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The Magical Donkey

The Golden Ass

by Apuleius, translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden
Yale University Press, 272 pp., $30.00
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Cleveland Museum of Art/Bridgeman Art Library
Jacques-Louis David: Cupid and Psyche, 1817

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 its original Latin, but a quirky English rendering in 1566 by William Adlington eventually made it more widely available. It was this version from which Shakespeare borrowed the donkey episode in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Adlington’s text was taken over into the Loeb Classical Library in the twentieth century and slumbered there until it was replaced by a new translation that appeared, without adequate revision, four years after the death of the translator. A handful of other English translations also appeared in the last century without acclaim or competition.

The publication of Sarah Ruden’s new version is a cause for celebration on many counts. Her recent Aeneid has been widely and justly admired, and when it comes to Virgil there is no shortage of distinguished competition. Ruden has now given Apuleius his first plausibly contemporary English voice since Adlington made him address Elizabethan readers more than four centuries ago. Her translation slides felicitously across the vast range of styles in the original, with its thick syntax and a diction that lurches from the resonantly archaic to the bluntly colloquial, with a generous sprinkling of neologisms and old words with new meanings.

Some earlier critics occasionally called the Latin of Apuleius baroque or, more often, African, even though there is nothing demonstrably African about it apart from the fact that Apuleius, no less than Augustine, came from North Africa. But the Latin style is so exceptional and bizarre that a translation would either require extensive annotation or none at all. Ruden has wisely decided to offer a text that does not have a single footnote. Anyone who wants such assistance can find more than enough in the extensive commentaries that are currently issuing from the Apuleian industry at the University of Groningen. Ruden provides no explanations and no parallel citations. She obviously expects her readers to read this novel as they would any other, from beginning to end without erudite interference. This makes it possible to experience the book in all its wondrous diversity and strangeness without being buried in learned exegesis.

What Apuleius tells us at the outset is quite sufficient to introduce a work that he calls a Greek story (fabula Graecanica—nothing so pedestrian as Graeca), which is indebted to a tradition of amusing if indecorous story-telling that had long been associated with the city of Miletus in Asia Minor: “Let me weave together various sorts of tales, using the Milesian mode as a loom, if you will.”

We actually do know a little something about the Greek original to which he refers. This comes from a highly indecent novella preserved from antiquity among the writings of the satirist Lucian. The hero is called Lucius, just as he is in Apuleius, and he embarks on a journey through Greece to the town of Hypata in Thessaly to visit a family friend, where he is transformed into a donkey through the misapplication of an ointment. There are good reasons for supposing this story to be an abridgment of a lost Greek work that recounted at much greater length the story of a man transformed into an ass. Apuleius’ Lucius is explicitly connected with a Corinthian family engaged in commerce with Thessaly and even said to be related to the great writer Plutarch. In view of documentary evidence for trade of this kind between Corinth and Thessaly, Apuleius may have borrowed this lineage from his source.

But overall, so far as can be told, the Greek original was extremely different from The Golden Ass. In particular, when the ass recovers his human shape he returns to the matron who had coupled with him as an animal, and the woman, vastly disappointed by what she now sees in the man Lucius, throws him out. There is no sacred initiation into the cult of Isis, and there is no trace of the tale of Cupid and Psyche. This means that the magnificently poetic registers of Apuleius’ novel were utterly lacking. and it must surely have been his inspired idea to combine the obscenities of the ass narrative with the limpid clarity of a fairy tale and the serene reverence of divine worship.

Reading Ruden allows a modern reader to imagine how Boccaccio must have felt when at Naples in the beginning of the fourteenth century he had temporary access to a copy of the eleventh-century manuscript, written at Monte Cassino, from which all later manuscripts derive. Boccaccio was so taken by Apuleius’ novel that he annotated the manuscript as he was reading it and apparently took notes for his personal use back in Florence. Meanwhile his friend Petrarch had acquired another manuscript of the work, splendidly illuminated, for his personal collection. Boccaccio found yet another copy for himself and diligently copied out the entire text.* His deep knowledge of The Golden Ass served him well when he wrote the Decameron, in which he inserted two of Apuleius’ most lubricious stories in Book 9 about wives who cheated on their absent husbands. In both stories the wives not only covered up their adultery when their husbands returned but continued to deceive them after that with a riotous insouciance worthy of Chaucer. (There is no proof that Chaucer knew the Decameron or The Golden Ass, but the similarities are inescapable.)

Boccaccio was as sensitive to the elegance of the tale of Cupid and Psyche as he was to the gross charms of the adultery episodes. In his Genealogies of the Pagan Gods he made ample use of Apuleius’ account of the love between the beautiful Psyche and Venus’ offspring Cupid. The representation of these two figures as cuddly children in ancient sculptures and paintings is far removed from the story that Apuleius tells for the first time in his novel. Psyche is not merely an allegorical personification (her name means “soul”), although she may be that. She is a young woman so ravishingly beautiful as to excite the envy of Venus herself, and her lover Cupid, who comes to her in secret at night, is by no means a prepubescent little boy. He makes her pregnant. After a penitential journey to the underworld Psyche finally marries Cupid in the presence of Jupiter and bears a child called Voluptas (“Pleasure”).

The modern history of The Golden Ass begins with Boccaccio and advances without interruption from that time to this. Raphael famously commemorated the marriage of Cupid and Psyche at the Villa Farnesina in Rome, and others, such as Fragonard, followed him in finding inspiration in this story. In the seventeenth century La Fontaine included the tale in his collection of fables, and from this Molière and Pierre Corneille joined together to create a tragédie-ballet in 1671 for which Jean-Baptiste Lully composed the music. This impelled the English Matthew Locke to compose his Psyche in 1675. A few years later Lully created an opera out of Molière’s material with the help of Corneille’s brother Thomas.

La Fontaine’s fable became famous among eighteenth-century Russian poets, and that led to a famous poem, Dushenka (“Little Soul”), by I.F. Bogdanovich in 1778, which the young Pushkin knew and admired. In Book 8 of Pushkin’s verse novel Yevgeni Onegin he explicitly names Apuleius as a classical author that his young hero had read willingly at school, unlike Cicero. In 1787 came the first of Antonio Canova’s two dramatic sculptures of the winged Cupid’s amorous descent from above into Psyche’s outstretched arms for a rapturous kiss. Naturally the union of these two inspired many nineteenth-century Romantic painters, such as Jacques-Louis David, François-Édouard Picot, William Etty, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. For Walter Pater and other late-nineteenth-century aesthetes Apuleius was irresistible, and he actually appears as a character in Pater’s Marius the Epicurean.

If the Cupid and Psyche tale has received more attention than the other components of The Golden Ass—the donkey’s adventures and the conversion to the worship of Isis—that is undoubtedly because it can stand so easily on its own as a beguiling fairy tale. It comes close to beginning “Once upon a time…” Here is Ruden: “In a certain city there lived a king and queen who had daughters three in number and illustrious in beauty.” These words abruptly alter the tone of the obscene and violent narrative that has gone before. Ruden is sensitive to this dramatic change, as to so many others. Apuleius himself had stated in the opening lines of his work that his style came from his desultoria scientia—a metaphor from horse-riding that refers to leaping from mount to mount. Ruden perceptively translates this as his “genre-jumping training.” Her similarly ingenious renderings of many other difficult phrases are too numerous to catalog, but some delightful examples deserve mention.

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In describing the bedroom where a lecherous housemaid planned to welcome the novel’s hero before his transformation, Apuleius characterizes the scene as gladiatoriae Veneris antecenia, which Ruden brilliantly renders as “a picnic lunch before Venus’s gladiatorial games.” Later the same lady offers less strenuous sexual activity by providing a puerile corollarium, which appears amusingly in Ruden as “offered me that extra you usually get only from boys.” When Apuleius uses a Virgilian word with a highly unusual adjective to create a startlingly audacious phrase, pratentibus virectis, Ruden solves the problem by creating an equally audacious phrase of her own, “virid meadows.” Her use of “gentle” as a transitive verb (“perhaps you’ll gentle her savage onslaughts”) is thoroughly Apuleian without being a direct borrowing from Apuleius’ diction (saevientes impetus eius mitigas). Particularly admirable is Ruden’s translation of a long and syntactically dense sentence in which the ass compares himself to Odysseus and alludes explicitly to the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey:

nec inmerito priscae poeticae divinus auctor apud Graios summae prudentiae virum monstrare cupiens multarum civitatium obitu et variorum populorum cognitu summas adeptum virtutes cecinit…
It was not for nothing that early on among the Greeks, when the godlike originator of poetry wished to illustrate a really superior intelligence, he sang about a man’s visiting many cities and getting to know various races, through which experiences he attained the highest excellence.

This translation mirrors the slightly archaic tone of the Latin vocabulary and the interlocked order of the last four words. Without notes or commentary Ruden effectively delivers Apuleius to a modern reader.

In her translation of one of the stories that Boccaccio adapted for his Decameron, the tale of the adultery of a baker’s wife in Book 9 of The Golden Ass, Ruden turns Apuleius’ over-the-top characterization of the lecherous lady into a brilliantly matched English version:

There wasn’t a single fault missing from that dame, who had nothing whatsoever to recommend her; on the contrary, every wicked passion, bar none, had flooded into a heart that was like some slimy privy. A fiend in a fight but not very bright, hot for a crotch, wine-botched, rather die than let a whim pass by—that was her.

Here is the Latin, with Ruden’s language inserted for comparison at the appropriate places. The final rhymes and jingles will only be apparent if the Latin is read out loud: Nec enim vel unum vitium nequissimae illi feminae [that dame] deerat, sed omnia prorsus ut in quandam caenosam latrinam [some slimy privy] in eius animum flagitia confluxerant: saeva scaeva [a fiend in a fight, but not very bright], virosa ebriosa [hot for a crotch, wine-botched], pervicax pertinax [rather die than let a whim pass by]. In 1566 William Adlington had come up with:

There was not one single fault that was lacking to her, but all the mischiefs that could be devised had flowed into her heart as into some filthy privy; she was crabbed, cruel, cursed, drunk, obstinate, niggish.

At his death in 1985, J. Arthur Hanson had written for the new Loeb:

That vile woman lacked not a single fault. Her soul was like some muddy latrine into which absolutely every vice had flowed. She was cruel and perverse, crazy for men and wine, headstrong and obstinate.

Ruden’s achievement goes well beyond both of these.

But what Sarah Ruden has chosen, quite correctly, not to deliver to the modern reader is a translation of the notorious and much-discussed lines that were added, in a fourteenth-century hand, to the margin of a thirteenth-century copy of the Monte Cassino manuscript that appears to lie behind all subsequent copies of Apuleius’ novel. Although that fundamental manuscript had been mutilated at some stage and lost part of Book 9, at least one integral copy had been made before that happened. This allowed Boccaccio to copy a complete text, into which he could insert the lines from the margin of the thirteenth-century manuscript, which he had seen in Naples. They are the work of an unknown scribe who let his sexual fantasies run wild, perhaps at Monte Cassino. They are traditionally and notoriously identified in Apuleian scholarship as the spurcum additamentum (“the dirty supplement”), and their author has even been genially dubbed Spurcus (“Dirty Man”).

The supplement was meant to be added in Book 10 where a wealthy matron engages the ass in steamy sexual intercourse. The writer, whose language clearly signals a far later date than Apuleius, describes the woman’s manipulation of the animal’s gigantic penis with her fingers, which are enumerated one at a time by words that are in fact the names of the strings of a lyre. It has long been recognized that the author of these lines had misunderstood a passage in an ancient treatise on music and thus accidentally exposed his faulty erudition along with his impure thoughts.

Because of its salacious character as well as its evident attraction for Boccaccio, this supplement has received much more attention than it deserves, though not without gains for scholarship. We now know from the handwriting that the man who added the text in the margin of the thirteenth-century manuscript was Zanobi da Strada, a distinguished scholar, poet, and friend of Boccaccio, but unfortunately this revelation does nothing to illuminate the identity of the man who composed it. Ruden, as everywhere, shows her good judgment by omitting it altogether even while brilliantly rendering many authentic episodes that are almost as obscene.

Although the hero and narrator of The Golden Ass was called Lucius, exactly as he was in the Greek model for the story, the first name (praenomen) of Apuleius is unknown. That even someone as sophisticated as Augustine could have imagined for a moment that the novel was in any sense autobiographical depends entirely upon one chapter in the eleventh and final book of the novel. This is the account of Lucius’ conversion to Isis. At a certain moment a priest of Osiris, whose cult was closely allied to that of Isis, says that he had been made aware of the imminent initiation of “someone from Madauros,” and that someone is clearly Lucius.

Apuleius himself came from Madauros, now Mdaourouch in Algeria, where it is generally believed that the city honored him with a statue. In fact, an inscribed base for a statue of a Platonic philosopher at Madauros has been traditionally assumed to refer to him because, from his other writings, he could easily be described as a Platonist. So what is to be done with the sudden and unexpected identification of the novel’s hero Lucius, who had declared at the start that he came from Corinth, with a man from Madauros?

This may well be yet another and final transformation, a kind of sacred mystification in which a religious experience that Apuleius had personally undergone is folded into the novel that he so creatively constructed on the basis of a Greek original. By the time he reached Book 11 he might perhaps have introduced an autobiographical record of conversion, but Apuleius is far too subtle to provide his readers with a simple key to the interpretation of the Isis episode, any more than he tells us why he lavished such care on the story of Cupid and Psyche, which is wholly irrelevant to the ass narrative and utterly unlike it. Yet readers can easily recognize in that sublime tale an elevated tone and calm serenity that has much in common with the religiosity of the initiation at the end.

Those two parts of The Golden Ass, widely separated, are precisely those where Flaubert detected the odor of incense, rising like a burnt offering from the acrid stench of urine, just as Lucius’ bestiality was linked through Lucius’ transformations with mysticism. Whatever Apuleius was trying to tell us, apart from a series of very good stories, we shall probably never find out, but no reader has ever finished his novel without sensing something profoundly moving. It is a response not at all unlike the way we respond to The Magic Flute. We owe Sarah Ruden a great debt of thanks for making this experience so directly accessible in an English translation that is no less inventive, varied, and surprising than the original.

  1. *

    See Julia Haig Gaisser’s important and wide-ranging study, The Fortunes of Apuleius and The Golden Ass: A Study in Transmission and Reception (Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 76–121. 

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