Telling the story from the perspective of a young man, Lucius, the second century AD work begins with his travels to Thessaly, a region reputed to be full of witches, magic, and the supernatural. There, his curiosity about sex and magic leads him to fall in love with a pretty, young woman named Fotis, who happens to be a witch's servant and apprentice. Soon after beginning his love affair with Fotis, Lucius persuades his lover to help him use magic to transform himself into a bird. However, a mistake causes Lucius to be transformed instead into an ass. Only by eating rose petals can Lucius regain his human shape, and there are no rose petals at hand: thus begin his adventures as a rational human being trapped in the body of an ass and his quest to return to his human form.
About the Author
Apuleius, philosopher, rhetorician, poet, and lawyer, was born in the North African town of Madauros (the present-day Algerian town of Mdaourouch) around AD 125. As a Roman citizen and a Latin author from North Africa, Apuleius represents an important group of influential North African writers that includes the pagan authors Cornelius Fronto and Aulus Gellius and the Christian authors Augustine and Tertullian who were born and worked outside the Imperial capital. Apuleius wrote a number of philosophical and oratorical works, some of which survive, as well as another piece of fiction, which is no longer extant; but TheGolden Ass is without question his most famous, most influential, and most important book.
The title by which the book is most-often known, The Golden Ass, reflects the book's nearly continuous popularity since ancient times. Augustine knew Apuleius' novel, and he referred to it in the City of God as the asinus aureus, literally the "golden ass," the word "golden" being an adjective of praise. However, the title that scholars use to refer to the novel, the Metamorphoses, more accurately describes the book's content. Metamorphoses is the Greek word for "transformations," and Apuleius' novel is full of transformations of the circumstantial, magical, spiritual, and structural kind. Indeed, it can be useful to remember that Apuleius' book about transformations is preceded in Latin literary history by the poet Ovid's epic Metamorphoses. Scholars have pointed to passages where Apuleius seems to be alluding to Ovid's poem. A prime example occurs in Book II, Chapter 4, where, before his own transformation, Lucius sees a statue of Actaeon transformed into a stag, a scene that seems to reflect Ovid's description of Actaeon's transformation in Book Three of Metamorphoses and to serve "as an example of the punishment of curiosity by metamorphosis."
The theme of unwanted transformation which threatens tragic consequences recurs elsewhere in world literature, most famously in Kafka's Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung). Students of comparative literature familiar with the bizarre transformation of Gregor Samsa into a cockroach might find it instructive to read the adventures of the ass-man Lucius. Kafka's novella, however, emanates from the author's deeply developed psychological interest in the uncanny, an altogether modern concern. Kafka mixes the serious (alienation, fear, and death) with the laughable (transformation of man into an insect) to create a work that defies Aristotle's poetic categories. In contrast, Apuleius' work is above all comic, and, in spite of tragic inset tales and various dangers that face Lucius, the narrative moves ultimately toward a happy ending.
The Golden Ass offers readers a rich experience. The novel narrates the fantastic adventures of a rogue. As such it is both entertaining and important as the original picaresque novel and the inspiration for writers of the Spanish Golden Age like Cervantes who, it seems, borrowed Apuleius' episode about the hero's fight with wineskins for his own masterpiece, Don Quixote. The Golden Ass also features description of scenes and characters from everyday life in the Roman Empire of the second half of the second century AD. Furthermore, the novel provides a rare and thus important view into the religious practices of the mysteries of Isis and Osiris during the Roman Imperial period.
As Lucius, the narrator of The Golden Ass, travels throughout Greece in search of the precious antidote that will return him to human form, he falls into the hands of a wide range of masters, including thieves, lovers, artisans, priests, theatrical entrepreneurs, and a soldier. The seemingly random way in which Lucius' fate passes from master to master emphasizes the importance of fortune as a key theme in this novel. Moreover, Lucius' experiences serving such varied masters thus occasion stories ranging from the mock-heroic rescue of a maiden to the rather bawdy escapade with a rich and noble woman who wants an ass as a lover. In addition, throughout his peregrinations, Lucius hears the stories that people tell each other and recounts them. Therefore a fantastic collection of stories about innocent and adulterous love, betrayal, murder, revenge, and magic appear interwoven into the main narrative about Lucius' adventures as an ass. For numerous reasons, the novel's conclusion has long been the subject of scholarly discussion and debate, for it seems to blend fiction and autobiography, to move from the magical to the religious, and generally to seem unlike the rest of the novel. The detailed discussion in Book XI of Lucius' conversion to the mysteries of Isis and Osiris marks religion and religious transformation as important themes in the novel. Finally, the sensational series of transformations that Lucius experiences throughout the novel from curious rascal to ass to religious convert calls attention to the development of the narrator's character.
P. G. Walsh, one of Apuleius' keenest critics, has observed that The Golden Ass "in spite of its unusual aggregate of eleven books. . . is carefully structured." Walsh observes four large divisions within the novel. The first division comprises Books I to III. Here Lucius recounts his visit to Thessaly, his affair with Fotis, and his transformation. Several stories of the supernatural and Lucius' trial at the Festival of Laughter also appear in the opening books. The second division comprises Books IV to VII (to chapter 14) and includes Lucius' adventures with the robbers, his attempt to escape with the kidnapped maiden Charite, and their rescue by her betrothed Tlpolemus. The detailed inset story of Cupid and Psyche also occurs in this division. The third division comprises Books VII (from chapter 15) to Book X and includes stories of Lucius' labors for various masters as well as a variety of inset tales. The fourth and final division comprises Book XI, where Lucius describes his escape from the amphitheater, his prayer to Isis, his return to human form and his life devoted to the priesthood of Isis and Osiris.
Modern scholars have studied carefully and in great detail the influences at work in Apuleius' novel. However, the reader with even a basic prior knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics will readily observe many of these influences. In addition to the before-mentioned comparisons with Ovid's epic Metamorphosis, Apuleius' novel warrants an association with Homer's Odyssey. Somewhat similarly to Odysseus in the Odyssey, Lucius is on a quest for homecoming that pits him against a wide variety of challenges before he can come home to his human form. Certain of the stories embedded in the main narrative recall the mood of Greek tragedy, such as the tale in Book VIII of the young wife Charite who revenges the foul murder of her husband Tlepolemus. Likewise, the justly famous story of Cupid and Psyche, told by the Old Woman in Books IV through VI, has the ring of a folktale.
Other influences may not be readily observable, but are demonstrably present. One must count as chief among these influences what appears to be the source story, a lost work in Greek known as the Metamorphoses and composed by a certain Lucius of Patrae about whom little is known. A short Greek novella called "Lucius or the Ass" exists and similarly deals with the transformation of a man into an ass. This Greek novella is attributed to Apuleius' contemporary Lucian of Samosata, but Lucian's authorship of the novella is debated. Moreover, it is not certain whether the novella was written before Apuleius's novel; and, in any case, "Lucius or the Ass" lacks the detail and depth of the Roman novel. Another important influence at work in Apuleius's book is the tradition of the Milesian Tales, short, erotic stories that modern critics tend to compare to the tales found in Boccaccio.
Modern scholars have usually regarded Apuleius' biography as a particularly relevant tool in interpretations of The Golden Ass because of Apuleius' own interest in travel, philosophy, religion, and the supernatural, all topics dealt with in the novel. While details regarding the lives of the ancient authors are usually lacking or highly suspect, surviving textual evidence can be used to reconstruct a biography for Apuleius, even if the chronology is not exact in the modern sense, and some details remain sketchy. Chief among the textual evidence for reconstructing a vita for Apuleius is a speech that Apuleius composed to defend himself when he was on trial for trumped-up charges brought against him by his enemies. Additionally, a collection of passages from Apuleius' oratations, known as the Florida, together with Book XI of The Golden Ass, have usually been included by scholars in reconstructions of Apuleius' biography. In the Apologia Apuleius states that his family was numbered among the wealthiest and most important citizens in Madauros, the thriving Roman colony where he was born. His father served as duumvir, and thus held the highest municipal office; and while Augustine later wrote that Apuleius never held public office, Apuleius claims that he "succeeded to [his] father's position in the community." Apuleius inherited a sizeable fortune of two million sesterces from his father, which enabled him to continue his studies, to treat his friends and teachers, and to travel. Apuleius began his education in Carthage and went on to study in Athens. The subjects he studied included philosophy, rhetoric, geometry, music, and poetry.
At some point his travels took him to Corinth where he seems to have been introduced to the mystery religion of Isis. In the Roman Empire of the second century AD, many people were turning from the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon to the cults of Egypt and the Near East. Christianity was among these new religions, as were the worship of the Asian Mithras and the worship of the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris. Apuleius apparently had little use for Christianity, and Augustine later saw his writings as a threat; but Apuleius was strongly attracted to the Asian and the Egyptian mysteries, and if the final book of the Metamorphoses is indeed autobiographical, as many scholars believe it is, apparently Apuleius was initiated into the mysteries of Isis and went to Rome where for a year he worshipped the goddess in her temple on the Campus Martius. Thereafter he was initiated into the mysteries of Osiris, and then re-initiated into the mysteries of Isis. Apparently, during the period of his initiation, he was compelled by financial need to support himself by practicing law.
Apuleius' travels took him through many parts of the Roman Empire from North Africa to the Greek mainland and to the Italian peninsula. It was on a trip to Alexandria in Egypt that he became sick in the town of Oea (modern Tripoli) and was forced to stop there to recover. While recuperating, Apuleius was visited by a friend and fellow student he had known in Athens, Sicinius Pontianus, who persuaded Apuleius to marry his widowed mother, Aemilia Pudentilla. Pontianus's plan was contrived in order that he might keep the fortune that belonged to his mother in the family and out of the hands of Herennius Rufinus, Pudentilla's greedy father-in-law. Apuleius was at first reluctant to consider the marriage, not least because at forty, Pudentilla was much older than he. However, while recovering in Oea he fell in love with her and they were married; but the marriage and the consequent loss of access to the fortune inspired Rufinius to find an excuse to bring charges against Apuleius. Rufinius thus set about to turn Pudentilla's sons against Apuleius and, succeeding in this, brought legal charges against him. Apuleius was accused of murdering Pudentilla's husband, of winning her by magic, of marrying her for money, and of immorality. While the murder charge was dropped, the other charges remained. The Apologia, which critics have called "an extraordinary rhetorical tour de force," records Apuleius' rebuttal of those accusations. No record exists as to the verdict, although scholars generally assume that Apuleius was acquitted. In any case, reading both The Golden Ass and the Apologia, one sees that magic is a recurring theme in Apuleius' writing. Apuleius does not seem to have stayed in Oea for long after the trial, but appears to have gone to Carthage where he was known as a successful philosopher and orator, a man esteemed highly enough to have a public sculpture erected in his honor during his lifetime. No record of him can be traced after about AD 170: the precise date, place, and circumstances of his death are not known.
Apuleius wrote many other works in addition to The Golden Ass, the Apologia, and the Florida, but not all of these works survive. A speech called Concerning Socrates' God (De deo Socratis) exists and is accepted as authentic. A number of other extant works are attributed to Apuleius, but their authenticity is debated. This group of works includes Concerning the Dogma of Plato (De dogmate Platonis), On Interpretation (?e?? ?e?µ??e?a?), and On the Universe (De mundo), a translation of a work attributed to Aristotle. Finally, there is a group of extant works attributed to Apuleius that are no longer accepted as authentic.
Apuleius' The Golden Ass has been widely read and discussed from the second century AD to the present day. Surprisingly, only one medieval manuscript of the work, made at Monte Cassino and dating from the eleventh century, survives. D. S. Robertson speculates that it is probably this manuscript that Boccaccio copied and brought to Florence in the fourteenth century. Numerous editions and translations of The Golden Ass made during the Renaissance renewed the availability and assured the popularity of Apuleius' novel. From the Renaissance onward one can speak not only of the increased readership of The Golden Ass, but also of the influence the novel has had on other creative writers such as Boccaccio, Calderon, La Fontaine, Heywood, Beaumont, and Marmion. The influence of episodes from The Golden Ass has also inspired painters and sculptors, the story of Cupid and Psyche being especially favored. During the Neoclassical period of the late-eighteenth to early nineteenth century alone, one finds the marble sculpture Cupid and Psyche by Antonio Canova now in the Louvre, the oil-on-canvas Cupid and Psyche by Jacques Louis David in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the delightful and delicate terra-cotta statuette Amor und Psyche by Johann Heinrich Dannecker in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.
The present translation by William Adlington, revised by S. Gaselee early in the twentieth century, is of particular interest for English-language readers, since it is through Adlington's translation, first published in 1566, that the Elizabethans, including William Shakespeare, would have known Apuleius' novel. The debt of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans to Apuleius is an interesting topic, one pursued by J.J.M. Tobin in his book Shakespeare's Favorite Novel. Readers who come to Apuleius after reading or watching A Midsummer Night's Dream will recognize that Bottom's transformation has a lineage that can be traced back to the strange adventures of Lucius in The Golden Ass. Literary criticism aside, Apuleius's The Golden Ass is an unusually diverse and original piece of prose, by turns funny, dramatic, touching, erotic, and exciting.
Timothy Richard Wutrich has taught literature, philosophy, and the arts at the Université Catholique de Lyon in France, Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston University, and Ohio University. He holds a Ph.D. from Tufts University and is the author of the book Prometheus and Faust: The Promethean Revolt in Drama from Classical Antiquity to Goethe.
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