BMCR 2009.06.33

Witches, Isis and Narrative: Approaches to Magic in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes; 2

, Witches, Isis and Narrative: Approaches to Magic in Apuleius' Metamorphoses. Trends in Classics - Supplementary Volumes; 2. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. xii, 255. ISBN 9783110205947. $98.00.

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In the Simpsons episode Thank God it’s Doomsday, Homer, Bart, and Lisa watch a movie called Left Below. In this film, an atheist husband refuses to accompany his pious wife to church, despite the fact that she cites indubitable signs of the approaching Rapture. Instead he has a rendezvous with what appears to be his secretary. While they are exchanging passionate kisses in the backseat of his limo, their driver suddenly disappears leaving only his empty uniform behind. “Where did my Christian limo driver go?” wonders the perplexed adulterer, as the car crashes into a lamppost. When the two sinners get out of the badly damaged limo, they encounter other people mystified by similar disappearances. “My pious husband is missing,” exclaims an elderly lady; “The baby I chose to have baptized is gone,” screams a young mother of twins. “It’s the Rapture,” the protagonist of the movie explains to his mistress, “the pious have gone to Heaven, and the rest of us have been… left below…”. Amidst thickening clouds and torrential rain, we see other sinners being washed away by the waters of the apocalyptic flood — a Buddhist monk (“I thought all religions were a path to God — I was wrong!”), a woman desperately holding on to her TV (“why did I put my faith in science and technology?”), and a well-groomed young man (“why did I choose to be gay?!”).

The Manichaean clarity with which this movie portrays the conflict between good and evil provides a fairly accurate idea of how Stavros Frangoulidis reads Apuleius’ Golden Ass. According to Frangoulidis, the novel’s plot unfolds along the lines of a clear-cut dualism — from the unbridled sinful sensuality in Books 1-10 to the spiritual life of sexual abstinence in the Isis Book. This contrast is further emphasized by the difference between two kinds of magic depicted in the novel — the debased, deceptive, and ultimately wrong magic of the Thessalian witches and the elevated, enlightening, and true magic of Isis. When Lucius becomes romantically involved with a witch’s maid, Photis, Thessalian magic virtually turns into a synonym for despicable sexual pleasure. His metamorphosis into an ass — an embodiment of exaggerated sexuality par excellence — can thus be regarded as a highly fitting outward manifestation of his corrupt nature. Towards the end of his adventures as an ass, Lucius undergoes another metamorphosis, however. By running away from the Corinthian arena, where he is supposed to perform a public sex act with a convict woman, he “refuses to behave in a bestial manner and renounces sexuality, thus saving his life and foreshadowing his celibate life as a human priest” (p. 40). Under the aegis of Isis, Lucius not only regains his human appearance but also “views himself as a reborn character whose sexuality is replaced with abstinence and whose foolishness becomes wisdom” (p.7). “Thereafter Lucius spends the rest of his life in Rome fulfilling his religious and civic duties and earning both fame and material wealth” (p. 147). In other words, as a reformed sinner he begins to live an ideal religious life that combines, as it were, Catholic (or Orthodox) monastic celibacy with Protestant business ethics.

The most significant difference between the Simpsons movie and Frangoulidis’s version of Apuleius’ Golden Ass is not so much their respective theological implications (the rational selectivity of the Rapture vs. the boundless grace of the pagan deity) as the fact that the former is obviously a parody (of the popular Christian thriller Left Behind by Tim LaHay and Jerry B. Jenkins), whereas the latter is quite as obviously serious. Despite a great number of recent studies pointing to comic or satiric aspects of the Golden Ass,1 there is of course nothing essentially wrong with reading it as a morally edifying text. As a matter of fact, there has never been a dearth of interpretations of Apuleius’ novel as a moralistic fable. Most of these interpretations, however, rely on a complex learned apparatus of proof deriving either from Platonic philosophy or from what can be inferred about Isiac initiation lore.2 By contrast, Frangoulidis chooses for the most part to analyze the text from within (‘intratextually’, as he calls it). Even his most original thesis (to wit, his rather eccentric idea of the Golden Ass as an ode to celibacy) is not supported by any substantial references to the novel’s cultural, literary, religious, or philosophical context. Frangoulidis’s conspicuous reluctance to take advantage of relevant comparative materials (his Index of Passages is less than two pages long, half of which is taken up by Apuleius’ Metamorphoses) greatly contributes to undermining the persuasiveness of his reading.

Another fundamental methodological weakness of Frangoulidis’s approach is that he purports to read the narrative “from Lucius’ point of view” (p.8). In the twenty-four years that have passed since the publication of J.J. Winkler’s Auctor & Actor (see note1), the inextricable complexity of the narrator’s voice has become one of the central axioms of Apuleian scholarship. Lucius, as Winkler argues, “is not just a character about whom books can be written, he is in essence a multiple ego whose parts are writer, narrator, and actor. <...> Lucius has a booklike self: the episodes of his life define not a life (in a sense that could apply to Caesar or ourselves) but a book. Lucius is never simply a person, he is always a writer, behind a narrator, behind an actor” (Winkler, p. 159). When as a post-Winkler scholar one reads about ‘Lucius’ point of view’, one is inevitably bound to ask, ‘whose point of view do you really mean?’ As one reads on, it becomes apparent that what Frangoulidis has in mind is most likely the point of view of Lucius the actor, and it would indeed be impossible to deny that the moralistic scenario that Frangoulidis extracts from the narrative does find some support in what happens to this component of Lucius’ multiple ego. What seems completely to escape Frangoulidis’s notice, however, are the multilayered ironies that Apuleius constantly creates by collapsing incompatible perspectives adopted by the split personality of his narrator — ironies that make any straightforward moralistic reading appear rather naive.

In this book, Lucius is thus not so much a narratologically complex fictional entity as a human being ‘like Caesar or ourselves’, whose moral progress Frangoulidis traces from a number of different perspectives. In Chapter 1 (“The Onos versus Apuleius’ Metamorphoses“), Frangoulidis claims that numerous differences between the Ps.-Lucianic Onos and Apuleius’ novel serve to emphasize moral edification as the sole purpose of the latter: “[I]n the Onos the sexuality of the ass fits well with the exclusively Milesian character of the narrative, whereas in the Metamorphoses the author goes beyond this to multiply the misfortunes suffered by the poor beast, and thus bring out the didactic aspect of his narrative” (p. 29). A few things strike one as rather bizarre in this chapter. To begin with, Frangoulidis takes for granted the nature of fabula Milesia as “a story of love and adventure,” which allows him to claim that “the Latin novel goes beyond the bounds of the genre in placing greater emphasis on Lucius’ sufferings” (p. 13). Quite surprisingly, Frangoulidis raises this claim without either mentioning how ill-defined the bounds of this virtually lost genre are or referring to any recent scholarship on this topic (e.g., to Gottskalk Jensson’s 2004 book on Petronius’ Satyricon as Milesian fiction;3 even though some of Jensson’s conclusions are highly debatable, his idea that the most prominent characteristic of the genre of Milesian tales is a particular kind of structure rather than content casts doubt on any subsequent uncritical use of the term). Furthermore, the way in which Frangoulidis purports to demonstrate Apuleius’ straightforwardly didactic intentions (both here and in the subsequent chapters) might occasionally strike one as somewhat awkward. His method may be summed up as persistent reduction to a simple moralistic platitude of whatever is funny, ambiguous, or unsettling in Apuleius’ narrative. To give only one typical example, Frangoulidis attempts at length (pp. 20-22) to disprove the communis opinio that Lucius’ former fellow student Pythias is a comic character (he is a local aedile ‘helping’ Lucius to take revenge on the merchant, who has sold him overpriced fish, by ordering his attendant to trample on that fish, without, however, doing anything to reimburse Lucius’ expenses (Apul. Met. 1.25)). This is how he tries to prove this thesis (p. 22): “Pythias may not then be viewed as a comic or satiric figure, as he does not trample on Lucius’ fish himself, but asks one of the lictors to do so. In a strange city then, Lucius has a rare fortune of meeting an old friend who can offer protection from fraud. Nonetheless, he fails to understand the import of Pythias’ intervention — which may have saved him from food poisoning — and instead dwells on the fact that he has lost his money and supper.”

In the seven subsequent, more or less strictly ‘intratextual’ chapters, Frangoulidis largely relies on the same method. In Chapter 2 (“Lucius versus Socrates and Aristomenes”), he argues that the soteriological thrust of Apuleius’ primary narrative becomes particularly obvious by comparison with Aristomenes’ tale in Book 1: “Like Socrates and Aristomenes, Lucius too is punished for dabbling with magic, but the nature of his metamorphosis allows him to move from one place to another until he reaches Cenchreae, where he is released from his troubles through earnest prayer for help” (p. 68). In Chapter 3 (“Lucius’ and Milo’s Tales of Diophanes and Asinius’ Prophecy: Internal Readers and the Author”), Frangoulidis stresses the pious character of Apuleius’ narrative by comparing Lucius’ reactions to Milo’s tale about the astrologer Diophanes in Book 2 on the one hand and to the Isiac priest Asinius’ prophecy in Book 11 on the other. Frangoulidis particularly stresses the significance of the fact that in the latter episode Lucius is referred to as coming from Apuleius’ hometown of Madauros: “this blurring of the roles does not occur in the prophecy of the false seer Diophanes, but only in Asinius’ prophecy, as if to lend divine authority to the extratextual author through the novel’s first person narrator” (p. 83). Chapter 4 (“Lucius versus Thelyphron”) discusses the significance of Thelyphron’s tale as a foil for the narrative of Lucius’ salvation. The fact that Lucius is eventually saved by Isis “can be explained by the fact that [he] has involved himself with an inexperienced sorcerer’s apprentice rather than with skilled witches, as happens with Thelyphron” (p. 107). In Chapter 5 (“The Tale of Cupid and Psyche as a Mythic Variant of the Novel”), Frangoulidis compares to each other Psyche’s and Lucius’ adventures and comes to the conclusion that “the tale functions as a mythic retelling of the novel’s larger story, pointing the non-romance frame in a direction that goes beyond comedy to divine salvation” (p. 128-129). In Chapter 6 (“‘War’ in Magic and Lovemaking”), Frangoulidis focuses on the novel’s military imagery and seems to be genuinely surprised by the fact that “[t]he violence that characterized Lucius’ involvement with the witch slave girl Photis is counterbalanced by the remarkable absence of the theme in Lucius’ encounter with Isis in the novel’s final Book” (p. 144). The main thesis of Chapter 7 (“Lucius’ Metamorphosis into an Ass as a Narrative Device”) is that there is nothing accidental about the fact that Apuleius chooses the ass as the animal into which to transform his protagonist. Frangoulidis summarizes previous scholarship on the image of the ass in classical literature and Egyptian mythology, on connections between Apuleius’ novel and Aesopic fable, and on Apuleius’ use of popular proverbs featuring the ass, and concludes that “[t]he specific metamorphosis allows the author to evoke features of the ass well known in antiquity, notably sexuality, foolishness and lustfulness, and thus to highlight certain traits of his character that are not immediately obvious in the first place” (p. 174). The goal of Chapter 8 (“Rewriting Metamorphoses 1-10: The Isis Book”) is to draw parallels between the novel’s conclusion and its first ten books. Frangoulidis’s analysis yields the following result: “The comparison reveals illuminating antitheses between Lucius’ experience as Isis’ initiate, and as victim of the Hypatans and Photis. <...> These antitheses takes the form of a sustained narrative device: the negative nature of Lucius’ experiences at Cenchreae [sic! Frangoulidis probably means Corinth] and Hypata accounts for why he gladly accepts Mithras’ advice to enter into the civilized community of Isis, but refuses to accept the offer of the Hypatan magistrates to be integrated into that cruel community” (pp. 202-203).

The final chapter (Chapter 9: “Transforming the Genre: Apuleius’ Metamorphoses“) is the only sustained attempt that Frangoulidis undertakes in his book to contextualize Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Of the numerous available ‘extratextual’ perspectives — religious, philosophical, and literary — that could shed light on Apuleius’ narrative, Frangoulidis chooses to compare it to what he calls ‘standard romance’ (p. 204), i.e. to the basic plotlines of the five surviving Greek love novels. Even though the reason for this particular choice remains rather unclear, Frangoulidis’s individual observations as to similarities and differences between the two, many of which follow in the footsteps of Sandy’s magisterial study on the subject,4 are for the most part too obvious to cause any significant objections. What one may find somewhat surprising, however, is the fact that Frangoulidis takes for granted the premise that Apuleius’ narrative somehow belongs to the genre of romance, i.e. that he “both follows and alters the standard pattern of the idealistic novel” (p. 204). Here one could ask whether it is really possible to consider this alleged generic commonality without taking issue with Sandy’s influential conclusion that “it is appropriate to extend to Apuleius and the Greek love-romances the substance of [Rohde’s] verdict <...> that between Petronius and the Greek love-novelists there is no connection” (Sandy, 1570). And, more generally, given the fact that there is no Greek or Latin term corresponding to our ‘novel’, that the five Greek romances represent only one of the many known varieties of ancient narrative fiction, and that Apuleius has recently been shown to play with all manner of generic conventions (from epic and tragedy to comedy and elegy5), would it not be legitimate to pose the question of what justifies the treatment of ‘standard romance’ as Apuleius’ preferred intertext? Unfortunately, Frangoulidis displays no perceptible awareness of this complexity — either intertextual or generic — of Apuleius’ text.

In addition to such fundamental flaws, Frangoulidis’s book is marred by various minor errors. For instance, on p. 13 Frangoulidis refers to fabula Milesia as milesiaca – the Greek adjective, to my knowledge, is not attested in Latin; at least it’s not in the OLD. On p. 23, Frangoulidis states that “Pythias <...> reveals that the fish Lucius buys in the market is rotten” and then constructs an entire theory about how Pythias’ intervention may have saved Lucius from food poisoning. For the life of me, I can’t find in the text any indication pointing in this direction: in Apuleius, Pythias is only enraged by the fact that the fish are too expensive for their size, and calls them quisquiliae (1.24), nugamenta, and pisces frivoli (1.25), none of which can in my opinion suggest the idea of ‘rottenness’. Finally, I was particularly surprised to learn on p. 28 that “the young Thelyphron comes to Thessaly to watch the Olympic Games.” When I looked at the Latin text, however, I was pleased to find a reassuring testimony of Apuleius’ superior knowledge of Greek geography: what he really says there (2.21) is that as a young man Thelyphron traveled from Miletus to see the Olympic games ( pupillus ego Mileto profectus ad spectaculum Olympicum), that he then wanted to see this area (i.e. Thessaly) of the renowned province (i.e. Achaea) as well ( etiam), and that after wandering through the whole of Thessaly he finally reached Larissa ( cum haec etiam loca provinciae famigerabilis adire cuperem, peragrata cuncta Thessalia fuscis avibus Larissam accessi). The list could go on.

To sum up, this book doubtless possesses certain protreptic qualities. Its value as an original scholarly contribution is unfortunately more limited.


1. E.g., Winkler, J.J. Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius’s Golden Ass. Berkeley, 1985; Harrison, S.J. Apuleius the Latin Sophist. Oxford, 2002.

2. E.g., Merkelbach, R. Roman und Mysterium in der Antike. Munich, 1962; Schlam, C. The Metamorphoses of Apuleius: On Making an Ass of Oneself. Chapel Hill, 1992.

3. Jensson, G. The Recollections of Petronius. The Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian Fiction. Groningen, 2004.

4. Sandy, G. “Apuleius’ ‘Metamorphoses’ and the Ancient Novel.” ANRW II.34.2, 1994, 1511-1574.

5. E.g., Finkelpearl, E.D. Metamorphosis of Language in Apuleius: A Study of the Novel. Ann Arbor, 1998; May, R. Apuleius and Drama: The Ass on Stage. Oxford 2006; Hindermann, J. Der elegische Esel: Apuleius’ Metamorphosen und Ovids Ars Amatoria. Frankfurt am Main 2009.