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An Ass for the Ages: Reviewing 'The Golden Ass'

The Golden Ass, written in second-century Rome by the philosopher and author Apuleius, is one of the earliest novels in human history. It has a firm place in world literature and the interpretation of its complex plot, narrative style and structure offers a challenge for literary theorists, psychoanalysts, legal historians, philosophers, and philologists alike. Despite its entertaining story and its remarkably modern message – especially when it comes to the treatment of women and animals – Apuleius’ work is nowadays widely unknown. Time to change that.

There are few things more exciting than the first kiss between two lovers. When their eyes meet, their lips draw closer and the wind around them rises electric. Arguably one of the best depictions of this intense moment is Antonio Canova’s sculpture Cupid and Psyche, where the god of love is about to save his treasured girl from death by planting a gentle kiss on her lips. Young Psyche rests her hands on Cupid’s head, forming a heart around the lovers’ faces, while the god softly embraces the dying woman. They are looking straight into each other’s eyes and a faint smile flits across their faces. The seconds before their first kiss is enshrined in marble for eternity.

Not many people know that the myth of Cupid and Psyche, or that this tale of love and loss and redemption goes back to an anecdote found in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Indeed, his novel is the only work in which this story can be found. It inspired not only Canova’s masterpiece but also found its way into the oeuvre of Jacques-Louis David, Auguste Rodin, and Raphael. In the larger context of the plot, however, the myth of the two lovers only plays a very subordinate role. It gets told by an old slave woman, working as a housekeeper for the band of robbers who have captured the main protagonist of the novel, an enchanted donkey named Lucius. Slave woman? Robbers? Donkey? Let’s take a deep breath and a few steps back.

A hairy Ulysses

It is in Thessaly where our story begins, a region on the east coast of Greece, marked by rugged cliffs, deep forests and famed for its witchcraft and wizardry. Young Lucius, the hero of the novel, is on a business trip to Thessaly, but he is much more interested in the infamous magic practised in these storied lands. He comes to know that his host’s wife is one of the Thessalian witches and together with a slave girl Fotis, he secretly observes how the woman of the house transforms herself into an owl using a magical ointment. Bewildered and fascinated, he wants to do the same, but Fotis accidentally switches the salves and transforms Lucius into a big hairy donkey. Only by eating fresh roses, Fotis says, will he be able to return to his human form. She promises to prepare some for the coming morning, but the same night a group of robbers plunder the house, taking the helpless Lucius with them.

Here, Lucius’ seemingly never-ending series of hardships begins. The robbers charge him with all their stolen goods and mistreat him on every possible occasion. In the bandit camp, hidden away in one of Thessaly’s forbidding ravines, the robbers share the myth of Cupid and Psyche mentioned above. At last, Lucius can flee from the robbers, but his newly gained liberty doesn’t last for long. He gets sold to a miller where he slaves away till he almost dies, is stolen by a Roman soldier, tortured by a sadistic shepherd, and almost sliced up and fried by a cook. Lucius ends up in an arena, only to be devoured by other animals for the entertainment of the crowd, when he manages to flee again, running to the closest shore. There, he breaks down in exhaustion and prays to the mother goddess Isis that she might save him from his incessant agony. The goddess takes pity on Lucius and grants him this mercy, sending him fresh roses that finally rid him of his animal body.

Apuleius’ genius throughout time

Of course, Lucius’ weary months of drudgery are far more comical and tragic than I could ever summarize. And their traces can be found throughout literary history if one only knows where to look. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a poem about a transformed donkey, Giovanni Boccaccio makes explicit references to the novel in his Decameron and also Shakespeare had most likely the magical tale of Lucius in mind when transforming Nick Bottom into an ass in his Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio a character suspiciously named Lucignolo magically turns into a donkey and even C. S. Lewis retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Till We Have Two Faces.

It is odd, then, that the widespread impact of our good Lucius has ceased in the last decades, at least compared to the ever so shining grandees Ovid, Virgil, and Horace. Even more so since some of the issues that Apuleius touches upon – especially animal cruelty and feminism – are more pressing than ever. Indeed, he can rightly be claimed to be one of the most progressivist philosophers of antiquity, anticipating topics that would only be seriously debated almost two thousand years after his death.

A plot driven by women

Unsurprisingly, Ancient Rome was a chauvinistic society, where women rarely enjoyed the same rights as men. Especially during Augustus’ legislature women’s bodies and relationships largely turned from a private into a public matter: while “healthy” relationships were rewarded, unmarried women without children could be severely punished and exiled. The same punishment was also introduced for adulterous women, but, of course, not for men.

In this era, Apuleius came along and wrote a novel in which women are the driving force of the plot, and the naïve and overly curious Lucius only pales beside them. It is a woman who points out that his host’s wife is a witch and gets the ball rolling, and a woman who helps Lucius with the magical ointments. It is also an explicitly female goddess who appears as literal Deus Ex Machina at the end and saves pitiful Lucius from his fate (most likely a side blow [MA1] against Judaism and rising Christianity).

It is as if Apuleius uses his text to criticise the treatment of women subtly but pointedly in his own day and age, something that shines through especially in the relationship between Lucius and the beautiful slave girl Fotis. Right from the beginning, it is she who sets the terms for their relationship, she who plays around with her somewhat gawky suitor. When he approaches her in the kitchen, Fotis just dismissively says: “Off with you, you poor guy, get as far as you can from my kitchen – go! Because if you are ignited even a little from my fire, you will be burned to your depths, and no one will extinguish that heat except me. I know how to shake the pot and the bed and add my own luscious seasoning.” [MA2]

Sentient and conscious, not merely a thing

Apuleius did not only break ground by questioning the status of women in his time, but also the treatment of non-human animals. In Ancient Rome, animals were considered objects and outside the moral sphere of humans because they supposedly lacked rationality and consciousness. Indeed, such an attitude was typical throughout history and did not change until the 1970s, where animal rights activists and philosophers like Peter Singer argued for extending the most fundamental rights across our species’ barrier. They grounded these demands on the claim that animals do have a consciousness and should not be needlessly tortured or viciously killed.

Apuleius seems to foreshadow such a view two millennia before Singer and others actually formulate it. After all, the entire novel is narrated from a donkey’s point of view. A donkey with a human mind, granted, but a donkey nonetheless, on a continuum with us and sharing many of our needs and desires. Animals, Apuleius thinks, are our brethren in pain and suffering and we do well in being more careful in how to treat them. This notion gets particularly clear in the brutally realistic scene of the mill, where both slaves and pack animals work in appalling conditions “with their necks sagging from the decay and putrefaction of their sores, … and their hides irritated all over from neglect, scabies and malnourishment.” Immediately pictures arise of the industrial livestock farming that is still the shameful status quo in many nations today.

To conclude

After the read one doesn’t think for a second that this novel was actually written by an ancient philosopher, born in 124 in the now Algerian town of Madauros. It might as well have been presented in this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, along with the newest works of Jojo Moyes and Ferdinand von Schirach. The Golden Ass is a timeless and mysterious coming-of-age story about human curiosity, sexual adventures, pain, and grief, hope and salvation. It meanders through the history of art and literature like the Iliad and Odyssey. And yet, it also fits our current day and age like no other classic, addressing issues that have been existing for centuries, but that society still miserably fails to deal with. Gripping and thought provoking, it has lost nothing of its enthralment and force.

Edited by Maisie Allen


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