An Ass for the Ages: Reviewing 'The Golden Ass'

The Golden Ass, written in second-century Rome by the philosopher and author Apuleius, is one of the earliest novels in human history. It has a firm place in world literature and the interpretation of its complex plot, narrative style and structure offers a challenge for literary theorists, psychoanalysts, legal historians, philosophers, and philologists alike. Despite its entertaining story and its remarkably modern message – especially when it comes to the treatment of women and animals – Apuleius’ work is nowadays widely unknown. Time to change that.

There are few things more exciting than the first kiss between two lovers. When their eyes meet, their lips draw closer and the wind around them rises electric. Arguably one of the best depictions of this intense moment is Antonio Canova’s sculpture Cupid and Psyche, where the god of love is about to save his treasured girl from death by planting a gentle kiss on her lips. Young Psyche rests her hands on Cupid’s head, forming a heart around the lovers’ faces, while the god softly embraces the dying woman. They are looking straight into each other’s eyes and a faint smile flits across their faces. The seconds before their first kiss is enshrined in marble for eternity.

Not many people know that the myth of Cupid and Psyche, or that this tale of love and loss and redemption goes back to an anecdote found in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Indeed, his novel is the only work in which this story can be found. It inspired not only Canova’s masterpiece but also found its way into the oeuvre of Jacques-Louis David, Auguste Rodin, and Raphael. In the larger context of the plot, however, the myth of the two lovers only plays a very subordinate role. It gets told by an old slave woman, working as a housekeeper for the band of robbers who have captured the main protagonist of the novel, an enchanted donkey named Lucius. Slave woman? Robbers? Donkey? Let’s take a deep breath and a few steps back.

A hairy Ulysses

It is in Thessaly where our story begins, a region on the east coast of Greece, marked by rugged cliffs, deep forests and famed for its witchcraft and wizardry. Young Lucius, the hero of the novel, is on a business trip to Thessaly, but he is much more interested in the infamous magic practised in these storied lands. He comes to know that his host’s wife is one of the Thessalian witches and together with a slave girl Fotis, he secretly observes how the woman of the house transforms herself into an owl using a magical ointment. Bewildered and fascinated, he wants to do the same, but Fotis accidentally switches the salves and transforms Lucius into a big hairy donkey. Only by eating fresh roses, Fotis says, will he be able to return to his human form. She promises to prepare some for the coming morning, but the same night a group of robbers plunder the house, taking the helpless Lucius with them.

Here, Lucius’ seemingly never-ending series of hardships begins. The robbers charge him with all their stolen goods and mistreat him on every possible occasion. In the bandit camp, hidden away in one of Thessaly’s forbidding ravines, the robbers share the myth of Cupid and Psyche mentioned above. At last, Lucius can flee from the robbers, but his newly gained liberty doesn’t last for long. He gets sold to a miller where he slaves away till he almost dies, is stolen by a Roman soldier, tortured by a sadistic shepherd, and almost sliced up and fried by a cook. Lucius ends up in an arena, only to be devoured by other animals for the entertainment of the crowd, when he manages to flee again, running to the closest shore. There, he breaks down in exhaustion and prays to the mother goddess Isis that she might save him from his incessant agony. The goddess takes pity on Lucius and grants him this mercy, sending him fresh roses that finally rid him of his animal body.