The Golden Ass

Inset stories

As many of the picaresque novels to follow its style, The Golden Ass features several shorter stories told by characters encountered by the protagonist. Some act as independent short stories, while others interlock with plot developments.

Aristomenes' Tale

At the beginning of Book One, Lucius encounters two men arguing on the road about the truth of one's story. Lucius is interested, and offers the teller a free lunch for his tale.

Aristomenes goes on business for cheese and he runs into his friend Socrates, who is disheveled and emaciated. Aristomenes clothes Socrates and takes him to the bathhouse. Aristomenes berates Socrates for leaving his family. While they’re eating lunch, Socrates tells about his affair with Meroë. Socrates tells Aristomenes that Meroë is an ugly witch who turns her ex-lovers into rather unfortunate animals. Aristomenes doesn’t believe Socrates’ tale but is nevertheless afraid. Aristomenes barricades the door and they both go to bed. In the middle of the night, Meroë and Panthia break in, cut open Socrates, drain his blood, rip out his heart, and replace it with a sponge. Before leaving, they urinate on Aristomenes. The witches spare Aristomenes because they want him to bury Socrates in the land. Aristomenes fears that he will be blamed for the death of his friend and attempts to hang himself, but is comically stopped when the rope is revealed to be too rotten to support his weight. In the morning, Socrates wakes up and everything seems to be normal. They continue travelling and reach a stream, where Socrates bends to take a drink, which causes the sponge to fall out and him to die. Aristomenes buries Socrates in the ground, and then proceeds on his way.

Thelyphron's Tale

In Book Two, Thelyphron hesitantly relates a story requested at a dinner party that was previously popular with his friends:

While a University student, Thelyphron partakes in many wanderings and eventually runs out of funds. At Larissa, he encounters a large sum being offered to watch over a corpse for the night. When he asks, a citizen tells him that shape-shifting witches are quite common in the area, using pieces of human flesh to fuel incantations. Thelyphron takes the job for a thousand drachme and is warned to stay very alert all through the night. The widow is at first hesitant, taking inventory of the body's intact parts. Thelyphron requests a meal and some wine, to which she promptly refuses and leaves him with a lamp for the night. A weasel enters the room and Thelyphron quickly chases it out, then falls into a deep sleep. At dawn, Thelyphron awakes and to his relief finds the body intact. The widow enters, and calls for Thelyphron to be paid, satisfied with the intact corpse. Thanking the widow, Thelyphron is suddenly attacked by the crowd and narrowly escapes. He witnesses an elder of the town approach the townspeople and claim that the widow had poisoned her husband to cover up a love affair. The widow protests, and a necromancer is called to bring back the deceased for the only truly reliable testimony. The corpse awakes, and affirms the widow's guilt. The corpse does thank Thelyphron for his trouble; during the night the witches entered as small animals, putting Thelyphron to sleep and stealing pieces of his ears and nose. The witches cleverly replace the missing flesh with wax to delay discovery. Thelyphron touches his nose and ears to find wax fall out of where they once were. The crowd laughs at Thelyphron's humiliation.

Tale of Cupid and Psyche

In Book Four, an elderly woman tells the story to comfort the bandits' captives. The story is continued through Books Five and Six.

Psyche, the most beautiful woman in the world is envied by her family as well as by Venus. An oracle of Venus demands she be sent to a mountaintop and wed to a murderous beast. Sent by Venus to destroy her, Cupid falls in love and flies her away to his castle. There she is directed to never seek to see the face of her husband, who visits and makes love to her in the dark of night. Eventually, Psyche wishes to see her sisters, who jealously demand she seek to discover the identity of her husband. That night, Psyche discovers her husband is Cupid while he is sleeping, but wakes and scars him with her candle. Infuriated, he flies to heaven and leaves her banished from her castle. In attempted atonement, Psyche seeks the temple of Venus and offers herself as a slave. Venus assigns Psyche four impossible tasks. First, she is commanded to sort through a great hill of mixed grains. In pity, many ants aid her in completing the task. Next, she is commanded to retrieve wool of the dangerous golden sheep. A river god aids Psyche and tells her to gather clumps of wool from thorn bushes nearby. Venus next requests water from a cleft high beyond mortal reach. An eagle gathers the water for Psyche. Next, Psyche is demanded to seek some beauty from Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld. Attempting to kill herself to reach the underworld, Psyche ascends a great tower and prepares to throw herself down. The tower speaks, and teaches Psyche the way of the underworld. Psyche retrieves the beauty in a box, and, hoping to gain the approval of her husband, opens the box to use a little. She is put into a coma. Cupid rescues her, and begs Zeus that she may become immortal. Psyche is granted Ambrosia, and the two are forever united.

The story is the best-known of those in The Golden Ass, and frequently appears or is referenced directly in later literature.

Tale of the Wife's Tub

In the course of a visit to an inn in Book Nine, a smith recounts an anecdote concerning his wife's deceit:

During the day, her husband absent at his labors, the smith's wife is engaged in an adulterous affair. One day, however, the smith, work finished well ahead of schedule, returns home prematurely — obviously to his wife's great consternation. Panicked, the faithless woman hides her lover in an old tub. After absorbing his spouse's efforts at distraction, which take the form of bitter reproaches that his coming back so early betokens a laziness that can only worsen their poverty, the smith announces that he has sold the tub for six drachmae; to this his wife responds by saying that she has in fact already sold it for seven, and has sent the buyer into the tub to inspect it. Emerging, the lover complains that his supposed purchase is in need of a proper scrubbing if he is to close the deal, so the cuckolded smith gets a candle and flips the tub to clean it from underneath. The canny adulteress then lies atop of the tub and, her lover pleasuring her the while, instructs her hapless husband as to where he should apply his energies. To add insult to injury, the ill-used man eventually has to deliver the tub to the lover's house himself.

The Tale of the Jealous Husband

In Book Nine, a baker's wife of poor reputation is advised by a female 'confidant' to be wary of choosing her lover, suggesting she find one very strong of body and will. She relates the story of one of the wife's previous school friends:

Barabus, an overbearing husband, is forced leave on a business trip, and commands his slave, Myrmex, to watch his wife, Aretë, closely to assure she is being faithful during his time away. Barbarus tells Myrmex that any failure will result in his death. Myrmex is so intimidated that he does not let Aretë out of his sight. Aretë's looks, however, charm Philesietaerus who vows to go to any lengths to gain her love. Philesietaerus bribes Myrmex with thirty gold pieces and the promise of his protection for allowing him a night with Aretë. Becoming obsessed with gold, Myrmex delivers the message to Aretë and Philesietaerus pays Myrmex a further ten pieces. While Aretë and Philesietaerus are making love, Barbarus returns but is locked out of the house. Philesietaerus leaves in a hurry, leaving behind his shoes. Barbarus does not notice the strange shoes until the morning, at which point he chains Myrmex's hands and drags him through town, screaming, while looking for the shoes' owner. Philesietaerus spots the two, runs up, and with great confidence shouts at Myrmex, accusing him of stealing his shoes. Barbarus allows Myrmex to live, but beats him for the 'theft'.

The Tale of the Fuller's Wife

In Book Nine the baker's wife attempts to hide her lover from her husband, and entertains to her husband's story of the Fuller:

While coming home with the Baker for supper, the Fuller interrupts his wife's love-making with a lover. She frantically attempts to hide her lover in a drying cage in the ceiling, hidden by hanging clothes soaked in sulphur. The lover begins to sneeze, and at first the Fuller excuses his wife. After a few sneezes, the Fuller gets up and turns over the cage to find the lover waiting. The Fuller is talked out of beating the young man to death by the Baker, who points out that the young man will shortly die from the sulphur fumes if left in the cage. The Fuller agrees and returns the lover to the cage.

The tale is used to contrast the earlier tale told to the Baker's wife of high suspicion and quick judgments of character by her 'auntie' with the overly naive descriptions of nefarious people by her husband.

Tale of the Murderous Wife

In Book Ten a woman condemned to public humiliation with Lucius tells him her crimes:

A man goes on a journey, leaving his pregnant wife and infant son. He commands his wife that if she bears a daughter, the child is to be killed. The child is indeed a daughter, and in pity, the mother convinces her poor neighbours to raise her. Her daughter grows up ignorant of her origin, and when she reaches a marriageable age, the mother tells her son to deliver her daughter's dowry. The son begins preparation to marry the girl off to a friend, and lets her into his home under the guise of her being an orphan to all but the two of them. His wife, however, is unaware the girl is his sister, and believes he keeps her as a mistress. His wife steals her husband's signet ring and visits their country home accompanied by a group of slaves. She sends a slave with the signet to fetch the girl and bring her to the country home. The girl, aware that the husband is her brother, responds immediately, and on arrival at the country home is flogged by the wife's slaves, and put to death by a torch placed 'between her thighs'. The girl's brother takes the news and falls gravely ill. Aware of suspicions around her, his wife asks a corrupt doctor for instant poison. Accompanied by the doctor, she brings the poison to her husband in bed. Finding him surrounded by friends, she first tricks the doctor into drinking from the cup to prove to her husband the drink is benign, and giving him the remainder. Unable to return home in time to seek an antidote, the doctor dies telling his wife what happened and to at least collect a payment for the poison. The doctor's widow asks for payment but first offers the wife the remainder of her husband's collection of poisons. Finding that her daughter is next of kin to her husband for inheritance, the wife prepares a poison for both the doctor's widow and her daughter. The doctor's widow recognizes early the symptoms of the poison and rushes to the Governor's Home. She tells the Governor the whole of the connected murders and dies. The wife is sentenced to death by wild beasts and to have public intercourse with Lucius the ass.


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