Jeremy J. Baer
Translated by P.G. Walsh
To paraphrase Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch: all myths are sacred, but not all myths are solemn. Some myths are even laced with ribald perversions. The Golden Ass has not the timeless majesty of Homer, the dignified moralizing of Hesiod, or the conscious patriotism of Virgil. Its characters usually range from somewhere between agents of petty self-interest to despicable dregs of society. It is told not as an epic clash of heroes against monsters and gods, but as the absurd adventures of a hapless fool. The setting is not some archaic realm lost to history, but the Roman province of Greece.
That is precisely what makes The Golden Ass so interesting as a read. It is so thoroughly … modern? … compared to the classical mythographers, providing as it were a window to the daily life of second century Rome. Yet appearances are deceiving, for beneath the humorous vulgarities lay a testament to an earnestly religious and philosophical mind. Apuleius’ Golden Ass is so firmly entwined with tangible contemporary reality, and yet seeks so desperately to transcend it for the realm of the Empyrean. This is one of my favorite reads. Not because it is elegant, but because it is so often crude. Not because it is popular, but because it is more esoteric. Not because I agree with it, but because it vexes me.
Apuleius was an interesting product of his time. He was born in a Roman colony in Africa, and we may assume Apuleius took in a Romano-Punic heritage with his mother’s milk. His father was one of the leading municipal magistrates; on his death he willed to his son 2 million sesterces, twice the minimum required for the Senatorial order. Apuleius studied in Carthage, the leading city in the West after Rome. Then, as all smart upper-class Roman youths must do, he finished his schooling in the empire’s university town of Athens. Apuleius became conversant in the Greek language, as well as its rich heritage of philosophy and literature. Apuleius knew something of Egypt and took a brief trip there. He then lived for a time in Rome, and finished his days in Carthage as a celebrated man of letters. His wealth thus afforded him to partake of the cultural and intellectual legacy of all the best parts of the empire.
The empire of Apuleius’ time was also in its heyday. He was born sometime in the reign of Hadrian. While events of his closing days are sketchy, it is not likely that he long survived the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He thus lived through the golden era of the Principate: when the borders were to reach their furthest extent, when peace and wealth were plenty, and when it seemed the glories of Rome might spread to the far corners of the earth. Apuleius could know nothing of the doom awaiting the post-Severan empire, when the whole imperial edifice nearly collapsed from military anarchy. In short, few people could have lived so well as the wealthy and cultured Apuleius, immersed in the grandeur of the high empire.
Yet, The Golden Ass is not a happy book, dutifully extolling the Pax Romana. Therein lies the key of the book’s worth.
Apuleius has taken an old and humorous Greek fable, and ennobled it through his additions of certain philosophical parables. Perhaps it is best to analyze these two parts, the Greek fable and the Roman parables, as separate entities.
The original Greek fable is called “Lucius or the Ass”, and survives today only in an abridged version. The central character, Lucius, is a businessman traveling to Thessaly, a region of Greece known for pervasive witchcraft. He lodges in a friend’s house, whose wife just happens to be a mistress of the black arts. Unknown to the master of the house, the mistress uses these arts to charm young males to her will. She can also apparently transform into various animal shapes so she may attend to her nocturnal, adulterous excursions unobserved.
She has taught something of these arts to her maid. Lucius and the maid have eyes on each other, and it is not long at all before they hop into bed. Lucius is curious about magic transmogrifications, and asks his new bedmate to apply one of the forbidden potions to him. His idea is to become a bird, soaring through air, scanning further possibilities with the town’s comely maidens. Only the maid applies the wrong potion and Lucius turns into an ass.
From there robbers suddenly depredate the household and carry off Lucius as one of their spoils. So begins a series of adventures from which Lucius repeatedly changes masters while still an ass. The masters are invariably cruel and despicable dregs, using Lucius as the beast of burden he appears to be. He is eternally beaten and degraded, and threatened with death and castration more than once (often comically). The highpoint of his career is when he becomes something of a trick-performing circus animal for an aristocrat. His master asks him to perform tricks of another nature when an oversexed female hires out the charming ass for a bout of bestial conjugal pleasures (did I mention this tale was ribald?)
In this original Greek fable, Lucius finally attains his humanity by eating a rose, a natural balm to the witch’s potion. The female who had made use of Lucius’ donkey sized phallus has no use for a restored Lucius and his (presumably) normal sized human phallus. Thus closes the tale with Lucius returning home, having begun and ended his harrowing odyssey under the dangerous auspices of lustful women.
Apuleius has however changed the ending from the original. In his version, Lucius-turned-ass receives a stunning vision from Isis, Goddess of Many Names, Mistress of Heaven. It is a priest of Isis who administers Lucius the rose which returns to him his humanity. Afterwards, Lucius dedicates his life to the cult of Isis, a goddess that promises protection in this world and the life beyond. (The ass, it must be said, was one of the symbols of Set, he whom the Greeks called Typhon, the ancient enemy of Isis who murdered her husband Osiris).
Apuleius has also inserted various passages. They are usually told as tales within tales, recollections of characters of various misadventures and misfortunes that resulted from some vice. The most famous of these is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, a myth within a myth. Told in Plato’s Cave – er, excuse me, I mean the robbers’ cave in which Lucius the ass finds himself– it is a story of how a maiden named Psyche fell in love with Cupid, passed through the underworld, and eventually received apotheosis and admission into heaven. As “psyche” is Greek for “soul” there are obvious allegorical connotations.
The original Greek fable is obviously meant as a comical morality play about the dangers of lust and deceitful women. Apuleius has however ennobled it into something still higher. In Apuleius’ time the educated elite often subscribed to a particular philosophy, most of which claimed to reveal the ultimate nature of reality (however defined). In Apuleius’ time there were also a variety of cults promising salvation from the capricious whims of Fate in exchange for submission, and Isis was the most successful of these deities. In an intellectual epoch now known as Middle Platonism, these two trends merged. The empyrean savior goddess of Isis and her promise to deliver men from the ravaging effects of Fate was reinterpreted in Platonic terms of escaping the world and achieving the ultimate source of reality.
All of the characters in The Golden Ass suffer from their attachments to a corporeal world. Quite often sex is the vice, but money, food and envy for material possessions are also culprits. Those that seek them suffer and bring suffering to others. In Lucius’ case, his troubles began when he contracted into cheap sex with a serving girl, and then attempted to use debased magic to see what other lustful encounters it might give him. He is turned into an ass – the symbol of the enemy of Isis, a metaphor for a human soul disfigured into a beastly nature by sensual attachments. Lucius suffers the ministrations of cruel masters who are ignorant to his true nature – just as Fate is blind to humanity and doles out its tragedies thoughtlessly. Lucius is saved only by his submission to the Isaic cult, which teaches the true spiritual nature of reality as a way of avoiding the vagaries of corporeal fate. The rose, as a symbol of life and beauty, transforms Lucius from an ass into a man. For the soul that realizes its true nature can finally ascend into the empyrean.
For those that think of paganism as drunken, sexual debauchery, this is quite enlightening. Middle Platonism has the beginnings of what Christianity might call the Seven Deadly Sins. And Isis, the great intercessor, pioneered a path later adopted by the Virgin Mary.
I myself have never subscribed to Platonism and its quest to transcend corporeal manifestation. It seems to me like a negation of reality rather than a search for reality. It comes across as a passionless existence. Given that educated men like Apuleius were immensely wealthy and enjoyed great material comfort, and were part and parcel of an earthly empire like Rome, the whole enterprise to abandon the glories of the world seems rather hypocritical. However, I do sometimes look at modern America, plagued as it is by over consumption, obesity, substance abuse, sexual crimes and mindless entertainment. At such times I begin to think the Platonists may have had a point.
Regardless, The Golden Ass is one of the great literary works of antiquity. A man of Punic origins turns a Greek fable into an apology for an Egyptian goddess, and all this written for a Latin speaking audience? Such was the multi-cultural nature of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana did not make the world safe from the vicissitudes of blind fate, but it did make the world safe for the transmission of universal savior cults.
I am incapable of reading the origin Latin, but the translation by P.G. Walsh is lively, and his introduction offers more detail on Apuleius and his life than I can give above. Whether you read as a comical adventure tale set in second century Roman Greece, or as a timeless spiritual manifesto, you probably will not find another work quite like it.