This is one of the most important books of Roman texts and one of the most loved ones of its time. It is also the one mythological-fiction literature book that has been completely survived from Roman literature.
Apuleius was born in Madaura of Africa at 125 a.C. and he was a Roman citizen. His father had served in the public sector as a high member of it. Apuleius studied in his city and then went to the center of Latin studies in Africa, Karchedona. He became a rhetor and he wanted to continue his studies further. He came to Athens, the throne of spiritual development and he studied the Hellenic language, philosophy, and magic. At that time, Hellas was destroyed by the Romans and the later emperors have restored Athens by building monuments and raising statues. Priests from the east were living in Athens, but the philosophical schools and the education of the citizens weren't close to the level of the Classical or the Hellenistic Era. But, there were exceptions and Apuleius found these exceptions, mainly in Neoplatonic philosophy. We know that because he wrote on daimons following the Platonic teachings and that there was an inscription calling him philosophus platonicus.
Be careful when you read this book, not to believe the common ideas on theology as he expresses what folk people believed at its time, and certainly don't be confused that folk magic is religious magic. It is said that he was a great student and a handsome man. We can see that from the surviving coin. He took the way of return to Karchedona, but as he was traveling, he married the mother of one of his classmates, and then they returned to Karchedon. During his studies, he spent all of his fortune and so, thus marriage saved him economically. He became a member of the political and social life and he was honored with a statue as he was still alive. At the age of 35, he wrote Metamorphoses, with the main hero, carrying a lot of similarities with him, so we can say that Lucius is Apuleius. But, what he is trying to say to us? That his arrival to Athens transformed him into a donkey or that he gained wisdom and experience and he valued the initiation into mystery cults? Or does he wants to say that we should treat animals in a humane way? This is something the reader of his works should answer. He also wrote on the god of Socrates and Florida, an anthology. He went back to Karchedon and then he spent his years in Rome.
Metamorphoses/The Golden Ass
The book Metamorphoses was written in 161 a.C. and it was read by all social statuses and categories of people (soldiers, kings, philosophers, working people) for entertainment, and for us today is the most important text on the mystery cult of Isis, initiation to the ancient cults, and the daily life in Hellas during the Romand Era, the period of Pax Romana. Apuleius based the hypothesis of the book on a book written by another Hellene, Lucius from Patrai. The main hero is Hellene Lucius, who travels to different places of Hellas and engages in many adventures, seeing people from different social positions as he is transformed into an ass/donkey. He visited Thessalia to find a friend (Milon) and then learns that his wife is a witch. So, in his effort to experience witchcraft he uses an ointment, but a mistake transformed him into a donkey, instead of an owl. He starts to live as a donkey and he made several efforts to transform into a human again. The donkey changes owners throughout the adventurous life he has and sees different people, lives in different situations, and learns a lot of things from people and society. In books four to seven, he is a member of a thieves gang. In book eight he is serving a bunch of fake priests of Cybele. He makes fun of their ill passions, being homosexuals. Book nine is about working to a mill and witnessing more unfaithful wives. In book ten he is making tricks and having sex with a woman. In the end, in book eleven, due to his bad luck, he escapes and goes to the beach and prays to the female goddesses to help him. Isis appears to him in order to help him. After that, he becomes an initiate and a priest of Isis in Hellas, in Rome, and of Osiris, being initiated three times. We see how his life completely changed after the appearance of the goddess Isis, his actions, and his communion with the Gods. We also learn a lot about witchcraft, magick, and mystery religions.
The book is full of adventurous stories, it is funny, full of unfaithful wives, sex, witchcraft, and bad luck, interesting, and one of the best books you will ever read in your life.
Eros and Psyche
In books, four, five, and six, Apuleius escapes the theme of his book and narrates a myth. This was something common in Platonic philosophy, and so we see it here. This is an exceptional myth of the god eros/cupid falling in love with the mortal psyche and causing the wrath of his mother Aphrodite. Psyche is a very beautiful girl and her sisters envy her, as well as Aphrodite. Other goddesses can't help her, because Aphrodite is their friend. So, the woman ends up alone to perform some tasks that Aphrodite makes her do, in order to kill her. Aphrodite is presented as a bad goddess, which has nothing to do with the nature of the goddess. It is a symbolic myth and we will write about it in another article.
The nice thing is that we have a description of Eros, the god that makes people fall in love with his arrows. He has long blond hair and pink feathers starting from his shoulders. He carries a bow with arrows. His cheeks are rose, his skin is thin and white and he has a nice, sweet smell. When he is injured, he needs a lot of time to heal.
God Pan and Goddess Demeter
In book five he appears to sit on a hill next to the river. He plays the syringe (Pan's flute) and he accompanies his goats. He is goat-foot and he calls Psyche close to him. He appears to be a kind god and he comforts her. He says the future is due to his life experience. He is making young Psyche avoid suicide and he advises her to pray to god Eros, as he is sensitive "and your submission will make him calm and soft". This is a nice description of the nature of god.
Demeter sees young Psyche and she tells her that Aphrodite is searching for her, but she can stay at her altar and work with Her devotion, in order to forget her troubles. The tears of the young girl cause the sympathy of the goddess, but she can't help her further due to her friendship with Aphrodite. Notice that Demeter is not taking her to Aphrodite, neither She tells Her where she is.
Necromancy and Witchcraft
Apuleius presents witches of Hellas and especially of Thessaly as people who can do unbelievable things. They can make the rivers go backward, stop the sea, delay the night, go to see the gods, stop the sun, move the stars out of the sky, control the weather, transform into any animal they want, raise the dead, freeze the waters, put the 12 gods to hades, delay giving birth, kill people with ease, use poisonous plants perfectly, raise houses and move them 100 miles away, kill someone and make him feel alive for hours, have telekinesis. All of these are things we see in the first book.
In the second book, we see Pamphile, the wife of Milon, who is an old woman, famous and fearful for her witchcraft and the wisest in necromancy. She makes young people fall in love with her, she is transforming into animals, she uses the spirits of the dead to her will, she reads the light of the lamp, etc. Our friend Apuleius, a young man full of curiosity and very educated, wanted to learn her art. He falls in love with her servant Photis and she learns that she is also a witch. She tells him that one day her mistress will transform into a bird. She watches the transformation and he tries an ointment too. But he is using the wrong vase, so he is becoming a donkey.
We also see that women worked with the dead in the cemeteries and when the relatives put a guard on the graves, witches had their way to make them fall asleep. Necromancy was also related to animal transformation. Maybe, that's why Hekate ofter appears animal-faced. You can read about the art of necromancy on the website.
Egyptian prophet Zachlas takes a herb, touches it on the mouth of the dead, then to his chest, turns to the east, says a prayer to the sun, and then the dead becomes alive. That's what Apuleius writes in the second book. The body raised and he spoke about the crime of his wife. She was unfaithful and she killed him with poisonous plants. After that, he returned to the world of the dead.
Pamphile performs a ritual in her room. We see that her room is suitable because she can be alone, and the four winds can enter (so, she uses the elements). She uses hair from the person she wants to enchant, as we do today... She has scents, blades with mysterious letters, pieces of sank ships, and parts of dead people. She also uses nails and she uses skulls and teeth from wild animals. Her offerings are milk from a cow, spring water, mountain honey, and scented woods.
When Lucius is transformed into a donkey, he sees in the stable the picture of the goddess Epona, the protectress of the stables. So, we see that Epona was worshipped in
Aphrodite puts a task on Psyche to go to Hades. He goes to a tower to fall and die, but a voice advises her to go to the necromanteion (oracle of necromancy) of Tainaro, which is a gate to the underworld. She also explains to her the procedure. She takes two coins to give to Charon and two honey pies to feed Kerberos. She performs the task well, but she opens the box that Persephone gave her and she opens it instead of giving it to Aphrodite. From that story, we see that if someone wanted to visit the dead, it was possible, yet very risky.
We read about a custom in book eight. When a man died, his wife could present him as a god and worship him. This god was relevant to her husband. she made an altar with the image of the dead husband and prayed to him. This custom provided comfort to the widow. It is still better than visiting the cemetery, as we do today.
In book nine, a witch uses her power to send a ghost of a woman to threaten a lover who wasn't coming back to her client.
In book ten we see the use of the mandrake, which was also used by Odysseus, to sleep a person. He was considered to be dead and he was buried, until the doctor ordered his freedom. Eventually, the young man was revived and a crime was revealed too.
The Fake Priests
In book eight the donkey is sold to a bunch of fake priests of Cybele, who are homosexuals and Apuleius is making them look funny, as it is when men are transformed into women. They wanted to use the donkey for sex, or at least this was the joke when they saw the donkey. The important thing is that he describes mania through a ritual and Apuleius cleverly notices "the presence of the gods cannot make a man ill and crazy, it should make him good." The priest acts like a demon because he wasn't possessed by a god. In fact, these people had stolen a piece from Cybele's altar and they managed to present themselves as real devotees of Her and gather money for themselves, passing all villages and towns. They did orgies and sex against nature in different positions. They also wanted to cut the donkey's feet, but in the end, they were arrested and revealed in book nine. I have written about fake devotees on the website, (1, 2) you can search for it. As you see, it's not something new.
The Contribution Of Isis
A guilty woman is sentenced to have sex with the donkey, Lucius. He is afraid of miasma, having sex with a killer and so he escapes to Kegchrees, close to Corinthos. He reaches the sea and takes a nap in the warm sand. He wakes at night and he sees the moon. He enters the sea to purify himself and he puts his head into the water 7 times, as Pythagoras taught. Then he prays to Demeter, Aphrodite, Persephone and sleeps again.
In his dream, he sees a female form with curly hair, wearing a crown of flowers, the moon on Her head, two snakes below wheat, wearing a linen thin dress of 1000 colors, black cloth on top, stars glowing at her dress, fruits and flowers embroidered on it. She holds a copper sistrum and a golden vase with a cobra-like hold. She wore sandals of a palm tree. She smells magnificent. Isis speaks. I am not going to share Her words so that you will have the pleasure to read the book. But, she appears to incorporate all the goddesses, as being the ultimate divinity and she gives details to Lucius about how he will become human again through her divine intervention. She appears to be protective and caring. She asks in return to devote his life to Her and Her cult. Isis promises full protection and good luck and long life, beyond the limits of fate.
Lucius wakes up and finds the magnificent pomp of the goddess Isis and he also knows that Her priest is also informed via another dream. In the pomp we see people wearing costumes of different occupations, animals were costumed too. The crowd was fun and everyone was laughing. The female devotees spread flowers and scented oils. Numerous people held torches and candles. Musicians played flute, recorder, and sistrums. The images of the gods were consecrating the streets. The initiates wore white linen clothes and the priests hold the holy items. We also see the gods walking among the crowd. The high priest holds the sistrum and a rose crown for the donkey. Lucius approaches gently, eats the crown, and becomes human again. People admired the miracle of transformation and they seem very happy. Lucius wears a white cloth and follows the pomp. From this moment, he decided to devote his life to Isis. He leads the pomp to the sea, at the point he was praying last night and they left the sacred boat of Isis to the sea. Then the pomp returned to the temple of Isis and read wishes for the good of the emperor and the people. The crowd kissed the feet of Isis, left olive branches, verbena, and roses to the statue, and left.
The news of Lucius' luck arrived in his city and his friends came to pay him a visit. He was devoted to Isis and Her cult and he was walking the path of the priest. He wasn't allowed to be initiated to the mysteries of Isis unless the goddess allowed him to do it. Usually, he expected a vision that didn't come yet. Eventually, he was approved and he started the preparations as they were written in a mysterious book with unknown letters and symbols. They should look like our magickal alphabets. Lucius says that he arrived at Hades and saw the gods. After his initiation, he felt happiness and pleasure. Apuleius saves a prayer to Isis too.
He arrived in Rome on the 12th of December and Isis told him to initiate again in Rome. Then, She advised him to be an initiate to the cult of Osiris too. We see that Osiris and Serapis were identified. Lucius became a priest of Isis and Osiris and had the right to work too. He became a successful layer and kept the degree of pastophoros.
There are some similarities with Wicca today. Lucius was initiated three times to a male and a female divinity. Three are the initiations in Wicca. He served a male and a female. Isis appears as the ultimate Goddess, which is one Goddess, and Her cult cannot be complete without the cult of Osiris. We also see offerings and daily ceremonies. The cult of Isis was established in Hellas (Athens, Thessaly, Macedonia, Aegina, Syros, Corinth, Patrai, Argos) and in Rome, although, it was under hunt in Rome from time to time.
Hekate as Persephone
Apuleius names Persephone in his prayer, but he is actually praying to Hekate. He says that the goddess:
- screams at night
- has three faces
- keeps close the borders of the earth
- wanders in the forests
- ceremonies to Her name calm Her
- She bathes the cities with Her light and nurtures the seeds
- when She wanders alone she spreads an uncertain glow
We can understand that in the 2nd-century a.C. Hekate was identified with Persephone too, yet Apuleius knows Hekate, as he is referring to Her through Isis.