Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1182
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 witch’s magic. Tantalizingly, several times during the narrative, Lucius comes in close contact with roses, the antidote needed to transform him back into his human form; roses were associated with the grace of various mother goddesses. Not until the novel’s end, however, does he have an opportunity to eat roses and return to human form. Most of the other characters are punished by divinely powerful maternal figures, including the goddesses Isis, Venus, and Fortune, as well as by witches, who are said to control the heavens.
Captured by bandits, Lucius hears an old woman tell a tale to comfort the kidnapped girl Charite (grace). In the tale, Psyche (soul) is kidnapped by Cupid (the god of love), who was supposed to punish her for offending the goddess Venus, but Cupid instead falls in love with Psyche. Psyche has never actually seen Cupid, since the two met in a darkened room. At the instigation of her jealous sisters, Psyche breaks the taboo against seeing Cupid and takes a look at him. He flees and she pursues him, coming at last into the service of Venus, who requires Psyche to perform seemingly impossible tasks. With supernatural help, Psyche performs them, only to eventually fail because her curiosity causes her to look into a forbidden box. Cupid, however, obtains the help of the god Jupiter. Through this assistance, Psyche becomes immortal and gives birth to Voluptas (joy). The comforting import of this story about a miraculous rescue prefigures two later plot developments in the novel: Charite is saved by her lover and Lucius finds his salvation through Isis.
Before his salvation, Lucius encounters mortals at their worst; they torture him and one another in a series of sadistic escapades. Thus, the book is not just an initiation into heavenly secrets but also into terrifying and perversely sexual knowledge. Initiations into the mystery religions, however, tended to employ multifaceted imagery of the sexual and the terrifying, so the The Golden Ass has often been considered a glimpse into these. In addition, one of Lucius’s first warnings against stealing knowledge was seeing a statue of Actaeon changed to a stag and killed by the disrobed goddess Diana for spying on her. Similarly, Psyche was punished for looking upon naked Cupid after he had forbidden her to do so. Apuleius repeatedly associates this theme of forbidden secrets with voyeurism and theft, sins that bring the perpetrators to the condition of animals, as with a thief slain while disguised as a bear.
If given freely, however, spiritual knowledge is restorative and healing. Without at first knowing to whom he should pray, Lucius prays, and Isis graciously appears, bringing deliverance and a direction for his life. In a procession of her worshippers, one of her priests enters, allows Lucius to eat roses, and explains how his former sufferings, due to blind Fortune, will now change to beatitude under the protection of Isis, described as a sighted Fortune. Once mystery initiations have taught religious secrets, Lucius’s new awareness will be reflected by the universe, under the guidance of Isis and her husband Osiris. Having partaken of this new understanding, symbolized by the roses, Lucius returns to human form and will neither behave like an animal, governed by base appetites, nor be treated like one. He becomes a priest, and, like Apuleius himself, a lawyer. In a dream, Osiris assures Lucius that despite rivals’ envy of his learning and of his profound, new knowledge, he will be raised to legal success and the higher echelon of the priesthood.
Some scholars assume that this ending recruits readers into the worship of Isis and provides the best available glimpse of her mysteries. Others argue that it is satire, since its piety seems at odds with the preceding cynicism. At the conclusion, Lucius revels in a celibate life and a bald head—both ridiculous to average Roman readers. One of the initiatory priests is named Mithras, the god of different mysteries than Isis’s. Is Mithras, who is Isis’s priest, a humorous figure, or is he a hint that all the gods are ultimately Isis’s servants? The book may be a joke and/or a profound paradox, encompassing both the ideal and grotesque aspects of life.