The Golden Ass by Apuleius.

A scene from The Golden Ass (16th Century).

The Golden Ass
, also known as The Metamorphoses of Apuleius (Asinus Aureus), is a novel by Apuleius, and the only Ancient Roman novel to survive in its entirety. Apuleius was born in around 124 A.D. in the Roman Empire, in Numidia (Algeria) on the border of Gaetuli (Tunisia), writing in his Apology he considered himself "half-Numidian half-Gaetulian". He later settled in Carthage, which is modern day Tunisia. 

The Golden Ass, written a century later than Ovid's Metamorphoses does, as the titles suggest, share similar themes of transformation. It tells the story of Lucius who is fascinated by magic, and he is travelling to Thessaly in Greece. We're told of how he is turned into a golden ass having watched a woman turn into a bird, and how he is sold, auctioned, beaten, and various other humiliations. On the way he meets various people who tell him stories: Aristomenes tells him the story of Socrates who fell in love with a witch, Meroe, who cast a spell on him. Accompanied by her sister Panthia, Meroe cuts out Socrates' heart and replaces it with a sponge. Miraculously Socrates awakens the next morning to the relief of Aristomenes (who had tried to commit suicide fearing he would be blamed for Socrates' death), however he later dies.

1922 edition based on the 1566 edition translated by
William Adlington
.
The next story is from Thelyphron, who tells his audience he was once asked to watch over a corpse for fear that shape-shifting witches would steal it for their spells. Thelyphron, however, falls asleep: when he wakes up the corpse is still intact, however he is blamed for having an affair with the widow. The corpse is brought back to life and he tells of how his wife poisoned him. Then it is revealed that the witches came in through the night disguised as small animals: they didn't touch the corpse, but they did take various body parts of Thelyphron and replaced them with wax.

Following Thelyphron's tale, the tale of Cupid and Psyche, in which the two fall out and, to regain Cupid's love Psyche must perform a variety of tasks. Then there is the tale of the Wife's Tub, a story of adultery that provided the source of one of Boccaccio's stories in the Decameron, and then tales of the Jealous Husband, the Fuller's Wife, and the Murderer's Wife. Eventually, having prayed to the goddess Isis, he is transformed back into a human being.

It's a strange and fantastic tale, more unsettling than entertaining I found. It's similar to Ovid, as I mentioned, for the transformations, but if anything it reminded me more of the Decameron for its frame stories, some of which are uncomfortably harsh. Nevertheless an interesting read, fun at times, but not one I'm likely to read again.

Comments

  1. Great review! My sister had a similar take; she said it was very difficult to actually like the book because of how painful and harsh several events in the narrative were! Since her reading of this more than 5 years ago, I have not been tempted and from your review, I am convinced, it will take me atleast another 5 years to get to it!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, and no, I'm not surprised I didn't tempt you :) When it comes to metamorphosising, Ovid is king!

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