Wednesday, 3 October 2001

Lucius Apuleius: The Golden Ass

Translation: Robert Graves, 1947 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1950
Review number: 952

Lucius Apuleius' tale of a man transformed into an ass and his adventures in that shape has long been popular as an amusing, slightly bawdy story. Parts of it appear in the Decameron and it is, I suspect, one of the inspirations behind the story of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Lucius is a young nobleman who travels to the Greek town of Hypata, well known for its witches. There, a mistaken application of a salve turns him into an ass, a shape which, he is told, will remain his until he eats some roses. Most of the novel is about his adventures in this form, retaining human intellect and tastes, until he is eventually rescued by the grace of the goddess Isis. (The word "golden" in the title, by the way, refers not to any event in the story, but to the value of the tale itself.)

The question which arises on reading The Golden Ass is how it survived the Middle Ages. It frequently celebrates the ancient pagan religion, especially the mysteries of Isis of which Apuleius himself was a devotee; the author was thought to be a magician, actually standing trial for witchcraft, and the book to be a literal autobiography. Though the devotion to Isis was interpreted as a picture of devotion to the Virgin Mary, this was anachronistic and bears no relation to cults in the Christianity of Apuleius' time, which he may even directly attack (one of the wicked characters who mistreats Lucius as an ass is a hypocrite who disguises her evildoing in a cult of the "Only God"). The bawdy scenes and joking would also not be something of which the church would approve officially, yet they are obviously the key to the work's survival; they make it a fun book for a monk to enjoy copying out, rather than something which would be a tedious duty.

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