(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)

The Golden Ass Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Lucius sets out on his travels in Thessaly, he happens to fall in with two strangers who are telling unusual stories of the mysterious life of the region. At the urging of Lucius, one of the strangers, a merchant named Aristomenes, tells of his strange adventure in Hippata, the chief city of Thessaly.

Aristomenes had gone to the market to buy honey and cheese, but he found that a rival merchant had been there before him and had bought up the supply. As he sadly turned away, he spied his friend Socrates, clad in rags, sitting on the ground. Socrates had fallen among thieves, who beat him and robbed him even of his clothes. Touched by his friend’s plight, Aristomenes led him to an inn, bathed and clothed him, and took him to his own chamber to sleep.

Socrates warned of the woman who kept the inn, a carnal woman possessed of magical powers. When she saw a comely man, she wanted him for a lover; if he refused, he was changed into a beast or bird. Aristomenes was a little frightened; he barred the door securely and moved his bed against it for safety. Socrates was already sleeping soundly.

About midnight two hags came to the door, which fell away at their approach. One bore a torch and the other a sponge and sword. While the landlady stood over Socrates and accused him of trying to get away from her, the two hags seized his head, thrust the sword into his throat, and reached in and took out his heart. They caught all of his blood in a bladder. Then they put the sponge in the gaping throat wound.

In the morning, Socrates looked like a whole man. The two friends crept away quietly, without arousing the landlady. A few miles out of town, they stopped to eat. Socrates, after eating a whole cheese, leaned over to drink from the stream. As he did so, the wound in his throat opened, the sponge fell out, and Socrates fell dead.

Warned by this story of what he might expect in Thessaly, Lucius presents his letter of introduction to Milo, a rich usurer. He is well received in Milo’s house. Attracted by Fotis, a buxom maid, Lucius hangs around the kitchen admiring her hair and hips. She agrees quickly to come to his room that night as soon as she has put her mistress, Pamphile, to bed. Fotis is as good as her word, and several nights are passed agreeably.

In the city, Lucius meets a cousin, Byrrhaena, a rich gentlewoman. She invites him to dine and at dinner warns him of the witch Pamphile. On his way home and full of wine, Lucius sees three thugs trying to get into Milo’s house. He rushes on them and slays them with his sword. The next day is the Feast of Laughter. As an elaborate hoax, Lucius is arrested and tried for murder in the public place. At the last minute, the three “corpses” are revealed to be three bladders, blown up and given temporary life by Pamphile.

One night Fotis lets Lucius look through the keyhole of Pamphile’s bedroom. To his amazement, Lucius sees the witch smear herself with ointment and turn into an eagle that flies away in majestic flight. Filled with envy, Lucius demands of Fotis that she smear him with ointment and turn him into an eagle. Fotis reluctantly consents.

At a propitious time, Fotis steals a box of ointment and smears...

(The entire section is 1330 words.)