Apuleius? Golden Ass Essay, Research Paper
Apuleius’ Golden Ass, the only surviving novel of the Roman Empire, is a tale of a Greek nobleman devoting his life to the goddess Isis following his transformation to an ass and back. Although a work of fiction, the novel reveals a great deal about religion in Apuleius’ society. This information, however, must be viewed with a critical eye. He incorporates stories from Greco-Roman mythology not to affirm their validity, but to reveal their commonness to society. Apuleius insults other religions that are not of the Pantheon with severe viciousness, while the general public may have been more open to them. In the end, he praises Isis and Osiris as the supreme gods while giving first hand account of their righteousness. Overall, Apuleius’ view of religion cannot be trusted.
From the very start we see Apuleius using references to Roman myths as similes to everyday occurrences. When Fotis, the slave, enters his bedroom to make love to him, he remarks that “she stood, transformed into a living statue: the Love-goddess rising from the sea. The flushed hand with which she pretended to screen her mount of Venus showed that she was well aware of the resemblance; certainly it was not held there from modesty.” He describes a slave girl trying to seduce him as Venus rising out of the sea. Some of this description may be a hyperbole for Lucius’ love of Fotis. However, Apuleius goes beyond this by linking Fotis directly to Venus. Thus, the most beautiful goddess in the Pantheon is easily seen in a slave girl. Similarly, Thelyphron, when telling the story how members of a household attacked him, describes himself as feeling “like Adonis mauled by the wild boar, or Orpheus torn in pieces by the Thracian women.” This is especially ironic since it is later revealed that Thelyphron’s nose and ears were replaced by wax the night before. As the wild boar mutilated the handsome Adonis, the witches and the people of Hypta had disfigured Thelyphron. Other incidents that are similar to stories in myth occur throughout the novel. Like these two incidents, the others also follow the pattern of showing that things occurring in everyday Greek life (having sexual relations with a slave and getting attacked by an angry mob) were nearly synonymous with divine tales.
Following Lucious’ transformation to an ass, he takes on a more frontal assault towards the minor religions present in the Roman Empire at the time. He outright calls the eunuch priests that worship the Syrian Goddess frauds. The priests stay
“Where the public were very kind to them: in particular they made a good deal of money by professing to tell fortunes. Between them, these pious frauds composed an all-purpose oracle for the Goddess to deliver by their mouths, and used it to cheat a great many people who came to consult her on all sorts of questions.” (Graves, pg. 198-199)
By not revealing the specifics of the religion of the eunuchs, Apuleius leaves open the possibility of applying the fraudulent aspect to other outside religions in the empire. With a short paragraph he discredits several cults in the empire as being money driven and simply not true. It is also evident, however, that the public does not share Lucius’ distrust of the foreign goddess. In fact, they appear to be very open to her, and consequently to other deities. While discussing the wife of one of his owners, a miller, Lucius states that
“She also professed perfect scorn for the Immortals and rejected all true religion in favor of a fantastic blasphemous cult of an ‘Only God.’ In his honor she practiced various absurd ceremonies which gave her the excuse of getting drunk quite early in the day and playing the whore at all hours.” (Graves, pg. 204)
This attack is much more serious than the one on the eunuch because of the mention of “Only God.” Although not exactly clear, this could be a reference to Christianity, Judaism, or one of the many other monotheistic religions in the Empire at the time. We must remember that Apuleius’ ultimate goal is to convince us of the superiority of his eventual patroness, Isis. Therefore, we can take the reference to “Only God” to be referring to all the religions that advocated monotheism. The element of the wine does not exclude either of the major religions since both Judaism and Christianity contain ceremonial wine drinking in their services. Religions that were not part of the mainstream religions of the Empire face a direct assault on their credibility by Apuleius. Concepts of a statue Goddess and an “Only God” are ridiculed and looked down upon by Apuleius.
Apuleius’ tone changes dramatically when describing the transformation back to a man with the aid of the goddess Isis. He describes merely what he sees, and leaves it up to the reader to decide whether he is telling the truth or not. Beginning with the original vision of the goddess rising out of the sea, Apuleius inundates us with examples of Isis’ greatness, kindness, and reality. Following his transformation, Lucius devotes his life to the service of Isis, and in the process he continues to have “some new vision of her” (Graves, pg. 275) every time he sleeps. The use of irony makes Lucius’ conversion more dramatic and more believable at the same time. His obsession with hair that shows up throughout the novel vanishes when he joins the service of Isis, and becomes bald. Also as a result of joining her service, Lucius, the man that had sex through the night for several nights with a slave, vows to lead a celibate life thereafter. The loss of these two earthly desires show the impact of Isis on Lucius, which in turn proves her existence.
In the novel The Golden Ass, Apuleius tries to convince his readers, educated men of the Roman Empire and provinces, that the goddess Isis is the one supreme goddess. To prove his point, Apuleius first discounts all other worships. Throughout the novel he describes things that happen to individuals in terms of the traditional Greco-Roman myths. He subtly chips away at the traditional Roman gods, avoiding a direct attack on the Pantheon because the vast majority of his audience believed in it. If he attacked them directly, he would surely not be considered credible. With the other religions, however, Apuleius reserves nothing. He declares religions of Asia Minor to be fraudulent and calls monotheistic religions “blasphemous.” After questioning the other religions, Apuleius goes on to praise the worship of Isis. As a result, we the contemporary reader cannot infer too much about Roman religion from The Golden Ass.