The soldier takes Lucius, outfits him in military adornments, and eventually leaves him with a slave so he could report to his superior.
Lucius tells of a crime committed at the house of the slave’s master. The master had a son from a first wife and a son from a second wife. The second wife fell in love with the first son, now a handsome youth. She could not control her wild, libidinous feelings and finally brought him before her and confessed her feelings.
He was confused and abhorred her words, but felt it was best to keep her ignorant of his true feelings and pretend he would consider her desires.
The woman was annoyed with the delay and his excuses. She finally realized he had no intention of being with her, and ordered her favorite slave to fetch her a poison. Unfortunately, the youngest son came across the unattended glass of poison before she had time to give it to her son, and drank it and perished.
The household was convulsed with grief but the woman did not care, and accused the older son of murdering his brother because she would not sleep with him. The master was distraught that one son was dead and the other guilty of incest and murder.
A trial was called, and the civil servants proclaimed there must be actual proof before condemning him. The slave took the stand first, and lied briskly. People were mostly convinced until one of the councilors spoke to his other councilors and told them the slave was lying. He explained that he was a physician and that slave came to him to buy poison. The physician did not believe the wicked lies that it was for a mercy killing of an incurably sick person. Now, he said, how could the brother have killed him if the slave bought the poison?
The slave grew pale when he heard these words, but even under torture stuck to his story. Finally, the physician admitted he had always been wary of the slave and did not sell him a poison that killed people, but rather one that put them into a deep sleep from which they would eventually wake up.
Everyone went to the tomb where the young boy lay, and, to their great delight, he arose from his sleep. The stepmother was exiled and the slave hanged, and the father was blissfully happy to have both his sons back.
After Lucius relates this story, he tells of how he is sold to two brother slaves with a rich master. One is a baker, the other a cook. Fortune shines on Lucius, for now he is surrounded by the most incredible food. In the evening when he is alone he begins to sneak bits of food, but eventually he cannot control himself and eats a great deal of the remains.
The brothers grow suspicious and even angry at each other, but after a discussion they realize they are each innocent, and must figure out who is stealing. For a long time they do not suspect an ass would eat such rich food intended for humans, but the fact that Lucius is growing fat, shiny, and healthy makes them pause.
They spy on Lucius one night, and to their amusement, see him eating the food, they laugh so loud their master hears, and has them bring Lucius in to his dining room. Even though he is full, Lucius eats the food with relish. He even drinks the wine offered to him. The master is tickled and gives Lucius to a freedman to take care of him.
There, Lucius learns “tricks” of how to do human things. All of this brings the master fame and renown. His name is Thiasus, a native of Corinth, and he is in line for the quinquennial magistracy.
To show his worthiness, he arranges a three-day gladiatorial event. He goes to Thessaly to attain things for the event, and instead of taking noble beasts, he decks out Lucius in fine trappings.
Back at Corinth, Lucius’s fame continues, and people pay to see him. One wealthy woman comes to actually lust after him, and says she will pay a large sum for a single night with him. The keeper agrees, since he cares only for profit, and everything is arranged.
The room is full of soft cushions and candles. The woman anoints herself with oil and addresses Lucius with words of love. Lucius worries about hurting her, but eventually they copulate and the woman is satisfied.
The keeper tells the master, who sees that this can bring more fame and money. The wealthy woman, however, refuses to threaten her good name by sleeping with an ass in front of the public, so it is decided to bring on a female criminal, who is the only woman to agree.
Lucius tells the story of this terrible woman. The woman’s father had a wife, who was pregnant, that they must destroy the child if it is a girl. He was gone when it was born, though, and the woman could not obey and gave it to neighbors. Eventually she told her son, who was a couple years older than the girl, and being a noble youth, he agreed to help and told the father that this young woman was an orphan. He even gave her in marriage to a close friend, and all was happy for a time.
Sadly, the young man’s own wife (she who was to be with Lucius) became envious and suspicious of her husband’s sister, not knowing that she was his sister. Her hatred grew and grew, and she had her favorite slave trick the girl into coming alone to her brother’s country house. There the woman beat the girl and killed her with a hot brand between her legs, even though the girl screamed out the truth.
The brother was horrified and grief-stricken, but his wife did not care, and set about procuring a poison to kill her husband. She brought the physician to their house to mix it, telling her husband it was something for his gastric pains, but as she was an evil, suspicious woman, she assumed the physician was cheating her and made him publicly take some as well.
The man did so, and she made him stay long enough for it to start taking effect. He left as soon as he could to get home to take the antidote, but he was too late. As he lay dying he told his wife all, and insisted she get payment from the woman for the two deaths.
The evil woman’s husband also died, and the physician’s wife was the only one who knew what had truly happened. The wife spoke sweet words to the woman and procured a whole box of poisons.
The wife became jealous of her own daughter because she was to inherit the estate, and poisoned her as well. She snuck poison into the physician’s wife’s drink as well, and as she was dying she raised an outcry among the citizens.
The governor decreed the wife be subject to wild beasts, and thus that is how she became associated with Lucius.
Lucius is anguished that he must be with this woman, and wonders how he can kill himself before the show. He then ponders how to get roses instead, and grows hopeful.
The show features a reenactment of the judgment of Paris, with beautiful girls playing the roles of Juno, Minerva, and Venus. It is a gorgeous spectacle.
Finally it is time for Lucius to sleep with the woman, and a soldier makes his way to get her. Lucius is consumed with shame and disgust, and decides he must flee. As he is seen as a tame ass, he had been granted free reign to wander about. Thus, no one sees him flee. He gallops as fast as he can and reaches Cenchreae, over six miles away. He falls asleep on a calm and lovely beach.
Lucius wakes up, afraid, but becomes aware of the goddess and the role she plays in his life. He begins to think Fortune is changing her tune, and begins to pray to the goddess, addressing her various personas, such as Juno, Venus, Ceres, Phoebus’s sister, and Proserpina. He begs this to be the end of his misfortunes, and asks for his restoration to Lucius. He says if she cannot help, then she should end his life.
He suddenly sees a divine figure rise from the sea. Her hair is lush and curling. A golden orb sits on her brow. Her dress is of multicolored linen, and she wears a remarkable cloak. In one hand is a bronze rattle, in the other a vessel.
She addresses Lucius, calling herself “the mother of the world of nature, mistress of all the elements, first-born in this realm of time” (221). Although different peoples have different names for her, her true name is Isis. She advises him to give up his weeping and mourning, for his day of salvation is at hand. She instructs him that a procession will come, and a priest carrying roses. He must join the crowd and eat the roses. Then, he must devote the rest of his days to serving her. After death he will dwell in the Elysian Fields.
Lucius’s vision ends, and he wakes up. He remembers her instructions and sees a throng of people filling the streets, ebullient and celebrating. Comic persons divert the townspeople, while the official procession for the goddess is being readied. People carry musical instruments, all manner of lanterns, and sing and walk. Officials prepare the way.
The crowds of those initiated follow next, as with the priests of the cult with their white linens and objects of the powerful deity. A figure acting as Anubis comes next, with an upright cow representing Isis coming next. A priest carries a box of the mysteries of the religion.
Lucius sees a priest coming toward him with the roses of his salvation. Lucius moves forward slowly, and the priest sees him and makes a face of recognition. Lucius eats the roses and transforms back into a human man.
The crowd is shocked and awed, and celebrates the gift of the goddess. Lucius is astonished and silent. He covers his nakedness.
The priest speaks to him, saying he is finally at the “harbor of peace and the altar of mercy” (227). His persecution brought him to this state of blessedness. He counsels him to join in the procession, and then to become part of the goddess’s army.
The community stares, gossips about him, and comments on his favor and blessedness. The procession travels to the seashore, and a splendid ship is dedicated to the goddess. The people pile the offerings into the ship and it sets sail.
The procession continues to the temple itself, and the initiated and priests go inside. One member of the company stands outside and speaks in Greek of the ritual of the launching of the ship.
During this time, Lucius’s family and friends hear of his miraculous appearance and rejoice that he is not dead. They come to see him and he tells him of his journey. However, he spends most of his time thinking of the goddess, and takes up residence near the temple.
One night in a dream a priest comes to him with an armful of gifts and a warning that his slave Candidus is there. When he wakes he wonders at this dream, and to his surprise later sees that slave in town.
Lucius longs to be initiated into the mysteries, but is politely forestalled for a time. Lucius heeds his words regarding patience, and is finally informed his time has come.
In the morning he hurries to the priest, who also knows it is time, and greets him with kind words. The priest performs the rite of opening the temple and doing the morning sacrifice.
Lucius is given a bath and anointed, then fasts. Crowds gather on the day of his initiation and shower him with gifts. He then tells his audience that he cannot tell them the particulars of the initiation rites; all he explains is that he “drew near to the confines of death and trod the threshold of Proserpina, and before returning I journeyed through all the elements” (234) and stood between the gods above and the gods below. He is clothed in twelve garments according to the sacraments. Later a banquet is held to celebrate him.
Lucius prepares to return home but is saddened. He prays to the goddess, admiring her kindness and power, and says he will always preserve her in his heart. He tearfully kisses his priest, Mithras, before he leaves.
He sets out for Rome and settles there. He regularly worships at a temple to the goddess there, and comes to realize that while he was initiated into the cult of Isis, he had not yet been enlightened as to the mysteries of the father of the gods, Osiris. One night in a dream he is told by a man, Asinius Marcellus, who has a bad left heel, that he will be initiated into this. His lifestyle in Rome, which is expensive, prevents him from conducting the initiation rites, but he eventually sells his clothing and undertakes the ten days of fasting. His initiation takes place, and he is happy and sees a higher style of living return to him.
He is informed a third time that he will undergo another initiation, and a prophetic utterance tells him not to be confused or scared about this, as it is a tremendous honor rarely bestowed on a mortal. Lucius is now excited, and prepares once more.
Osiris comes to him in sleep and appoints him to the “college of the pastophori and also one of the quinquennial administrators” (240). Lucius wakes, shaves his head, and wears his baldness proudly.
Unsurprisingly, Book 10 contains more stories-within-stories; they are the same vein as those in Books 8 and 9 in that they outline the various follies and immoralities of Lucius’s contemporaries. In Book 10 Lucius demonstrates strength of character by his insistence that he not be dragged into the muck by having public sex with a disreputable woman. This foreshadows Lucius’s salvation, which by now is at hand. And indeed, in Book 11 Lucius finally attains what he has wished for so long –to be a human again –but in a startling manner. While readers may have expected Lucius to, say, come across a grove of roses and eat them to return to personhood, he actually receives his deliverance thanks to the goddess Isis, and Lucius’s gratefulness and immersion into her cult is a far different ending than seemed likely even one book prior.
The last book has always been rather problematic for both readers and critics. The lay reader can feel like it comes out of left field; after all, the previous ten books were mostly funny, parodic, and full of sexual and scatological humor. Now there is a profound change in tone and message, and many wonder what Apuleius intended by ending his work this way. Critics also deviate in their interpretations, with some focusing on Book 11 as a major disruption and others simply saying it is intended as a mild contrast with the earlier events.
This brings us to a question already discussed in analyses –what exactly is The Golden Ass supposed to be, or mean? L.A. McKay starts her scholarly article by listing the various things critics have labeled the work: an allegory; a satire of the age in which it was written; a loose collection of stories; religious propaganda, a satirical and moral romance; or a picturesque romance in the service of a mystical religion. Perhaps it was always intended to be about Isis, and the other stories merely lured readers in? Maybe it was just supposed to be a good story that would be popular and lucrative? McKay notes that it couldn't have been performed in one sitting, and was not serialized; thus, it really was a novel, and needs to be looked at holistically.
There is certainly satire, but it, as McKay notes, “it is closer to the mark to suggest that the book is a stare on a whole state of society, on the idea expressed by Apuleius’s contemporary, Aelius Aristides, that the age of the Antonines was a second Golden Age. But the Psyche story and the Eleventh book go beyond this.” There is a conflict between religion and magic, but even that is not sustained throughout the entire text; Fortune replaces magic as the pivot upon which the story revolves. Magic is, of course, rejected for religion, but the major theme is self-will. Psyche’s problem is self-will and for that she is punished; disobedience brings unhappiness, and obedience brings happiness. Similarly, “it is Lucius’s stubborn self-will, in the face of repeated warnings, that gets him and others into trouble…Lucius as an ass is by no means stupid, but always stubborn and willful.” He abandons these characteristics in the final book, and the message is clearly that “power and wealth and all self-seeking are fatal to the soul –prosperity in itself brings danger.” McKay concludes that the novel is not just a picturesque novel, satire, or moralizing work; rather, it is “an extended myth, with a rambling but real unity” in which the message is that one must “surrender…self-will to divine love.”
Critic and translator P.G. Walsh also has his own statement about the “meaning” of the text: “The moral…is that Lucius’s avid curiosity to explore the realms of magic, attained by way of sexual encounter with Photis, was punished because it was a perverted path to universal knowledge….[the text] [establishes] a distinction between healthy curiosity, which seeks knowledge of the true reality by intellectual effort and religious experience, and the debased curiosity which seeks a false reality by way of magic and sensuality.” Once Lucius embraces the cult of Isis, he is no longer motivated by the needs of his body, which consumed him before being an ass, and he is no longer curious about things that he has no business being curious about and that do not lead to enlightened thinking. He is not meddlesome or immature or impetuous, but instead is more measured. He learns patience and humility as he goes through his initiations.
The last book may strike readers as strange, but in the context of the entire novel, it dovetails nicely with the lessons put forth in the Tale of Cupid and Psyche, as well serving as an example and, indeed, apotheosis, of how Lucius grows and deepens in wisdom.