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Apuleius Metamorphoses Essay

  • 1

    What role does the tale of Cupid and Psyche play in the text?

    This tale, occupying multiple chapters of the novel, is set right in the middle. What comes before is Lucius's actions leading up to becoming an ass and then his actually transforming into the beast, and what comes after are his later journeys that lead him to redemption and Isis. The tale uses Psyche as a mirror onto Lucius's own shortcomings and why he was turned into an ass (curiosity, self-will, arrogance), and then foreshadows what is coming for him by the end of the novel (Isis's divine grace and intervention, and Lucius's serving of the gods). Both tales also have a series of trials and tribulations, violence and sex, and commentary on the cruelties, injustices, and unfairness of the world.

  • 2

    What is Apuleius's message regarding magic?

    Apuleius himself was put on trial for practicing magic, and wrote a lengthy Apologia defending himself; thus, he clearly had a lot to say regarding the practice of magic. For one, magic was associated with women, who were its most devious and alluring practitioners, set on ensnaring men in their dark arts. Second, it was considered improper, something people should not meddle with. It was done for immoral reasons, and was a perversion of the work of the gods. One was counseled against being too curious about magic or too arrogant about what it might entail and effect; the stories of Aristomenes and Socrates, Thelyphron, Psyche, and, of course, Lucius himself, are all instructive to this end.

  • 3

    Does The Golden Ass have universal appeal, or is it rooted firmly in the era and world in which it was written?

    This is a novel which is certainly of its own time. Apuleius clearly reveals his influences, which are diverse as Plutarch, Homer, Ovid, Socrates, Plato, Virgil, Livy, and more. He used, as P.G. Walsh notes, "Roman legal and procedural motifs for humorous effect, aware that his cultured readers would appreciate the technicalities." He effectively satirizes the world in which he lived, and many of the things he writes about are no doubt lost to modern readers. However, like all great works of literature, the novel is universal in its themes and resonance. We can all learn from Lucius's inordinate curiosity and can all laugh at his exploits as an ass. We can appreciate the peace that comes with spirituality, and mourn the loss of loved ones along with the characters. The novel may seem very remote in some respects, but in others is very recognizable.

  • 4

    What point do the early exploits of Lucius in Thessaly serve in the novel?

    Lucius gets into a number of adventures when he is in Thessaly, a town that he walks into wondering about its magic and mysteries. He is sexually aroused by Pamphile but enters into a relationship with Photis. He drunkenly stabs three wineskins thinking they are robbers and is then on defense in a sham trial dedicated to the god of Laughter. He eagerly listens to stories about magic but absorbs none of their messages and warnings. Similarly, he listens to Byrrhena but does not take her advice about avoiding Pamphile to heart. Finally, he begs Photis to let him watch Pamphile perform magic, which leads him to his transformation. Overall, Lucius is depicted as lustful, debauched, arrogant, insatiably curious, and strong-willed. It is not surprising to readers that he receives a comeuppance, and that the rest of the novel is spent teaching him lessons.

  • 5

    Why does the novel end with Lucius's religious conversion?

    Scholars have long debated and discussed this curious shift of tone, mood, and moral. Gone are the irony and earthiness of the first ten books, replaced by religious zealousness and slavish devotion. The Lucius from before hasn't just learned his lesson; he has completely abandoned his former life for a new one dedicated to Isis and Osiris. While this is somewhat jarring, and some critics wonder if it isn't all supposed to be rather tongue-in-cheek, others point to the foreshadowing elements of the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Walsh believes that it was a concerted effort on Apuleius's part to proselytize: "The author therefore identifies himself at this point with his hero, so that there is a clear case for calling Book 11 a personal testament. The propaganda elements in his account are conspicuous." It seems likely that Apuleius knew exactly what he was doing, weaving hints about this end into earlier parts of the novel and then letting himself be as fervid as he wished when he actually wrote the last book.

  • Apuleius' Metamorphoses (aka "Golden Ass")


    Apuleius. The Golden Ass, or, Metamorphoses. Trans. E. J. Kenney. Penguin Classics. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

    We'll split up the reading thus:

    • Apuleius 1, read pp. 7-76 (books 1-4)
    • Apuleius 2, read pp. 77-146 (books 5-8)
    • Apuleius 3, read pp. 147-214 (books 9-11)

    Journal Entries

    Apuleius 1, 2, 3 — Same Question. . .

    Does the narrative dramatize a value system alien to the Finnis-Nussbaum debate? Does it seem to validate either thinker in any way? Explain. . . .

    OR, you may, if you like,address this question:

    We were talking today (19-Nov) about the Salem witch trials (colonial Massachuetts, 1692-1693) as a point of comparison with witchcraft and magic generally in The Golden Ass.

    The two items that figured prominently in the discussion were:

    • Non-normativity (individuals whose behavior was deemed odd could be vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft), and
    • Satan (deemed the instigator of witchcraft in the community)

    So, what is non-normative in Apuleius' novel? And is there something like a "Satan"?

    I suggest that this be approached with particular attention to issues of sexuality and gender — else it's not really relevant to the class.


    Apuleius (full name not known) was born about 123 CE in the North African city of Madaura (present-day M'Daourouch, Algeria). In Apuleius' day, the region's inhabitants included indigenous peoples (forerunners of present-day Berbers), Phoenicians (i.e., Semites originally from present-day Lebanon), and Romans. Punic (Phoenician) was, evidently, commonly spoken; it is not known to what extent Latin was widely known in that part of the Empire in Apuleius' day. Greek will have been largely confined to the educated classes.

    As for Apuleius himself, dying probably in the latter part of the second century (ca. 170 CE or later), he left us a number of writings in Latin, including, besides the Golden Ass, works of oratory and philosophy. His writings in Greek, including a treatise (one he was quite proud of) on fish, have not survived.

    Coming from a prominent family, Apuleius received a good education in the neaby city of Carthage (one of the great metropoles of the ancient Mediterranean), Athens, and Rome. It seems virtually assured that he spoke Punic. But fluency and high learning in both Latin and Greek marked him as an unusually well educated man. He was a master orator; his philosophical writings are valued more as a source for Middle Platonic doctrine than for original insights.

    Two more things are important about him: his evident interest in religious matters, not least (to judge from his novel), the mysteries of the Egyptian goddess Isis, plus his trial on a charge of witchcraft in connection with his marriage to a wealthy widow. It seems he was acquitted; we have the speech he gave.

    Which is to say, there's something curiously Lucius-like (Lucius being the name of the hero of the Golden Ass) about Apuleius. But there is also much that connects him to a notable Greek writer some seventy-five years his senior: Plutarch. That connection is hinted at in the novel's opening lines, where Lucius, the narrator, tells us he descends from the renowned Greek.

    Apuleius' Metamorphoses or "Golden Ass"

    Written in a highly ornate and archaizing Latin probably in the 160s or so, Apuleius' prose novel, the Metamorphoses (known to Saint Augustine as "The Golden Ass"), tells the story of Lucius, a Roman-named Greek youth of means and prominent family. His curiosity about magic gets him changed into a donkey, a transformation that gives him a unique perspective on the foibles, hypocrisies, and misplaced lusts of human beings. Adultery and witchcraft figure prominently; Lucius himself does not escape his asinine shape until he dedicates himself to the worship of the goddess Isis.

    So on one level, this is a little like Petronius' Satyricon: a comic medley of racy and not so racy episodes with lots of digressions. (Actually, it's a whole lot less racy than the Satyricon.) But its tone is curious: simultaneously that of a rhetorically ornate oration and of a collection of campfire stories and fairy tales with more than a pinch of religious devotionalism.

    Still, it has a narrative arc that follows Lucius' growing insight into the folley of following worldly lusts rather than divine vocation. At the same time, the process of Lucius' conversion and intiation becomes oddly prosaic and bureaucratic. After three initiations (count 'em, three) into the goddess's mysteies, Lucius ends up a lawyer (I hope he earns those initiation fees back!) and a respected member of his congregation.


    So the work presents us with certain basic issues to explore:

    1. This novel, though set mostly in Greece, is written in Latin by an Afro-Roman writer for a Roman readership. Further, the Greece of the novel has by now become heavily Romanized: Roman baths, Roman gladiatorial shows, etc. So what's Roman here about the overall character of events and how they're presented, about sexuality and gender? What connections with Ovid, Juvenal, Petronius? What connections with broader patterns in Greco-Roman — perhaps better, pan-Mediterranean — sexuality, gender, and so on?
    2. What's new here? What issues, what emphases haven't we seen yet with respect to Rome or the course as a whole?

    We can also interrogate more specific aspects of the novel:

    1. What to make of the conflicted picture of women Apuleius presents us with?. . .
      • "Bad" women like Pamphile or the condemned woman near the novel's end
      • "Good" women like Psyche, Charite, or Isis
    2. What is the relationship between the story of Cupid and Psyche and that of Charite and Tlepolemus?
      • Why does the first end happy, the second sad?
      • Is there a connection with the novel's larger narrative arc?

    Notes on Text

    • Sources. Apuleius seems to have adapted his novel from a lost original in Greek, the anonymous Varied Tales of the Transformations of Lucius of Patrae, that's also the source of an extant work (also in Greek) called Lucius, Or the Ass. In Apuleius, many of Lucius' tall tales will likely have been retellings of stories familiar to the book's original audience. As for the story of Cupid and Psyche, see below

    • Title. Metamorphoses, "transformations": It seems likely that the author called his novel Metamorphoses, which could well represent an allusion to Ovid's long poem of the same name. (The opening sections of both works announce their topic as that of transformations.) In Apuleius, not only does Lucius undergo transformations; so do various other characters, including the witch Pamphile, not to mention Psyche of the "Cupid and Psyche" digression. Golden Ass: Saint Augustine says that Apuleius called his book Asinus aureus, "The Golden Donkey (or Ass)." Perhaps so, hard to say; see further below

    • Narrator. In the book's opening paragraphs, the narrator presents himself as if a Greek who, having taught himself Latin at Rome, is writing a kind of memoir in Latin. He claims descent on his mother's side from the great Plutarch. (A native of Corinth, in Roman times, a Roman colony on Greek soil, Lucius perhaps could claim mixed Roman and Greek ancestry, as to which nothing is actually said.)

    At least, that's how things start out; later, near the end, we are clearly dealing with a Lucius who, like Apuleius, hails from Madaura, etc. etc. Quite confusing, or should I say interesting. . .

    • Socrates Note that the Socrates from the novel's opening anecdote is not the Socrates of some five and a half centuries earlier — i.e., not the Socrates of Plato's Symposium. But the choice of name seems intended to mark an ironic contrast between Apuleius' foolish Socrates and that character's wiser namesake

    • Festival of Laughter. This is partly autobiographical: while staying in the North African city of Oea (modern Tripoli), Apuleius was charged with being a user of magic and had to stand trial. (He was acquitted)

    • Lucius' transformation into a donkey (ass), plus the question of the title, "Golden Ass"

      As to Lucius' transformation into an ass/donkey, yes, silly and, for the most part, obvious in its "asinine" implications. But note that the donkey symbolized evil in Isis worship

      But there is also the question of the novel's title as reported by Saint Augustine: Asinus aureus, "The Golden Ass." Augustine reports that that was indeed what Apuleius called his book. And of course, the "Ass" (Latin Asinus) part makes perfect sense. But "Golden"? No one yet has solved this last riddle, but one suggestion, cited by the translator of your edition in his introduction, offers food for thought.

      According to this theory, aureus ("golden") is a kind of misprint for auritus, "long eared." Hence Asinus auritus, "The Long-Eared Ass," as the correct form of the title to which Augustine refers. Of course, that can't be proved, but if correct, it seems to explain a lot. Among other things, it would seem to connect the novel to the story of king Midas, famous for his unreflective greed. Praying that everything he touched would turn to gold, Midas discovered the downside of greed: you can't eat gold. But he was also notorious for his poor taste in music. Asked to judge between Apollo's lyre playing and Pan's playing on the panpipes, Midas choose Pan as winner. To punish Midas, Apollo gave him the long ears of a ass.

      Of course, Apuleius' novel isn't about music appreciation, but it does concern prudent choices versus "asinine" ones. Lucius' long ears thus demonstrate to readers the protagonist's foolishness, but they also offer Lucius the opportunity to listen in and meditate on the consequences and implications of his foolishness (p. 110 bottom).

    Persius, the Roman satirist of the age of Nero, seems to offer further insights. In his First Satire, Persius evokes the continuation of the Midas myth, according to which the king wrapped his head in a turban in order to conceal his conspicuously long auditory appendages. Only the king's barber knew the truth, as only he had the chance to view the king's head uncloaked. And so this barber, keenly aware that he must keep the secret, yet ultimately unable to do so, dug a hole and whispered the secret into it. Eventually, though, reeds that sprang up in the filled-in hole sang the secret to the world: "Midas has an ass's long ears!"

    Now, whether Persius originally wrote auriculas asini quis non habet? ("Who doesn't have the long ears of an ass?" i.e., we're all fools) or auriculas asini Mida rex habet ("King Midas [read the emperor Nero] has the ears of an ass!") is hard to say. But whatever the poet's original intention, it suggests folly as an affliction to which both kings and paupers fall prey — an affliction that, in the end, it is foolishness itself to deny. And that, I would suggest, holds considerable relevance to Apuleius' tale.

    • Cupid and Psyche. Note that Cupid is the Roman name for Eros, god of love and the focus of Plato's Symposium; "Psyche" is Greek for "soul" (psukhe). There is no literary precursor closely corresponding to Apuleius' fable. But insofar as we are dealing with philosophical allegory, a tale of the soul's (Psyche's) desire (cupido, eros) to become reunited with the divine, Apuleius' fable has antecedents in philosophy, especially Socrates' speech from Plato's Symposium, but also in Plutarch Eroticus, which we are due to read, as well as in Hellenistic art, which gives us representions of Eros in the company of a winged Psyche. I don't think it's giving away too much to say that Psyche's ("Soul's") travails and fate parallel Lucius', nor that Voluptas, "Pleasure," the child Psyche bears to Cupid, symbolizes a kind of solution to the late antique problematic of pleasure (see Foucault HS3), a solution as reliant on philosophical as on Roman-juridical legitimization

    • Isis, the Egypto-Greco-Roman goddess. Early in the novel we meet Zatchlas, an Egyptian priest of Isis; he can raise the dead. In the novel's closing books, Lucius himself will be saved by Isis; see the article on her in "Terms"


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