Golden Asses: Our Initiation into the Mysteries
Recently, a reader of my work emailed asking me what sophiological fiction I might recommend. In my reply, I mentioned Goethe’s Faust, Solovyov’s Three Meetings, and David Bentley Hart’s recent offering, Roland in Moonlight (and might I add that his forthcoming novel, Kenogaia, may be his most sophiological work yet—and, in my opinion, the best thing he’s written). Unfortunately, I forgot to mention Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. But I did not omit what may be the greatest sophiological novel of all time, Apuleius’s The Transformations of Lucius, known better under its more popular title, The Golden Ass.
Written in the second century AD, The Golden Ass is a rollicking, picaresque novel telling the story of Lucius, a young man making his way in the world before he gets caught up with witched and magic and, through his insatiable curiosity, inadvertently turns himself into an ass while mucking about with a witch’s ointment (he thought it would turn him into an owl).
Most of the story traces Lucius’s misadventures as an ass, as he falls in with robbers, does a stint at a stud farm, is abused by a group of eunuch priests (I could do a whole thing right here), works turning a mill wheel, has the wife of a councilor fall in love with him, and nearly ends up in a performance of late-antiquity animal porn. Finally, despondent and utterly destroyed, the goddess Isis (Sophia to you and me) intervenes. Lucius, still in ass form, is blessed in a theophany of the goddess, who tells him how he may be returned to his original form by eating roses offered to him by one of her priests at a procession in her honor the following day. There is only one catch: now Lucius belongs to her.
The novel—which is often riotously hilarious, often ribald, and never dull—is at its heart an allegory of initiation into the Mysteries of Isis (or the Great Mother), much in the way Mozart’s The Magic Flute is an allegory of initiation into Freemasonry (and don’t even get me started on the three-chord motif at the beginning, middle, and end of Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture). But, as with Mozart’s opera, one need not know anything about the model to appreciate the adventure.
An important feature of the novel is the attention Apuleius gives to the myth of Eros and Psyche, told in Lucius the ass’s hearing by one of the robbers. The story, if you don’t know it, is likewise an allegory of the soul’s (psyche means “soul,” after all) alienation from the Divine and the challenges that accompany to journey back to union with divine love (eros, of course, means “love”).
The employment of foreshadowing and symbolism in the novel, particularly with the symbol of the rose, is stunning, not to mention the fall into ignorance and bestiality signified by Lucius’s transformation. In short, it’s a spiritual Everyman tale and its motif plays out in other works of literature: in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (obviously) as well as in Collodi’s Pinocchio (if you haven’t read the original, you may be surprised to find that the puppet is a devious little miscreant and not at all the cute moppet of Walt Disney’s treatment). It also shows up in Grimm’s fairy-tale, “The Lettuce Donkey.”
One episode of the novel concerns Lucius’s (unwitting) participation (prior to his metamorphosis) in The Festival of Laughter. Our protagonist is put on trial for murder, but it turns out it was all a setup—and a joke at his expense. The entire town is in on it and they bust their sides laughing. This is a comedy of humiliation. Ritual humiliation, it seems, was a component into initiation into the Mysteries—and from what I understand, a much milder piece of ritual humiliation accompanies initiation into Freemasonry. On the other hand, we’ve had our own takes on the comedy of humiliation over the past eighteen months, to be sure—but no one’s laughing; at least not yet.
Lucius’s greatest frustration in ass form is that he has human thoughts, but cannot express himself in human language. We might say today that his humanity is deplatformed. He has words, but no one is allowed to hear them. It happens (all the time, actually). The closest he gets to using human language as an ass is in the episode with the eunuch priests undertake to rape a young man, a labourer. (Religious hypocrisy and pederasty are nothing new, apparently). As Lucius relates it, in Robert Graves’s enjoyable translation, “I tried to shout: ‘Help, help! Rape! Rape! Arrest these he-whores!’ But all that came out was ‘He-whore, He-whore,’ in fine ringing tones that would have done credit to any ass alive.”
In general, though, Lucius’s adventures bear witness to the depths of human depravity and corruption to which only initiation into the Mysteries (in the world and belief of Apuleius) can offer escape. We, too, have been witnessing the depths of human depravity (Epstein Island, anyone?) and corruption (do I need to elaborate?) at an accelerated pace recently. But, like Lucius, we can find a way out only through grace.
Distraught and at the point of suicide, Lucius finally surrenders his will. Isis appears:
“Not long afterwards I awoke in sudden terror. A dazzling full moon was rising from the sea. It is at secret hour that the Moon-goddess, sole sovereign of mankind, is possessed of her greatest power and majesty. She is the shining deity by whose divine influence not only all beasts, wild and tame, but all inanimate things as well, are invigorated; whose ebbs and flows control the rhythm of all bodies whatsoever, whether in the air, on earth, or below the sea. Of this I was well aware, and therefore resolved to address the visible image of the goddess, imploring her help; for Fortune seemed at last to have made up her mind that I had suffered enough and to be offering me a hope of release.
“Jumping up and shaking off my drowsiness, I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the supreme Goddess:
“‘Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.’
“When I had finished my prayer and poured out the full bitterness of my oppressed heart, I returned to my sandy hollow, where once more sleep overcame me. I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it. First the head, then the whole shining body gradually emerged and stood before me poised on the surface of the waves. Yes, I will try to describe this transcendent vision, for though human speech is poor and limited, the Goddess herself will perhaps inspire me with poetic imagery sufficient to convey some slight inkling of what I saw.
“Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with cars of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what aught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.
“In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp witch pulled throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.
“All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.
“My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.
“The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.
“Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.”
Apuleius’s Isis shares many characteristics with Sophia, or, in Margaret Barker’s apt description, The Lady in the Temple, Yahweh’s consort in Proverbs 8 among other places.
I don’t know where this strange initiation we’ve been living in is heading, but I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with building anything or anyone back better. But I do know that the only antidote to this madness is to reorient ourselves to the Real: to the Divine, on the one hand, and the glory of the Creation on the other. And that is impossible without the metaxu, the between, she whom “The Lord brought... forth as the first of his works.”
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.