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The Golden Ass
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The Golden Ass

The Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, more commonly known as The Golden Ass, is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety. Written in the second century CE, it is a precursor to the literary genre of the episodic picaresque novel, in which Rabelais, Boccaccio, Voltaire, Defoe, and many others have followed. It is an imaginative, irreverent and amusing work that relates the ludicrous adventures of one Lucius, a virile young man who is obsessed with magic. Finding himself in Thessaly, the "birthplace of magic", Lucius eagerly seeks an opportunity to see magic being performed. His over-enthusiasm leads to his accidental transformation into an ass. In this guise, Lucius, a member of the Roman country aristocracy, is forced to witness and share the misery of slaves and destitute freemen who are reduced, like Lucius, to being little more than beasts of burden by their exploitation at the hands of wealthy landowners.
The Golden Ass is the only surviving work of literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world to examine, from a first-hand perspective, the abhorrent condition of the lower classes. Yet despite its serious subject matter, the novel remains imaginative, witty, and often sexually explicit. Numerous amusing stories, many of which seem to be based on actual folk tales with their ordinary themes of simple-minded husbands, adulterous wives, and clever lovers, as well as the magical transformations that characterize the entire novel, are included within the main narrative. The longest of these inclusions is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, encountered here for the first but not the last time in Western literature. Apuleius' style is as amusing as his stories, for though he was not a Roman by birth, Apuleius was a master of Latin prose. In the introduction to his translation of The Golden Ass, Jack Lindsay writes:

Let us glance at some of the details of Apuleius' style and it will become clear that English translators have not even tried to preserve and carry over the least tincture of his manner... Take the description of the baker's wife: saeva scaeva virosa ebriosa pervicax pertinax... The nagging clashing effect of the rhymes gives us half the meaning. I quote two well-known versions: 'She was crabbed, cruel, cursed, drunken, obstinate, niggish.' 'She was mischievous, malignant, addicted to men and wine, froward and stubborn.' And here is the most recent one (by R. Graves): 'She was malicious, cruel, spiteful, lecherous, drunken, selfish, obstinate.' Read again the merry and expressive doggerel of Apuleius and it will be seen how little of his vision of life has been transferred into English.

Lindsay's own version is: "She was lewd and crude, a toper and a groper, a nagging hag of a fool of a mule."

Yet in the last chapter, the style abruptly changes. Driven to desperation, Lucius calls for divine aid, and is answered by the goddess Isis. With the goddess' help, Lucius is able to return to his human form, subsequently becoming initiated in and dedicating his life to the mystery cults of Isis and Osiris. The humourous prose of the earlier chapters is exchanged for an equally powerful, sometimes quasi-poetic style that draws upon Lucius' religious experiences, which were likely autobiographical The final chapter is not entirely humourless, but the humour has become much more subtle.

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