From Donkey to Redeemed: The Roman World Through the Eyes of an Animal
What's it like waking up and being stuck in a donkey skin? The Roman author Apuleius shows his readers their everyday life from the perspective of a donkey. The Golden Donkey is a funny satire and a realistic picture of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1960
You’ll enjoy yourself, Apuleius tells his reader in order to convince him of undertaking the adventurous journey through the ancient Mediterranean world in the shape of an ass. And the story is enjoyable indeed. Because of his insatiable curiosity the sceptical Lucius gets involved with a witch and when attempting a charm accidentally transforms himself into a donkey. That’s when his reality changes fundamentally. From that moment onwards he is entirely at the mercy of his owners. The stick is the least of what he endures. He suffers from other people’s capriciousness, brutality, and sexual perversion; he suffers famine, cold, and pain. He witnesses much evil, little good, and remains more human in his ass’ shape than many of his owners.
If you look beyond this superficial plot, you will discover a confusing mindgame of philosophical debates, religious beliefs, and ethical investigations. What, for instance, are we to make of the thirst for knowledge, or, less eloquently put, curiosity? Is it worth moving around in the shape of an ass for years only to satisfy your curiosity? And what about that beautiful tale of Amor and Psyche that Apuleius seems to have somewhat randomly thrown in and that art productions have reworked so many times since? Is it about the bane of curiosity? The power of love? The meaning of life?
Apuleius’ novel is a bewitching puzzle that unfolds on many levels at once. It offers entertainment or food for thought to the reader, depending on how deep you want to get into it. And that makes the novel an allegory of Rome’s latest form of religion at the time, the mystery religions.
What the cult of Isis, Cybele, or Christ had in common was that they could be attractive for outsiders even without background knowledge. For the insider, however, they meant his life changed fundamentally. In the novel Lucius experiences such a transformation. The story ends when Cybele frees him from his donkey’s shape and initiates him into the mysteries of Isis.
Scholars argue about the extent of Apuleius’ autobiographical influences on the Golden Ass. Apuleius himself was a curious man, rich, educated, and initiated to the mysteries of Isis. He probably knew quite a bit about magic. That almost led to his downfall. He was accused of having coerced a rich widow into consenting to marriage with the aid of a love spell. In Rome such magic deserved to be punished by death. So it was a matter of life and death for Apuleius, who was able to prove his total innocence in a court speech, which was published later on. This speech, by the way, is recognized today as our most important source for understanding ancient magic practice.
Despite Apuleius’ acquittal the pagan writings of Late Antiquity treated him as a great magician. He became a sort of Anti-Christ. That’s why his work has survived. After all, the fathers of the church had to know the books they wanted to disprove. Boccaccio was the first to appreciate the entertainment value of the Golden Ass. He reworked several episodes into thrilling novellas. Many followed his example, not least Shakespeare in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the actor Bottom’s hope of a small annuity is rewarded with a donkey’s head instead.