Monday, 13 December 2010

The Golden Ass - Apuleius

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Greek Farce with a Spiritual Twist
Originally entitled "The Metamorphoses", and said to be inspired by a lost work in Greek of the same name, “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius (born 125 A.D.) has the distinction of being the only complete novel in Latin to survive into the modern era. It is also the first instance of a picaresque novel that became such a popular genre in medieval times; the protagonist is an anti-hero beset by ill fortune as he stumbles from one misadventure to another, but is ultimately redeemed. This form of story, combining realism with fantasy, provided authors the opportunity to lay bare the flaws and vices of society under the guise of the fantastical whose proposed purpose is only to humour and entertain.

This book is certainly entertaining, packed with stories and overheard sub-stories, ranging from the sexual to the mythological, the cruel to the magical, as the protagonist in his desire to be initiated into magic finds himself mistakenly turned into an ass, suffering terribly from and bringing ill fate to his successive owners. Evil masters, unfaithful wives, lecherous lovers and deceitful priests in particular all come to wicked ends. From his asinine state, he is ultimately saved by Isis, the supreme mother goddess of many names, who hears his prayers to the moon, comes to him in a dream and instructs him how to regain his human form.

The original Latin is incredibly difficult and hard to translate. Early translators often left out the bawdy scenes that might offend sensitive readers. Robert Graves, whose translation I was reading, gives a more complete rendition in easy and flowing English. More recent translators, meanwhile, have sought to capture the rollicking and racy sound of the original, but this is not so easy.

Highlights of the book include the intricate telling of the legend of Cupid and Psyche, the extolling of the beauty of women’s hair, and the dream imagery of the goddess Isis (see extracts below for the latter two). Many believe that Apuleius himself was initiated into the cult of Isis and that his mystical "eleventh book", which stands rather in contrast to the rest, is partly autobiographical, especially since he mistakenly (or intentionally) conflates his protagonist's home town with his own and makes him a barrister in Rome like he had been. He was certainly fascinated with magic, and much of what we know of him is from a defence he wrote against the accusation that he had won his wife's love by magical means, which he strongly denied. Born like St. Augustine in a rich Roman province in North Africa, he travelled widely before returning home. As well as magic, he was also fascinated with dreams, and the truths that come through dreams that reveal the subterfuges and deceptions of people and provide the answers to problems in reality. Indeed, the whole book has the atmosphere of a dream.

We are left wondering if despite initial appearances this might actually be a religious text among followers of Isis, which would account for its preservation? If so, there would certainly be a symbolic structure to the whole, like the journey of the fool represented by the tarot, or the stages of man. Looking online, despite the expansive literary work on Apuleius’ novel, the proposed explanations of such a structure seem speculative at best. However, it is interesting that the protagonist Lucius, and the servant-girl Photis whom he initially falls in love with, both have names symbolic of light. Isis meanwhile emerges from the sea in Lucius’ dream on the night of the full moon and bears a light on her brow. This image is reminiscent of Venus, herself the goddess of love. Conversely, Cupid only visits his wife Psyche by cover of darkness so when her curiosity gets the better of her and she shines a lamp as he sleeps, it is through light, representing knowledge, and a spark that burns him, representing lust, that the lovers are torn apart. So which is the true light? Apuleius’ answer no doubt is not Photis nor Psyche nor Venus, not magic or knowledge or lust, but the supreme Isis.  Indeed he portrays Venus in the story of Cupid and Psyche, as jealous of her mortal rival, unlike Isis, the real-Venus, his saviour from the baseness of humanity, the corruption of religion, the curiosity of magic, and the winds of ill fortune that he came to know as an ass.

So how to distinguish the real? If we compare the slave-girl Photis, representative of Venus, with whom Lucius falls in love, and Isis whom he ends up worshipping, the form of love is very different. Photis’ love is highly sexual, described with the imagery of gladiatorial combat, as she urges him on to have the courage to fight her through the night, while Lucius meanwhile complains of having been standing at arms all day and how his bow is so tightly strung that he feels it might snap. Isis’ love, by contrast, is peaceful, platonic and regal, demanding patience, chastity, faith and resignation to honour and serve her.

But for Apuleius, it was all about hair! (Or rather this is my opportunity to quote him and give you a flavour of the book.)

Photis ties her hair up in a knot (which she only undoes in the bedroom at Lucius’ request):

'It's only a woman's head and her hair that I'm really interested in. It's what I like to feast my eyes on first in the street, and then enjoy in private indoors. There are good and positive reasons for this preference. The hair is the dominant part of the body: it's placed in the most obvious and conspicuous position and is the first thing we notice. The rest of the body achieves its effect through brightly coloured clothes, the hair through its natural sheen. In fact most women, when they want to show off their personal attractions, discard their clothes altogether and remove all covering, eager to display their beauty naked, and reckoning that rosy skin will please better than gold fabric. If on the other hand -- though it's blasphemy even to mention it, and I devoutly hope that such a thing will never happen to make the point -- if you were to despoil the head of even the most beautiful of women of its hair and rob her face of its natural adornment, though she had come down from heaven, though she had been born from the sea and reared among the waves, I say though she were Venus herself, escorted by her choir of all the Graces and the whole tribe of Cupids, wearing her cestus, fragrant with cinnamon and dripping with perfumes -- if she were bald, not even her husband would love her. Then there is the fascination of its colour and sheen: now vivid enough to outshine the rays of the sun, now gently reflecting them; or varying its charm as its colour varies and contrasts – sometimes bright gold shading down into pale honey, sometimes raven-black with dark blue highlights like those on the necks of doves; or when, perfumed with Arabian essences and delicately parted, it is gathered behind to give back to the lover's gaze a more flattering reflection; or again when it is so abundant that it is piled high on top of the head, or so long that it flows right down the back. In a nutshell, hair is so important that whatever adornments a woman may appear in – gold, jewels, fine clothes – unless she's made the most of her hair, you can't call her properly dressed. As for my dear Photis, it wasn't that she had taken great pains with her hairstyle – it was its casualness that was so fetching. Her luxuriant tresses were carelessly flung back, hanging down her neck and over her shoulders; where they just touched the upper edge of her tunic she had gently looped them up and gathered the ends together into a knot on the top of her head.'

But Isis wears her hair loose.

‘Not long afterwards I awoke in sudden terror. A dazzling full moon was rising from the sea. It is at secret hour that the Moon-goddess, sole sovereign of mankind, is possessed of her greatest power and majesty. She is the shining deity by whose divine influence not only all beasts, wild and tame, but all inanimate things as well, are invigorated; whose ebbs and flows control the rhythm of all bodies whatsoever, whether in the air, on earth, or below the sea. Of this I was well aware, and therefore resolved to address the visible image of the goddess, imploring her help; for Fortune seemed at last to have made up her mind that I had suffered enough and to be offering me a hope of release.
  Jumping up and shaking off my drowsiness, I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the supreme Goddess:
  “Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them berad raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.”
   When I had finished my prayer and poured out the full bitterness of my oppressed heart, I returned to my sandy hollow, where once more sleep overcame me. I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it. First the head, then the whole shining body gradually emerged and stood before me poised on the surface of the waves. Yes, I will try to describe this transcendent vision, for though human speech is poor and limited, the Goddess herself will perhaps inspire me with poetic imagery sufficient to convey some slight inkling of what I saw.
   Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with cars of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what aught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.
   In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp witch pulled throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.
   All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. 
   My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.
   The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.
  ”Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.”’

Lucius meanwhile is called up to three rites of initiation through his dreams and ends up shaving his head completely!


  1. I'm wondering why I have never read this book. I shall order it today. Angus and Robertson have an edition translated by Joel Relihan.

    Also interesting is that here is someone who lived in the 2nd century who studied religion, and knows nothing about Christianity. This is what I am finding all the time. Josephus only has the well known interpolated forgeries, and Pliny and Tacitus are later hearsay of Chrestians who were not Christians but actually followers of the Egyptian cult of Serapis.

  2. Relihan's translation sounds like it's quite fun. Jews were really hated by Romans at this time because of their wars, so they are only mentioned indirectly and with disdain as One God believers. Rome wanted to convert them. Christians were seen as the same as Jews, but the Jews wanted to convert them. So they were doubly in secret. If you want to find reference to them, look at the statute books of their enemies.

  3. Hmmm....last night I studied persephone for hours remarkably given to Hypatia and Hermes of late as well. Library of Alexandria type of thing going on.

  4. Waves at Rose:) We are in Greek mode! Blessed be... Just for fun, I have a verse version of the first extract which I'll post. Oh, and I discovered just yesterday that the lady looking directly at the viewer in Raphael's School of Athens painting is... Hypatia!!!

  5. Sorry my stars aren't working-5

    The Golden Ass is very different than what people experience today in books isn't it?
    Interesting--sounds like a book we should read. And so old we can gleen much from it I think

  6. Yes, interesting and entertaining, but too naughty and crude to be considered educational. Definitely not something that we studied in Latin at school.

    The closest to today's books would be like a naughty Paulo Coelho (who like Apuleius was also into magic in his youth), and like Coelho we can read philosophy into it and wonder how much of it is accidental and how much intended, because on the surface it's just an entertaining read.

  7. Thanks so much for this, Okei!

    This was undoubtedly a 'religious text'.... the mention of Pythagorus was especially interesting. Have I mentioned Peter Kingsley's research before? Are you familiar with his reframing of these ancient texts as initiation guides?

    The female archetype as Love/Knowledge still remains the most critical element of psychological transformation/transcendence. Those of us who don't experience it in childhood, all become asses of one kind or another and have to struggle/journey back to the source until through purification (water symbol) we encounter Isis and reclaim our divine power.

    I am very interested in the emphasis on the hair.... Kingsley probably has written about this as a symbol, but what came to mind was Demitra's post on the electric universe. And, I wonder if the planet Venus may have - as they postulate - appeared in the night sky with charged particle emissions radiating outward, and this underlies later stories linked to actual physical events in human history... interesting to think about....

    So glad you introduced this!

  8. I hadn't heard of Peter Kingsley, and that was purely a hunch I had. I was looking for some structure as evidence of it. There's so much that has been written about this book that surely if such structure exists it will be published somewhere, but I was unable to find anything clear and convincing. I'd be interested in reading one day what Kingsley has said, though I'm going to be very busy for the next day or two and about to take off for Easter.

    Incidentally, do you know that C.S. Lewis' Narnia books were discovered recently to have a planetary theme to them? I went to a talk once by the author of this book, and it sounded like a genuine correspondence, though I never did get round to delving deeper.

    That's a cool theory about Venus!

    The emphasis on hair was just something which struck me. It also gave me the opportunity to quote a couple of my favourite passages from the book. Soon after, I turned the first of these passages into a poem here... :^)

    But of course the Isis passage is much more "significant"!! When I posted this, I thought some great artist would have used this passage to depict the goddess Isis, but again I found nothing... none of the paintings thrown up by google were faithful to Apuleius' description.

  9. If I were an artist, I would paint Isis. :^)