The narrator, Lucius, explains that he is going to tell stories in the Milesian mode. He says he is from Attic stock and learned the language in Rome, which was very hard. His story is adapted from the Greek.
He is going to Thessaly to do business when he comes across two men on the road. One tells the other he does not want to hear his lies anymore, but Lucius steps in and says he’d love to hear the tale, whatever it is, and that he planned to believe it. The man, named Aristomenes, swears his story was true, and begins.
He explains that he was on his way to buy cheese in a town in Thessaly as well. He spies his old friend Socrates and is dumbstruck by how worn down and ghastly he looked. Although Socrates begs him to leave, Aristomenes takes him in his care. Socrates finally tells him that in his journeys he was unfaithful to his wife with a woman named Meroe, who ran an inn and kept Socrates sexually ensnared.
When Aristomenes expresses doubt, Socrates tells him not to criticize her because she is a witch with incredible powers. He tells him about several of her wild spells and that the townspeople cannot stop her. Aristomenes admits he is a bit afraid.
The two go to sleep, but Aristomenes wakes when the doors burst open. Sprawled on the ground, he sees two women. Meroe tells her sister Panthia to behold Socrates, her troublesome lover. She points to Aristomenes, his counselor, and says how sorry he will be. Although she lists some terrible things to do, she says she will keep him alive to bury Socrates. She stabs a sword into Socrates’s neck, catches the blood in a vial, then reaches into the wound and pulls out his heart. After putting a bandage over the wound and urinating on Aristomenes, both women leave.
Terrified, Aristomenes realizes people may think he killed Socrates because the actual truth is ludicrous. He thinks this is how Meroe meant to kill him – by the hands of people who suspect he killed his friend. He tries to hang himself but the rope breaks, and when the noise brings the doorman to him in anger, Socrates sits up, as normal as can be. Aristomenes is overjoyed.
Aristomenes thinks he must have dreamt the whole thing, and Socrates tells him that he had a strange dream of his own in which his throat was cut. As he eats and drinks, Socrates grows paler. He leans over a stream to drink and the bandage/sponge falls out. His body then keels over. Aristomenes is shocked and flees the scene.
This is what the man tells Lucius, who assures him he believes him because impossible things happen all the time. The two part ways, and Lucius goes to the home of Milo, an esteemed citizen of Hypata in Thessaly.
He then goes out to buy fish, where he encounters an old student of his, Pythias. The young man expresses indignation when he sees how much a vendor sold Lucius a fish, and throws it on the ground.
When he returns, he talks with Milo for a bit and goes to bed full of gossip but not food.
Lucius wakes up and remembers he is in Thessaly, the capital of magic arts. He starts to ponder if everything around him is actually something else in disguise. That day while walking around, he encounters a woman he is told is his aunt. Well-dressed and wealthy, the woman, Byrrhena, tells him she practically raised him along with his mother Salvia. He agrees to dine with her at her stunning home.
Byrrhena pulls him aside and tells him she is nervous for him because Milo’s wife, Pamphile, is a notorious witch, a “specialist in all forms of necromancy” (21). Whenever she falls in love with handsome young men, she uses her arts and transforms them into creatures that she forces to stay with her.
Lucius thanks her but is secretly titillated. He tells himself not to be stupid, and that he should pursue the maidservant Photis instead. When he gets to the house he flirts with Photis and admires her head of hair. She wittily engages him and they embrace. She tells him she will come to his room later.
At dinner Pamphile looks at a lamp and says a storm is coming; Milo naively compliments her. Lucius relates an anecdote about a philosopher he knows – Diophanes – and Milo laughs that he knows him too. He tells a story of how Diophanes was outwitted by a businessman. Lucius listens politely but is annoyed because he wants to get away.
Finally, he retires to his room. Photis arrives, and they drink and make love rigorously.
One day Byrrhena asks Lucius to dine and will not accept a refusal. Photis is reluctant to let him go and tells him to come home early because there is a band of youths in the streets that is murdering people. Lucius reassures her and says he has a sword.
At dinner many people are in attendance. It is a lively and sparkling gathering. Byrrhena asks how he is enjoying Thessaly, and he replies that he is but is weary of the “dark den where magic is practiced, and cannot be sidestepped” (30). Another guest comments that sometimes people’s faces can be completely disfigured. The group breaks into laughter and stares at a man in the corner. Byrrhena asks this Thelyphron to tell his story again for Lucius.
Reluctantly, he agrees. He begins by saying as a young man he was going to Miletus to the Olympic games. He had no money but heard of a job guarding corpses. He asked about it and was told that he must spend the night looking unblinkingly at the body because witches could disguise themselves as anything and creep in to take the body parts. If the corpse were missing anything, the guard would pay for it with his own similar body parts.
Arrogant and intrigued, Thelyphron agrees to watch over a woman’s newly deceased husband. Left alone with the corpse, he settles in. A weasel creeps in and he yells at it to leave. Deep sleep comes upon him, but when he wakes the corpse looks normal. The wife praises him.
An old man interrupts the joyous gathering around the corpse to say that the wife actually poisoned her husband to please an adulterous lover. The crowd grows aggressive and wants to know if she did it. The old man says a prophet named Zatchlas promised to bring a spirit back from the dead for a fee, so the crowd agrees to take up his offer for the corpse.
The corpse speaks and says his young wife poisoned him. The crowd took sides, some with her and some with him. No one knew who was telling the truth.
The corpse claimed he could dispel the mystery once and for all, and explained that while Thelyphron was guarding him, sorceresses came and put the guard to sleep. They called the corpse's name, which was also Thelyphron, so Thelyphron the guard in his deep sleep rose up to answer. They cut off his nose and ears and shaped wax into the shapes and put them on him.
When Thelyphron, standing before the crowd, heard this, he tugged at these parts, and to his horror they fell off. The crowd shrieked with laughter. Now, mutilated, he cannot return to his ancestral home.
All of the drinkers at Byrrhena’s party also burst into laughter at this story.
Byrrhena tells Lucius that the town celebrates the god of Laughter, and tomorrow he must participate. He agrees.
Lucius, who is drunk, and his slave leave the party. The streets are dark and it is windy. He encounters three large men, and, assuming they are ruffians, stabs them. Photis hears the tumult and lets him in.
Lucius wakes up and is troubled by the previous night’s events, wondering if he will be sentenced and executed for killing the three men. A mob of magistrates, officials, and bystanders suddenly bursts into his room. Everyone is laughing uproariously. It is decided to try him in a theater because it holds more people.
The prosecutor, an old man, stands to explain the case of this “impious killer” (40) to the people. In lurid detail he recounts the murders, and urges the people to cast their votes against him.
Lucius has his turn to speak and humbly recounts the events according to his recollection, speaking of his fright and his need to defend himself and the house of his host. Tears form in his eyes, but he is surprised to hear everyone else laughing hysterically.
It is then suggested that he be tortured to get the truth of how he killed three strong men, and that the bodies of those men be revealed.
The shrouds are drawn back, and to Lucius’s surprise and glee, the bodies turn out to be three inflated wineskins. The whole theater is convulsed with laughter. Lucius becomes more and more offended, but when Milo leads him away, he tells him it is not an insult and comes from his high standing and the community’s desire to honor him. Lucius is somewhat mollified but still embarrassed.
He is told he must dine with Byrrhena again and is reluctant to do so. Pleading a headache, he stays in bed. Photis visits him, disconsolate. She says she is the cause of his distress. She then says she loves him and must initiate him into the mysteries of the house even though she is terrified to do so.
Morbidly curious, Lucius bides her continue. She tells of how Pamphile is obsessed with a young man, and how she secretly observed her turn him into a bird using his hair and her witchcraft.
Lucius is intrigued and begs Photis to let him secretly watch Pamphile practice her arts. She is hesitant but agrees.
A few nights later they sneak in to watch, and observe Pamphile strip naked, put ointment on herself, mutter incantations, and turn into a bird and fly away.
Lucius is excited and says he must have ointment for himself so he can be a bird and enjoy flying about. Photis says there is an easy way to turn back as well. Lucius puts the ointment on himself and flaps his arms, but to his horror finds himself turning into an ass himself. He realizes he has his own thoughts but cannot express himself. Photis is dismayed because she mistook the ointments, and Lucius wonders if he ought to kill her because he is so enraged. He decides to leave her since he needs help. She says roses will cure him if he eats them, and she will try as soon as possible.
He is stabled with his own (former) mount and another ass, both of which dislike him and plot to kill him. His attempts to get roses from a statue are interrupted by beatings from his own servant, who of course does not know him.
Suddenly a band of robbers burst in and disrupt the household, using him and the other animals to load up their loot. They depart for their journey home and beat Lucius when he gets tired. He finds roses, but realizes he cannot eat them in front of the robbers because they will kill him when they see he is a human. He decides to be patient for a better opportunity.
While good translations of this novel make for “easy” reading in terms of the flow and lucidity of the text, The Golden Ass is certainly not an easy novel in terms of comprehension, thematics, plot structure, and more. It has bedeviled readers and scholars looking to make sense of the stories-within-stories, to discern the major themes and messages of the author, and to make sense of the way it ends (i.e., the book about Isis does not necessarily seem to go with the rest of the tales). Critics often begin their articles about the novel with disclaimers or their own difficulties in interpreting the text. It certainly is much different than other works from its time period, which is also problematic for students who know a little bit about Greek and Roman literature.
James T. Svendson begins his article concerning the demands upon the reader of The Golden Ass by commenting “the novel is unique in its puckish, protean narrator, its stylistic complication, its unification by repetition of theme, image, and motif, and its paratactic, inclusive structure.” The reader is the one who must be alert and ready to make connections and keep up with what story is happening at what point; in particular, the reader must pay attention to “the abrupt change in narrative voice and close relationship between episode and tale.” This actually makes this ancient novel very much like a modern one with its “consciously obscured temporal line, stylistic complication, a complex and changing narrative point of view, unification through repetition of theme, image, and motif, and a total structure whose interpretation is ambivalent or multiple.”
Svendson details how the novel sets us up to expect a retrospective narrative and a narrator who exercises control, but how this never quite happens. Instead, as Book 1 reveals, we think we are going to hear Lucius discuss what happened to him, but then he derails almost immediately into the story of Aristomenes and Socrates. Svendson writes, “Books I-X exhibit an ‘experiencing’ narrator whose fallibility, naiveté, and outright stupidity perplex and befuddle the reader.” We meet new characters as the narrator does. There are only a few instances when Apuleius “[develops] the possibilities inherent in the ass’s hindsight.”
There are, of course, unifying motifs and themes, which is what Svendson identifies as the ways in which the novel makes sense to the reader. These themes/motifs include metamorphosis, magic, and revenge, among others (we will discuss these throughout the analyses). The Tale of Aristomenes, in Book 1, brings all three of these to the fore, hinting at what will happen to Lucius in the future. The action takes place in the same town, Pamphile and Meroe are very similar, and the fates of Socrates, Aristomenes, and Lucius are not very different from each other. In fact, Lucius not learning from this story is one of his failings. Curiosity is punished, and “sexual gratification…[and] domination by the female are paradigmatically associated with magic and revenge.”
These first three books include Lucius’s transformation into an ass, which is the central conflict of the text. As briefly mentioned above, Lucius should have known better. He deliberately ignores the moral of Aristomenes’s tale, ignores Byrrhena’s warnings, and ignores the cautionary tale of Thelyphron. He also fails to think deeply about the message of the tale of Acteon and Diana, in which the former is turned into a stag and killed by his own hunting dogs after he inappropriately looks on the form of the goddess. Instead, he allows his desire to see magic inflame him, and for this he is turned into a base creature that must undergo all manner of humbling, torture, despair, indignity, and discomfort before learning his lesson.