Frontispiece by P Goodman

(ca. 123/125-180 CE)

The Golden Asse
Translated by William Adlington
First published 1566. This is a Gutenberg Project version as reprinted from the edition of 1639.
The original spelling, capitalisation and punctuation have been retained.

The Latin Library:

(Metamorphoses et De Dogmate Platonis)

Golden Ass

The Best Piece of Asse in Ancient Rome

A Review by Benjamin Slade

Postgraduate Student in Linguistics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Advantages: ribald and hilarious tale of magic, eroticism and unexpected transformations

Disadvantages: might be a bit *too* naughty for sensitive readers

[note: all of my quotations are from an old edition translated by Jack Lindsay (a reprinting of this is available from Indiana University Press; ISBN: 0253200369); the William Adlington version is an Elizabethean translation, so it might be difficult for modern readers; there are many translation, but the Lindsay translation (which I use for this review) is very good.]


Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass is a bawdy, ribald and hilarious story of magic and erotica from the 2nd century C.E. But don’t let the date put you off—this book is unique, entertaining and thoroughly readable, with a very modern feel. Not stuffy in the least, I assure you! The Golden Ass (sometimes known as 'The Metamorphosis') tells the story of Lucius, a young libertine, whose curiosity and fascination for sex and magic result in his transformation into a donkey. After suffering a series of trials and humiliations, he is eventually returned to human form by the kind intervention of the goddess Isis. Simultaneously a blend of erotic adventure, romantic comedy, and religious fable, The Golden Ass is one of the truly seminal works of early European literature, with a distinctly Eastern flavouring and a very modern feel.

Lucius Apuleius lived and wrote in Latin in Romanised North Africa around the middle of the 2nd century C.E. He was well versed in the popular Greek writing of the time, and shows in all his prose a strong interest in the supernatural, in Eastern religions, and in magic. In fact he was accused of casting spells on his wife by her family, and defended himself in the legal defense, or Apologia -- still existent. His interest in Greek philosophy led to the writing of a book of philosophical extracts, the Florida, an essay on Plato, another on Socrates' theology.

The story begins when the hero Lucius travels into Thessaly (in Greece) on business. He stays with a prominent citizen, Milo (a friend of a friend), there in the city of Hypata. Town gossip soon alerts him to the fact that Milo’s wife, Pamphile, is a witch, who transforms herself into different shapes (like that of an owl) in order to sneak out of the house to indulge herself in some extra-marital affairs with the young men of the town (Lucius is also informed that she is apt to transform such young men as displease her into unpleasant shapes, such as cows or rocks). Lucius, dying of curiosity to see such magic performed, decides to kill two birds with one stone. He seduces Milo and Pamphile’s luscious maid, Fotis, and convinces her to secret him in Pamphile’s room while she casts her spells. An extract from this point of the novel will serve to illustrate the delightful erotic style of this book:

Fotis was alone in charge. She was preparing the stuffing for some…puddings…ready for mixing with a gravy that tickled my nostrils with its succulently wafted steam. She was neatly clad in a linen apron, with a shining scarlet stomacher which gathered her dress up high under her meeting breasts; and she was stirring the stockpot with her rosy little hands moving round and round above it. As she stirred and turned the meat, she herself stirred and vibrated congruously all over her supple body. Her loins softly undulated, and her agile spine swayed and rippled in time, as she placidly stirred the pot. I was entranced by the sight, and stood in mute admiration—as did that part of me which so far had not intruded. At last I addressed the girl, “How finely, my dear Fotis, how gaily you stir your buttocks as you stand over the pot. What a honeyed relish I see you getting ready. A happy man, a blessed man, is he that you will let dip finger there.”

Later, his seduction successful —after some erotic escapades with Fotis—she smuggles Lucius into Pamphile’s room to watch her transform herself with her magic:

First of all Pamphile divested herself of all her clothes, and opening a certain coffer she fetched out several small boxes. Taking off a lid of one of these, she squeezed out some ointment and rubbed herself all over with it, till she was smeared from the ends of her toenails to the hairs on the crown of her head. Then she muttered a series of hushed charms over a lamp, and twitched her body and jerked it shiveringly. Gradually downy plumes began to jet and flutter out. These thickened into regular wings; her nose hooked itself hornily outwards; her nails bunched together crookedly; and Pamphile became an owl.

Lucius convinces Fotis to let him try out the shape-changing ointment on himself, and, having received her assurances that she knows the proper counter-spell, begins to attempt the transformation with the ointment:

I quickly tore off all my garments, greedily dipped into the box, and took out a large handful, with which I plastered every limb. And then, flapping my arms up and down, I stood waiting and trying to feel birdlike. But no down appeared; no wings burst out. Rather, it was obvious that my hair was hardening into bristles, my tender skin was roughening to a hide. My toes and fingers lost their distinctness and clotted into solid hoofs; and from the end of my spine a long tail whisked out. My face became enormous; my mouth widened; my nostrils gaped open; my lips grew pendulous; and my ears shot hairily aloft. I could see no consolation in this calamitous change save that I was (in every respect) enlarged even beyond the capacity of Fotis…I saw that I was not a bird but an ass.

Lucius is, of course, unable to upbraid Fotis as he should like, having lost his human voice. But, no worries, Fotis knows the counter-spell for the ass-transfo rmation as well. Lucius need only chew a few rose-petals and he’ll instantly turn back into his human shape. Unfortunately, though Fotis usually prepares rose-garlands for their bedroom romps, she has neglected to do so on this night, and, until she can procure some more roses in the morning, Lucius must wait. In the stables.

However, in the middle of the night, thieves break into the house and steal Milo’s goods, as well as taking all of his horses and donkeys—including the unlucky Lucius. What follows is a series of uproariously funny (mis)adventures as Lucius tries to find and eat rose-petals in order to regain his humanity. He eventually escapes from the thieves only to be taken by someone else, and so on.

In addition to the main thread of the story—Lucius trying to regain his human form—there are also a number of little stories narrated throughout the novel, tales Lucius overhears other characters telling. These Chinese-box stories give The Golden Ass a feel a bit like 'Arabian Nights'. One of the longest and most important of these encapsulated stories is that of "Cupid and Psyche": Venus is resentful of the beauty of Psyche, a mortal girl, and contrives her death. However, someone rescues her and becomes her husband on the condition that she never try to discover his identity (he only comes to her in the dark of night so she can’t see him)—if she does, he must leave her. However, Psyche’s jealous sisters trick her into lighting a lamp one night and looking upon her husband’s face: it is Cupid, god of love. A drop of oil falls on him, waking him and he sees Psyche looking down on him and regretfully abandons her. I shan’t tell you the ending, but what follows in this mini-story is amazingly close to the Germanic "Cinderella" tale. The "Cupid and Psyche" episode is one of the ‘romantic’ climaxes of the book and is emotional ly important in the tale’s reception.

There are other shorter and more ribald mini-tales, like "The Tale of the Wife’s Tub", which I shall give you a taste of here:

There was once a hard-up labouring-man who lived a pinched life on his wage as a journeyman-carpenter. He had a wifie as poor as himself, a little slip of a thing but (so scandal had it) incurably lecherous. One day when the carpenter had gone off to his work after breakfast, the wife’s lover sidled warily into the house. But while the adulterers were amorously parleying together and imagining themselves quite secure, the complaisant husband…unexpected returned…The cunning wife, well-schooled in all naughty guiles, at once loosed her lover from her serpenting embraces and secreted him in an old empty tub…”So you’ve come back empty-handed,” she cried, “a gentleman of leisure with your arms folded!”…”What’s all this noise about?” answered the abused husband…”Do you see that old tub? It’s no use, and it takes up such a great deal of space that it’s only a stumbling-block…Well, I sold it to a fellow for fivepence. He’ll be here in a moment to pay me and cart it away. So tuck up your skirts and lend me a hand.” “A fine husband!” she exclaimed…”Why, he’s gone and sold at such a low price the very article that I…just sold for sevenpence…[The buyer]’s been down in the tub, testing and sounding it this long while.” The lover took his cue…”Look here…I want to scrape off the dirt that’s crusted inside, and find out if the tub is any use at all.” The excellently keenwitted husband, suspecting nothing, fetched a light. “But come out, my friend…stand aside, and let me make that tub spick and span for you.”…He set hard to work chipping away the ha rdened dirt…While this toil was proceeding, the delightful lad of a lover bent the wife over the tub on her belly, and then crouched down out of sight to do some other kind of tinkering. The woman had her head thrust down into the tub; and she amused herself with guying her husband with her harlotry-jokes. She kept pointing out with her finger spots to be rubbed, saying, “There…here…there…” until both jobs were finished…

After many adventures and mini-tales (and after escaping from a particularly ‘evil’ Christian woman), Lucius is sold to a pair of cooks who find out that he’s intelligent and use this fact to their financial advantage—think about the stories of horses who ‘can add’ and answer maths-questions by stamping their hoof a certain number of times. The tale of this incredible [=golden] ass spreads far and wide and the climax of this section is the procurement of Lucius by some women who have a very curious fetish (shared by the late Empress Catherine of Russia).

After enduring every possible form of humiliation, Lucius is finally restored to human form by the grace of the goddess Isis, whose disciple he becomes. [The appearance of Isis to Lucius is a bit reminiscent of the Krishna’s revelation of his godhood to Arjuna in the Indian epic The Bhagavad-Gita, as Isis is a sort of universal goddess with manifold forms.] The final sections of the book are a bit out of keeping with the rest of the novel, as the tone becomes quite serious as Lucius describes (some of) the mysteries of Isis and Osiris into which he is initiated.

Apuleius’s tale influenced later authors, which can clearly be seen in works like Cervantes' Don Quixote or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or even some of Salman Rushdie’s ‘magic-realism’ novels like Midnight’s Children (in which, at one point, the protagonist is ‘transformed’ into a dog).

The Golden Ass can be read as a journey of maturation, or a sort of pagan version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions (without the guilt), with the final metamorphosis as redemption from the slavery of Lucius’s adolescent carnal desires. However, as the translator points out in his introduction: ‘That analysis has a basis of truth; but to state it truly we need a subtler idiom than that of the moralist. The miracle which the goddess works in Lucius is the release of the individual from the distortion of his adult life by the continuing pangs and dissatisfactions of infancy’. Written in the 2nd century A.D., The Golden Ass is partly a counter-argument to the doctrines of Christianity, as is evident in the ‘foulness’ of the one Christian character in the novel; as well, the myth/mini-tale of "Cupid and Psyche" seems intended as a alternative to the story of the Cross.

As Lindsay says of The Golden Ass, it is a ‘fable of the fettered soul seeking to know its own action that is the true centre of the work…a radiant hymn of hope introduced to counterbalance the image of man’s life as that of a galled beast-of-burden’. And it’s a bloody enjoyable naughty and witty tale of magic and eroticism!

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