The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass Summary and Analysis of Books 4-5

Book 4

At the bandits’ resting place Lucius eats to regain his strength. He considers eating roses nearby but notes that they are poisonous to grazing animals. A beating from a young man whose vegetables he’d just consumed prevents him from this. Lucius fights back but a young woman sees this and rushes over. Lucius is beaten more by townspeople but it stops when he shits all over himself.

The journey continues. Lucius considers feigning weariness and dropping to the ground, but when the other ass decides to do this first, the bandits simply cut his hamstrings and throw him over a cliff. Shaken, Lucius decides to be neither sneaky nor deceitful.

The bandits arrive at their hideout at the base of a steep mountain. An old woman is waiting there, and they heap their abuses on her and demand food. Other bandits arrive and the gathering becomes raucous and convivial.

Stories are told. The second group speaks of how they lost their esteemed leader, Lamachus, because he tried to take the house of a poor man who lived alone named Chryseros. Since that man’s possessions were all he had, he fought vigorously, and after observing the bandits sneaking around, nailed Lamachus’s arm to a wall when he tried to enter. The bandits had to flee, so they cut off Lamachus’s arm so he could leave too. Later Lamachus killed himself with honor, since he knew a one-armed bandit was useless.

After another frustrating endeavor, those bandits had moved on to Plataea. There they’d heard of a wealthy man named Demochares who was about to mount a gladiatorial show. He had bought many animals and was preparing for an incredible display. Unfortunately, many of his bears died. The bandits had an idea, and took one dead bear away. They skinned it and made a costume for one of them to wear. He would be presented to Demochares, sneak into the house, and then make it possible for the bandits to come in and rob the man.

Thraslyean was chosen, and was dressed and put into a cage. He was offered to Demochares, who was elated, and the bandits received their fee for selling the bear. The bear was housed in an airy courtyard. That night Thraslyean broke out, killed the guards, and let the bandits in. A slave-boy heard the noise and informed everyone quietly of what was going on. Fighting commenced and Thraslyean, still dressed as the bear, was attacked by dogs and then stabbed by men from the crowd. He never betrayed himself as a man until long after death when he was cut open.

The bandits drink to him and nap. Lucius tries to eat and finds he is ravenously hungry. The bandits leave for a while and return, not with plunder but with a hysterical young girl. They assure her that her virtue is not in danger but they need her parents to pay money for her release. She cannot be sated, even when the old hag tries to help. She sleeps but wakes up from a nightmare. Her angry words cause the old hag to snap at her, so she apologizes and tells the story of how this was her wedding night to her beloved that the bandits broke up, and that she dreamt a bandit killed her husband. The hag tries to comfort her with a story.

The Tale of Cupid and Psyche

There was once a king and queen with three beautiful daughters, the youngest whose beauty was beyond comprehension. People came from far and wide to praise her. Venus, the goddess of beauty, was consequently neglected and grew angry. She dispatched her winged son Cupid to deal with her.

Psyche, the daughter, was very lonely and rued her beauty because no man ever pursued her, only gazed on her in awe. Her parents went to Apollo for advice, but the god’s prophecy was dire and predicted Psyche’s marriage to a “fierce, barbaric, snake-like monster” (78). The parents were horrified and the kingdom was plunged into mourning.

Psyche rebuked her parents and said she was ready to undergo her sacrifice. She climbed to the top of the mountain and was left alone as it was dictated she should be. The Zephyr’s breeze came and bore Psyche gently down to the valley below.

Book 5

Psyche found herself in a stunning palace amid a magnificent valley. The display of wealth was incredible, and voices told her it was all for her. That evening her bridegroom came and took her virginity, but she never saw him though she could feel him. She fell in love with him and grew accustomed to his visits.

One day he warned her to never heed her sisters’ voices, but after begging and pleading he relented and said they could visit her. He made her promise that she would not give in to their questions about what he looked like.

Psyche had the wind bear her sisters down and they all embraced among tears of joy and relief. The sisters saw her new abode and grew monstrously jealous. Psyche stuck to her husband’s wishes and said he was a young man who spent his days hunting.

After the sisters left they indulged in their anger and envy and began to plot to hurt Psyche. They complained about their own lives and husbands and said Psyche was ungrateful and imperious.

Meanwhile, Psyche’s husband warned her about them. He also told her she was with child but that if she told her sisters about him their child would be born a man, not a god. Psyche was elated and promised to obey his wishes.

Her sisters were planning to visit her again and her husband warned her they were getting ready to attack. Psyche believed him but begged him to let her see them one last time. He agreed when he saw her tears and distress.

The sisters came and all embraced again. They wormed their way back into Psyche’s heart with their fake affection. They asked about her husband again and she accidently told them a different story. They realized he must be a god and could not bear to let Psyche be with him.

They told Psyche her husband was a terrible dragon and was planning to devour her child. Psyche, naïve and foolish, believed them and grew afraid. She admitted she’d never seen him, so they gave her instructions about how to look at him and how to take his life. They promised to spirit her away and marry her to someone better.

That night Psyche looked upon her husband, and to her delight, saw Cupid, the winged god. She was amazed at his beauty and grace, and tried to divert a blade into her own breast rather than kill her husband. The blade did not obey, and her sanity returned. She gazed at him and “fell in love with Love, being fired more and more with desire for the god of desire” (93).

Unfortunately, a drop of oil from her lamp fell on his right shoulder and he woke up. He saw what had happened – that she betrayed his trust – and flew away in a rage and in pain. She grabbed him and dangled from him as he flew. He landed and rebuked her, then flew away.

Psyche was disconsolate. She tried to tell the god Pan, who was nearby, of her grief, but he only suggested she forget him.

Filled with anger and despair, she went to one sister and told her a lie about the god wanting to be with the sister instead, and that Zephyr was coming to take her away. The sister leapt off a cliff to be taken away on the wind, but fell to her death instead. Psyche did this to the other sister as well.

Meanwhile, Venus found out her son was burnt and suffering. Infuriated, she went to him and screamed that she would find another son and that she was tired of his contempt. Her passionate rage was a sight to behold.

Juno and Ceres tried to calm her down, telling her that her son was in the prime of manhood, but Venus could scarcely be calmed and stalked away, insulted and angry.


Lucius’s narrative now that he is an ass is equal parts his own detailing of his sufferings, multiple owners, and indignities suffered, and equal parts stories-within-stories, all of which his large ears allow him to overhear and pass along to his audience. There is a clear narrative issue when Lucius begins to tell the story of the old hag telling the story of Cupid and Psyche; critic and translator P.G. Walsh writes, “though the old hag is depicted as telling the story, Apuleius destroys the dramatic illusion with this genial reference to himself [“Apollo, an Ionian Greek, framed his response in Latin to accommodate the author of this Milesian tale” (78)]. Mention of the Milesian Tale, echoing the introductory chapter to the romance, preserves the mask of entertainment over the hidden purpose of edification.”

Cupid and Psyche is certainly the most famous of the novel’s stories-within-the-story, which was told here for the first time but since told many times in many iterations. It is not entirely new, of course, as Eros frequently appeared in the poems of the Palatine Anthology (a collection of Greek poems discovered in the Palatine Library in Heidelberg in the 17th century). Psyche’s name was not mentioned explicitly before Apuleius, but the component of the story where Cupid falls in love with a maiden can be seen in Hellenistic statuary and in Plato’s works.

While absorbing enough on its own, it is largely seen as a way to think about what happened to Lucius. It is similarly allegorical, with a message that, according to critic Carl C. Schlam, “curiosity is conjoined with a sense of violating the divine”; it “presents curiosity as an evil in two religious senses: it is connected with both the unsanctified pursuit of the divine and with the illicit revelation of mystic truth.” When Lucius watches Pamphile perform magic, he is violating its sacredness and is thusly punished; similarly, when Psyche ignores her husband’s commands and looks upon his godly form before the appropriate time, she is punished. She is also punished when her curiosity leads her to look into Proserpina’s box (see Book 6). Schlam also notes that the tale of Cupid and Psyche “recapitulates Lucius’s career and foreshadows his eventual salvation.” Careful readers will see that Psyche eventually comes back into favor with Cupid and the gods, and leaves her life of trial and tribulation behind; this also happens to Lucius by the end of the novel.

Other critics agree. R.W. Hooper says succinctly, “it is a miniature version of the whole novel.” Walsh comments that its point is to “illuminate the larger whole.” Furthermore, it also dovetails nicely with the very end of the novel where Isis delivers Lucius from his ass-hood and in turn, Lucius is initiated into her cult. His initiation is similar to that of Psyche’s journey into the underworld, which is detailed in Book 6.

In terms of structure, it is important that the tale of Cupid and Psyche is in the center of the novel. Before this tale, Lucius hears warnings about curiosity and magic but ignores them, which eventually culminate in his turning into an ass. After the tale, Lucius deals with his new life and learns to navigate it in a way that will eventually bring him redemption.