In the fourth century, Saint Augustine called Metamorphoses “The Golden Ass,” and since then this name has become better known than the book’s actual title. The phrase “golden ass” may derive from the golden, or esteemed, status the book achieved; it may also contrast the opposite connotations of “golden” and “ass,” since the donkey had an ignominious reputation in Apuleius’s time, being associated in the Egyptian religion with the evil god Seth, an enemy of the god Isis.
Typical of second century authors, Apuleius does not invent his basic plot but shows his education by taking it from a Greek work, probably one written by Lucian, who was rewriting a tale by Lucius of Patrae or an earlier Greek author. Consequently, Apuleius begins by depicting his character Lucius as a Greek, who apologizes for his unfamiliarity with Latin. Such an apology also allows Apuleius to excuse any foreign—in his case, African—idioms that might have found their way into his novel, but its intention most probably is to make the readers wonder at his highly rhetorical mastery of the language and to serve as a disguise for him. Near the end, however, his narrator Lucius describes himself as a “Maudauran,” a reference to Apuleius’s birthplace, as if Apuleius were revealing himself to be the narrator, but just briefly enough to leave readers wondering if the word, inappropriate to the character Lucius, might be a scribal error.
Even if, as Saint Augustine presumed, the protagonist Lucius were a self-portrait of the book’s author, Apuleius still manages to distance himself from most of the book, which consists of stories told to Lucius. These stories serve as parallels for the main narrative, since, like it, the stories are tales of suffering that lead to knowledge about the supernatural. In a general way, then, they resemble what was known about the mystery religions of the time: These religions were institutions with harrowing initiations that allegedly brought their initiates enlightenment.
The Golden Ass begins with Lucius traveling to Thessaly, the land of his mother’s family and an area famous for witchcraft. This introduces the pervasive theme of the novel—a connection of the feminine (particularly the maternal) and magic. Lucius hears a tale about a man named Socrates, who, like the philosopher Socrates, is rendered miserable by a shrewish woman, but in this case through her sorcery, which kills him when he reveals that she is an old witch. Although this story ought to frighten Lucius away from prying into magic, it incites his curiosity, as it may the readers’. Thereafter, despite warnings, Lucius seduces Fotis, a servant of the witch Pamphile, to learn the witch’s secrets. Lucius wishes to turn himself into an owl (symbolic of wisdom) but instead becomes a donkey (symbolic of ignorance), since he has stolen the...
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