Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Transformation Stories: Apuleius' The Golden Ass

BLW Cupid and Psyche (2)Image via Wikipedia
 Brief biographical data
Apuleius, Lucius ( A.D. 125) was a Roman rhetorician, a Platonist philosopher, and a novelist. He was born in northern Africa and educated at Carthage and Athens.

Having married a wealthy widow much older than himself, her protective and jealous relatives brought him into court on the bizarre charge of having used magic to win her. Although he beat the charge, there was some truth to it; in that, Apulius was a magician of sorts. Being a consummate writer, right after his acquittal he wrote a book —entitled Apology or Defense on the proceedings of the trial

Besides being an intellectual, Apuleius was a man of action, traveling widely in Greece and Asia Minor. Well read, well educated, and well-travelled, he was much in demand as a lecturer and writer upon his return to his native land. He published his speeches in a book called Florida or Garland. In addition, he wrote several philosophical books of which On the God of Socrates is the best read, even today.

But his fame rests on his novel The Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass.

The Golden Ass

The novel tells the story of Lucius, a young man who sets out on a journey to Thessaly, a district of northern Greece famous for its oracles, superstitions, magic, and witches.
Lucius —who we can well imagine is Apulius— gets attached to lusty girls a servant girl named Fotis. Magic comes into the picture. Fotis gives Apulius a magic ointment that —she claims— will change him at will into a bird.

Surpise! When he rubs the ointment instead of a bird he becomes an ass!

Speechless —much like Gregor Samsa, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis— yet in full possession of human under­standing, he (now an ass) is stolen by a band of bandits. With them he begins the series of adventures which are stitched together to give body to the novel.

Being an ass, no one cares what they say in front of his; as a result he overhears a number of interesting stories. In fact, he hears the story of the love of Cupid and Psyche, an ancient folktale found nowhere else in Greek or Latin literature. Through his training as a rhetorician, Apuleius embellishes the story with extraordinary insights, sustaining that Psy­che is really the human soul.

Lucius, in his ass shape, continuously seeks in vain for roses, the one food that can restore his human form. At the end of his untold adventures, the goddess Isis appears to him in a vision. Isis reveals to him that if he attends her festival and eats a rose crown —worn by her priest— he will regain his human form.

Lo and behold! The magic works and once again he becomes Lucius.

Grateful to the goddess Isis, he becomes a convert and a follower, adoring not only her, but also her brother, the god Osiris.

The language is ribald and picaresque in its description. Both Boccaccio and Cervantes “borrowed” from the Golden Ass.  

The novel isn’t without a moral: for we all learn that a licentious and lusty life will convert us all into asses.  

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