a priest of Isis. Tradition has it that he actually was a priest of Isis, and that his name was Lucius, but these details were probably taken from his book. Perhaps he really was turned into an ass, and the whole story was true, a confession like St Augustine’s.

The translation I’ve used is by Joel C Relihan (Hackett 2007). Relihan tries to reproduce the rhetorical flourishes of Apuleius, but ends up sounding a bit quaint at times. They are  an important part of the original though. Robert Graves’ Penguin Classic is a bit too ordinary in its language I thought.  Wikipedia says there is a more recent translation by Sarah Ruden (Yale UP 2011). The 1566 translation by William Adlington is freely available here. It reads a bit like an Elizabeth romance like Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller of 1594.

7 Titania and Bottom Landseer

As you read the Golden Ass it is impossible to avoid seeing how influential it has been in the treatment of magic, and the erotic, in subsequent literature. Boccaccio, Cervantes, Rabelais, Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Fanny Hill, perhaps de Sade, and many more examples come to mind, all in the tradition started by Apuleius if not directly imitating him.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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