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The Golden Ass

This novel, written in Latin in the second century A.D., is also known variously as The Transformations of Lucius Apuleius of Madaura, and The Metamorphoses, but it is not to be confused with the poem "The Metamorphoses" by Ovid.

Written by Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass is a literary classic whose influence can be seen in the writings of Giovanni Boccaccio and Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra. By its reflection in the works of these and other classic authors, the influence of The Golden Ass has passed through the ages to have a major effect on the development of the western novel.

Bawdy, violent, darkly comic, dripping with pathos, The Golden Ass entertains with tales of black magic, torture, murder, bestiality, sodomy and disfigurement... and yet, at its heart, it is the story of a moral and spiritual journey, leading to the protagonist's ultimate initiation into the cults of Isis, Osiris, and Aesculapius.

Apuleius' Golden Ass was not an original story. Rather, it was a reworking of a story already told in two previous novels, The Ass, by Lucius of Patra, and Lucius, or the Ass, by Lucian of Samosata. But Apuleius' book was a major reworking of the story that managed to transform the base material of a popular folk tale into a literary masterpiece... a transformation that is analogous to the transformation of the crude ass Lucius into a deeply spiritual man of high moral character.

The basic story is that of a man named Lucius who travels to Thessaly, where he is tempted to explore his interest in the magical art of witchcraft. He manages to find himself in close proximity to a powerful witch, and attempts to steal the secret formula to transform himself into an owl, but through a stupid blunder he is instead transformed into an ass. He then goes on to live a very hard and dangerous life, surrounded by suffering and disaster on all sides, and beseiged by every imaginable form of trouble, until he is transformed into a human again one year later through the divine aid of the goddess Isis. Thankful for his salvation, he becomes spiritually enlightened.

Within the framework of this story, the author works in several tangential stories, both humorous and tragic, in a classic story teller fashion. Among the included stories, the most famous is probably that of Cupid and Psyche, a romance between the love god, and a mortal woman whose beauty is said to rival that of Cupid’s mother, Venus, which inspires Venus’ jealous rage.

In his book, Apuleius also managed to poke fun at the Christian faith, as in the following passage:

"She also professed perfect scorn for the 
Immortals and rejected all true religion 
in favor of a fantastic and blasphemous 
cult of an 'Only God.'  In his honor she 
practised various absurd ceremonies which 
gave her the excuse of getting drunk quite 
early in the day and playing the whore at 
all hours..."

This must be one of the several reasons why the book was condemned by the Christians, and by Apuleius' contemporary and fellow countryman, St. Augustine. It is fortunate that the book survived the efforts of the Catholic Inquisition to have it destroyed in the fifteenth century.

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