What is the function of sexuality in The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, like Petronius' Satyricon, represents a very early stage in the development of the ancient novel, and is an unusual hybrid of satire and wisdom literature. 

The major piece of historical context it is necessary to understanding this is actually found in Apuleius' Apology. Apuleius himself had been accused of using magic to seduce a rich widow into marrying him. In the Apology, Apuleius defends himself, among other things by an eloquent defense of philosophy. The particular sort of philosophy practiced by Apuleius, though, appears to have been a form of syncretic Platonism that may have included theurgy, a sort of hybrid between mystery religion and Platonism that included practices that may have been hard to distinguish from magic. Next it should be noted that in this period, magic was illegal, and that one common form of folk magic was love charms (for which we have good textual evidence in magical papyri and archaeological evidence in the form of amulets and charms).

One of the major arguments of the Golden Ass is the difference between mystery religion and philosophy on the one hand and magic on the other hand. The witch uses seductive magic and her sexuality to subvert the philosopher. Sexuality continues as a theme as we encounter Psyche and Actaeon undergoing punishment for looking upon the gods naked, suggesting a distinction between forbidden forms of lust and appropriate forms of worship and love (echoing the types of love we find in Plato's Symposium). Lust and carnality tie the soul to the mortal world while spiritual love may be a pathway towards a divine world, but the ideal, which the narrator achieves by the end of the novel is the form of celibacy practiced by Pythagoreanizing Platonists.

This brings us back to Apuleius' Apology, in which Apuleius casts his love for his wife as of this superior sort, not engendered by either lust for her body or money, but a form of higher happiness. Thus in looking at the Golden Ass against Apuleius' philosophical and autobiographic writings, we can say that the role of sexuality is that as embodied in lust, it serves as an obstacle to the soul's progress to the divine, but that a higher and more spiritual form of love can be a path towards the divine. 

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