Podcast episode

Episode 73: Ineffable Initiations and Golden Asses: Apuleius of Madauros and the Metamorphoses

[Correction: in the episode I say that Milo is a ‘comical spendthrift’; he is of course the opposite of this, a comical miser. But his wife really is a witch.]

Apuleius is a fascinating figure, and a hugely important writer in the esoteric tradition. He may have been named Lucius Apuleius, but the only evidence we have of the ‘Lucius’ is the name of the narrator of his most famous work, the Metamorphoses. This is a picaresque ‘occult novel’, written in beautiful Latin, which tells the sometimes bawdy, sometimes spine-chilling, sometimes religiously-moving story of Lucius, a second-century sophist, whose immoderate curiosity about magic ends up getting him transformed into an ass. He undergoes many adventures in his quest to regain his human form, but in the end it is the intervention of the goddess Isis which saves him.

The Metamorphoses is an amazing work, and we spend most of this episode discussing its plot, major themes, and the vexing question of how seriously the book is to be taken. Along the way we meet witches, witness necromancy, there is a dragon, and lots of sex-scenes, not all of them between humans. We also have a fine caricature of false religion, including what seems to be an early pagan attack on the morals of Christians, and a moving depiction of the true religion, the religion of philosophic Platonism, to which the Isis and Osiris cults are subsumed.

Works Cited in this Episode:


We are citing and quoting  Thomas Taylor, trans. Apuleius’ Golden Ass or the Metamorphosis, and other Philosophical Writings. Number XIV in The Thomas Taylor Series. Prometheus Trust, Westbury, 2014.

  • Apuleius, Metamorphoses: Lucius’ transformation: 3.24. Cupid and Psyche: 4.28-6.25. Evil Christian (?) lady: 9.14. Isis’ ‘autoaretalogy’: 11.5 [cuius numen unicum multiformi specie, ritu uario, nomine multiiugo totus ueneratur orbis. The ‘aretalogy’, a list of divine attributes, was a typical feature of Isis-cult in its native Egyptian form; cf. P. Oxy. 1380, which contains a longer list of attributes, but one similar to that given by Apuleius]. Isis can trump fate: 11.6, 25. Arcana in the navigiium Isidis procession: 11.11. The first initiation: 11.23.
  • Augustine cites the title Asinus aureusCiv. 18.18.2


For Walsh, Heine, and Merkelback, see the Recommended Reading below.

Recommended Reading:

Schlam 1971 covers all the Apuleian works for the period 1938–1970. Schlam and Finkelpearl give bibliography of works specifically about the Metamorphoses 1970-1998. Reardon 1989 contains what remains of all the ancient Greek novels in English translation, including the Onos. Great fun.

  • S. A. Frangoulidis. Witches, Isis and Narrative: Approaches to Magic in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2008.
  • J.G. Griffiths, editor. Apuleius of Madauros, The Isis-Book, Metamorphoses, Book XI. Brill, Leiden, 1976.
  • S. J. Harrison. Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.
  • Idem. Apuleius: A Latin Sophist. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
  • R. Heine. ‘Picaresque Novel versus Allegory’. In B.L. Hijmans and R. van der Paardt, editors, Aspects of Apuleius’ Golden Ass, pages 25–43. 1978.
  • B. T. Lee, E. Finkelpearl, and L. Graverini. Apuleius and Africa. Routledge, New York and London, 2014.
  • R. Merkelbach. Roman und Mysterium in der Antike. Beck, Berlin, 1962.
  • R. Mortley. ‘Apuleius and Platonic Theology’. American Journal of Philology, 93(4): 584–590, Oct. 1972.
  • H. Münsterman. Apuleius, Metamorphosen: literarischer Vorlagen. Stuttgart/Leipzig, 1995.
  • M. O’Brien. Apuleius’s Debt to Plato in the Metamorphoses. Mellen, Lewiston, NY, 2002.
  • B.P. Reardon, editor. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA, 1989.
  • G. Sandy. The Greek World of Apuleius: Apuleius and the Second Sophistic. Brill, Leiden, 1997.
  • N. Sandy. ‘Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and the Greek Novel’. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 2.34:1511–1574, 1994.
  • C. C. Schlam. ‘The Scholarship on Apuleius since 1938’. Classical World, 64:285–309, 1971.
  • C. C. Schlam and E. Finkelpearl. ‘A Review of Scholarship on Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses” 1970–1998.’ Lustrum, 42:9–230, 2000.
  • Elsa Simonetti. ‘L’immagine del saggio nelle opere di Apuleio’. RhM, 160:371–92, 2017.
  • Friedrich Solmsen. Isis among the Greeks and Romans. Harvard University Press,
    Cambridge, MA, 1979.
  • J. Tatum. Apuleius and the Golden Ass. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1979.
  • P. G. Walsh. ‘Lucius Madaurensis’. Phoenix, 12:143–157, 1968.


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