Rare books: The Golden Ass

The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, called The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus) by Augustine of Hippo, is an ancient Roman novel originally written in Latin. It is a work of immense importance because it is the only such novel that is still surviving as a complete book.

Metamorphoses of Apuleius

Anybody who loves to read adventure books needs to take a look at this unique Latin novel by Apuleius. Apuleius was born in around mid 120s AD. He wrote The Golden Ass over a wide length of time initiating from the mid 150s AD. The novel tells the tale of Lucius, who gets metamorphosed into an ass when a magic spell goes wrong. The rest of the novel follows the journey of the ass. The tale is embedded with incidents that are amusing but have deep religious and social subtexts.

The Golden Ass was initially called ‘Metamorphoses’ by Apuleius. Two centuries later it was renamed by Augustine who came to know about the novel when he enrolled in the same university where Apuleius once studied. The novel is also the earliest still surviving example of a narrative form termed ‘Milesian tale’. A Milesian tale essentially showcases a collection of adventurous and often salacious encounters loosely held together by an overarching journey. The main protagonist, who undertakes the journey, generally is not a man originating from the privileged section. This form of narrative later on inspired ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Decameron’ by Giovanni Boccaccio and others.

an influence to Christie, Kafka, and Machiavelli

What struck me most about this novel is the blend of wit and thematic depth it contains. The book appears like a straightforward journey of the protagonist, encountering one anecdote and risqué incident after the other. But the work also functions at other levels. It has subtler hints of Isiac religion and Egyptian cults all throughout the novel. It is the final chapter or Book 11 that finally gives an overall explanation of these implications. John J. Winker formed an analogy of this form of narrative structure with Agatha Christie’s style of dropping hints all throughout the novel and explaining them at the end.

Apuleius started writing the book while in his 30s during the late 150s AD. However, he took a long time to finish it, maybe around three decades. This is because he perceived the central character Lucius autobiographically, and with time kept on inserting personal understandings into the work. Being known more in his time as a ‘Platonic philosopher’, Middle Platonism can be traced in the ethical code of the book, which reflects the religious and philosophical preoccupations of Apuleius. He incorporates these themes in a comical way. Humorous events play a crucial role to distinguish between a real search for philosophical truth and devotion towards superficial magic.

The events of the book over time became the source of inspiration for various other authors, like Franz Kafka and Niccolo Machiavelli. The stories were also translated into illustrative and academic painting narratives, inspiring the titillating works of Jean de Bosschere and the mythological paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Psyche et L’Amour (Psyche and Amor) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1889

the Oxford Worlds Classics edition

I really liked the writer’s honesty in his attempt at realizing the religious and philosophical undercurrents. Few modern adventure novels have this much thematic layers. The titillating events are not direct. Instead, they appear like comical allusions serving the needs of the story. These characteristics are quite unlike contemporary works, which unfortunately are generally made to be directed towards film adaptations.

I read the Oxford Worlds Classics edition, translated by P.G. Walsh, with an introduction that clearly articulates the theological and intellectual sources of inspiration for Apuleius. It also gives substantial information about the writer’s background and analyses of ‘The Golden Ass’ as observed by diverse literary analysts.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: