Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, wrote to his mistress Louise Colet in 1852:
If there is any artistic truth in the world, it’s that this book [The Golden Ass] is a masterpiece. It gives me vertigo and dazzles me….It smells of incense and urine. Bestiality is married to mysticism.
With these words a master novelist reveals his unerring insight into the unique character of the one novel in Latin to survive intact from classical antiquity. Its sole competitor might have been Petronius’ Satyricon, but that work, extraordinary as it is, has come down to us only in fragments and in a mixture of prose and verse that finds no parallel in The Golden Ass. Its author, Apuleius, was a successful rhetorician and writer from North Africa in the second century AD. He had an interest in Platonic philosophy and a taste for magic, which he had once been accused of using to win the affections of a wealthy widow. His novel, which survived from antiquity under the title Metamorphoses, is all about magic and the transformations it can cause.
Early on it attracted the attention of another Latin writer from North Africa, Saint Augustine, who was credulous enough to imagine that Apuleius might have been writing autobiography rather than fiction, and he tells us that Apuleius himself named his novel The Golden Ass. The name must already have been current in Augustine’s day and, rightly or wrongly, attributed to Apuleius despite Metamorphoses in the manuscripts. It was undoubtedly because Augustine was so well known in medieval Europe that The Golden Ass prevailed. Like the Golden Rule or Golden Mean, this donkey was very special.
The plot and the tone of Apuleius’ work are quite unlike anything else from the Greco-Roman world. A Greek traveler turns into a donkey, undergoes humiliations of many kinds (some crudely sexual) from the humans he encounters, picks up many obscene stories along the way, and then, after finally returning to human shape, witnesses an epiphany of the Egyptian goddess Isis and converts to her worship. In the midst of all this an insignificant old woman in the narrative tells, at great length and with matchless beauty, the story of Cupid and Psyche, which captured the imagination of European writers, artists, and composers for centuries.
The different registers in which the novel unfolds are dazzling, as Flaubert observed. The reader swings wildly back and forth between rollicking vulgarity and exquisite loveliness, to reach at the end a tranquil scene of deep religious devotion. Flaubert was absolutely right to emphasize the union of urine and incense, of bestiality and mysticism. The only work in the Western tradition that remotely resembles The Golden Ass is The Magic Flute, which also ends with an Egyptian initiation.
There have been relatively few translations of Apuleius into English. For many centuries after the work reappeared in the early Renaissance it was naturally read in …