The Golden Ass

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (August, 2005)

The Golden Ass is a story that must have been a hot favorite among the masses of the Greco-Roman world. Its primary aim was to entertain at a vulgar level, with much explicit sex making up for the lack of depth. The genre still exists.

It freely engages in magic and fantasy, including accounts of humans changed into animals and birds. The story of its hero is interwoven with a string of other tales, such as the romantic interlude of Cupid and Psyche. There is no doubt that it was aimed at prime time evening's entertainment, and must have had a record run. Its ending, the hero's initiation into the religious mysteries, made sure of social approval.

The main story concerns the adventures of Lucius Apuleius, told in the first person. His travels brought him as a guest to a great house in Thessaly, where he formed an erotic relationship with a servant girl, Fotis. She had access to boxes of magic potions kept by her mistress, ointments that could transform humans into other species. Wanting to be transformed into an eagle so that he could soar above mortality, Lucius persuaded Fotis to steal the necessary ointment. She made a mistake, and gave him an ointment that transformed him into an ass.

The main part of the story relates his miseries as a beast of burden, abused, flogged, tortured, and his retaliation with acts of bestiality. Eventually he came to Cenchreae, the harbour of Corinth, where he had a vision of the great Moon-goddess, called by many names in different cults, but whose true name was Isis. She promised to answer his prayer and save him. "Under my protection you will be happy and famous, and when at the destined end of your life you descend to the land of ghosts, there too in the subterrene hemisphere you shall have frequent occasion to adore me." Her condition was perfect chastity, which would prolong his life beyond its normal limits.

Her first help was to give him access to a garland of roses, the antidote to the effects of the ointment. He swallowed them, and was changed back into human shape again. Then he set about the processes of instruction for initiation into the mysteries of Isis. (The Golden Ass, Book 11 Chapter 48) Its first stage was conducted by a high priest named Mithras. After his ordinary bath, the high priest washed and sprinkled him with holy water, then brought him to the temple and placed him at the feet of the goddess.

"He gave me certain orders too holy to be spoken above a whisper, and then commanded me in everyone's hearing to abstain from all but the plainest food for the ten succeeding days, to eat no meat and drink no wine.

"The high priest ordered all uninitiated persons to depart, invested me in a new linen garment and led me by the hand into the inner recesses of the sanctuary itself. I have no doubt, curious reader, that you are eager to know what happened when I entered.... I will record as much as I may lawfully record for the uninitiated, but only on condition that you believe it.

"I approached the very gates of death and set one foot on Proserpine's threshold, yet was permitted to return, rapt through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining as if it were noon; I entered the presence of the gods of the underworld and the gods of the upper world, stood near and worshipped them".

This was his first stage, entry into the mysteries of the Mother. He was sent to Rome, where he began to study for the profession of lawyer and to prepare for his next stage, entry into the mysteries of the Father, the invincible Osiris. After another ten days' fasting and having his head completely shaved, he was admitted to the nocturnal orgies of the great god Osiris and became his illuminate. Then came a third and final stage, when he fasted even longer, paid money, and now was granted a vision of Osiris in his own person, not disguised as the Father. He was promised that he would become a famous and wealthy barrister, as a member of the inner college of councillors of the Roman religious order. Since he was now at the height of his profession, the story ends.

The Golden Ass was translated and published in 1950 by the English classical scholar Robert Graves. It caused a furore, with cries for banning the book for obscenity. Graves, from his island retreat on Majorca, did a great service to the history of Christianity by bringing out the social connections between the Jewish kings the Agrippas of the Herod family, and the courts of Caligula and Claudius. His books led to the film "I Claudius", which also caused outrage by bringing out the seamy side of a part of Roman society that was known to be close to the early Christians.

A more sober treatment of the mysteries of Isis and Osiris was given by the moralist Plutarch, providing us with another kind of parallel to the literary techniques that went into the gospels. See the next sub-entry.