Monday, April 28, 2008

The Golden Ass

This is a rambling collection of shaggy tales whose unifying thread is Lucius, a young man with a misplaced interest in magic. He seduces a maid named Photis and convinces her to steal a shape-changing ointment used by her mistress to transform herself into a bird.

When Photis brings the wrong stuff he makes an ass of himself, literally, and falls in with bandits, catamite priests, and various other captors. Twice he defends himself by defecating on his tormentors, and narrowly escapes castration, butchering, and a starring role in a sex show.

Occupying a central portion in the book is the tale of Cupid and Psyche. The latter has never seen her husband, who visits her only under cover of darkness. Convinced by her jealous sisters that he is a serpent who must be killed, she lights a lamp while he is asleep and discovers that he is a deity, a beautiful winged man. Cupid flees, and his mother, Venus, exacts retribution. Eventually Jupiter puts an end to the quarrel, and Cupid and Psyche are reunited.

Other tales of greed, cruelty, murder, cuckoldry, and divine meddling are recounted. In an ursine equivalent of the Trojan horse, a bandit named Thrasyleon allows himself to be sewn up in a bear hide to gain admittance to a rich man’s home. Thelyphron’s nose and ears are cut off by witches and replaced with wax replicas.

Miscellaneous Notes

Lucius is rescued by the divine intervention of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who at the time was not a mythological figure in the same sense that Cupid and Psyche are, but actively worshipped throughout the Greco-Roman world.

Romans often diluted their wine with hot water.

Sex is described in mock-heroic terms, either as a wrestling match or form of combat:

"Engage," she said, "and do so bravely. I shall not yield before you, nor turn my back on you. Direct your aim frontally, if you are a man, and at close quarters. Let your onslaught be fierce; kill before you die. Our battle this day allows no respite."

Despite such raunchiness (remarkably vital after 2000 years), I found the book rather shapeless and hard going in places. The combination of magic, gods, and alien culture makes it difficult to understand the author's intentions, and the literary nuances are lost on anyone without a sound knowledge of the classics.


The Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses, not to be confused with the Metamorphoses of Ovid) is the only Latin novel from the classical period to survive in its entirety. “Its later influence on the vernacular literatures of Europe has been immense,” writes P. G. Walsh, translator of the Oxford University Press edition. Boccaccio imported several of the tales into the Decameron, Bottom is transformed into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a scene in which a drunken Lucius carves up three wineskins, mistaking them for ruffians, is replicated in Don Quixote.

The book’s author, Apuleius, was born in present-day Algeria during the 2nd century AD, educated in Carthage and Athens, and resided for a time in Rome. Though he lectured in Greek and Latin, Punic was most likely his native tongue. A Platonist and devotee of Isis, he was once indicted on a charge of magic (employing love-philtres to induce a rich woman into marriage).

The first English translation was by William Adlington in 1566 and is available here, at the Gutenberg Project. Many other translations are available, some fairly literal, others taking liberties to communicate the style and flow of the original.

An informative discussion of the book can be found here.