The Golden Ass

the golden ass

‘The Metamorphoses’ by Apuleius (Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, a Roman writer) which St. Augustine referred to as ‘The Golden Ass‘ (Asinus aureus), is the only Ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety. The protagonist of the novel is called Lucius, like the author. At the end of the novel, he is revealed to be from Madaurus (present day Algeria), the hometown of Apuleius himself.

The plot revolves around the protagonist’s curiosity (curiositas) and insatiable desire to see and practice magic. While trying to perform a spell to transform into a bird, he is accidentally transformed into an ass. This leads to a long journey, literal and metaphorical, filled with inset tales (short stories told by characters encountered by the protagonist; some act as independent narratives, while others interlock with plot developments). He finally finds salvation through the intervention of the goddess Isis, whose cult he joins.

The date of composition of the work is uncertain. It has variously been considered by scholars as a youthful work preceding Apuleius’ ‘Apology’ of 158 CE, or as the climax of his literary career, ten or twenty years later. Apuleius adapted the story from a Greek original of which the author’s name is said to be Lucius of Patrae (the name of the lead character and narrator). This Greek text has been lost, but there is a similar tale of disputed authorship, traditionally attributed to Lucian of Samosata, a contemporary of Apuleius. This surviving Greek text appears to be an abridgement or epitome of ‘Lucius of Patrae’s’ text. Possibly the original lost story was written by Lucian and the abridged version was later transmitted under his name.

The text is a precursor to the literary genre of the episodic picaresque novel, in which Quevedo, Rabelais, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Voltaire, Defoe and many others have followed. It is an imaginative, irreverent, and amusing work that relates the ludicrous adventures of one Lucius, a virile young man who is obsessed with magic. Finding himself in Thessaly, the ‘birthplace of magic,’ Lucius eagerly seeks an opportunity to see it being used. His overenthusiasm leads to his accidental transformation into an ass. In this guise, Lucius, a member of the Roman country aristocracy, is forced to witness and share the miseries of slaves and destitute freemen who are reduced, like him, to being little more than beasts of burden by their exploitation at the hands of wealthy landowners.

‘The Golden Ass’ is the only surviving work of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world to examine, from a first-hand perspective, the abhorrent condition of the lower classes. Yet despite its serious subject matter, the novel remains imaginative, witty, and often sexually explicit. Numerous amusing stories, many of which seem to be based on actual folk tales, with their ordinary themes of simple-minded husbands, adulterous wives, and clever lovers, as well as the magical transformations that characterize the entire novel, are included within the main narrative. The longest of these inclusions is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, encountered here for the first but not the last time in Western literature.

Apuleius’ style is innovative, mannered, baroque and exuberant, a far cry from the more sedate Latinity familiar from the schoolroom. In the introduction to his translation of ‘The Golden Ass,’ Australian-British author Jack Lindsay writes: ‘Let us glance at some of the details of Apuleius’ style and it will become clear that English translators have not even tried to preserve and carry over the least tincture of his manner… Take the description of the baker’s wife: saeva scaeva virosa ebriosa pervicax pertinax… The nagging clashing effect of the rhymes gives us half the meaning. I quote two well-known versions: ‘She was crabbed, cruel, cursed, drunken, obstinate, niggish, phantasmagoric.’ ‘She was mischievous, malignant, addicted to men and wine, forward and stubborn.’ And here is the most recent one (by R. Graves): ‘She was malicious, cruel, spiteful, lecherous, drunken, selfish, obstinate.’ Read again the merry and expressive doggerel of Apuleius and it will be seen how little of his vision of life has been transferred into English.

Lindsay’s own version is: ‘She was lewd and crude, a toper and a groper, a nagging hag of a fool of a mule.’ Sarah Ruden’s recent translation is: ‘A fiend in a fight but not very bright, hot for a crotch, wine-botched, rather die than let a whim pass by – that was her.’ Apuleius’ vocabulary is often eccentric and includes some archaic words. However, Oxford classicist S. J. Harrison argues that some archaisms of syntax in the transmitted text may be the result of textual corruption.

In the last book, the style abruptly changes. Driven to desperation by his asinine form, Lucius calls for divine aid, and is answered by the goddess Isis. Eager to be initiated into the mystery cult of Isis, Lucius abstains from forbidden foods, bathes and purifies himself. Then the secrets of the cult’s books are explained to him and further secrets revealed, before going through the process of initiation which involves a trial by the elements in a journey to the underworld. Lucius is then asked to seek initiation into the cult of Osiris in Rome, and eventually becomes initiated into the pastophoroi, a group of priests that serves Isis and Osiris. The humorous prose of the earlier books is exchanged for an equally powerful, sometimes quasi-poetic, style that draws upon Apuleius’ religious experiences.

The style of autobiographical confession of suffering in ‘The Golden Ass’ influenced Augustine of Hippo in the tone and style—partly in Polemic—of his ‘Confessions.’ Scholars note that Apuleius came from the M’Daourouch in Algeria, where Augustine would later study. Augustine refers to Apuleius and ‘The Golden Ass’ particularly derisively in ‘City of God.’

In 1883, Carlo Collodi published ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ which includes an episode in which the puppet protagonist is transformed into an ass. The episode is frequently featured in its subsequent adaptations. In 1915, Franz Kafka published the short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ under a quite similar name, about a young man’s unexpected transformation into an ‘Ungeziefer,’ a verminous bug. In 1956, C. S. Lewis published the allegorical novel, ‘Till We Have Faces,’ retelling the Cupid–Psyche myth of books four through six from the point of view of Orual, Psyche’s jealous ugly sister. The novel revolves upon the threat and hope of meeting the divine face to face. Lewis’s novel is widely regarded as one of his most compelling works of fiction.

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