Apuleius' "The Golden Ass" is also known as Metamorphoses in the English-speaking world. This magnum opus is extremely popular for various reasons including its refreshing humor, its highly engrossing stories, and its connection with the world of magic. The long epic contains an important message, which can be easily unearthed if one reads between the lines. That message is universal in nature and thus was able to transcend the restrictions of time and space to touch the hearts of readers in all time periods. The basic storyline is simple. A man Lucius is transformed into a donkey by Fortune's magic and he goes through various trials and tribulations till goddess Isis saves him.
Summing up the central message of The Golden Ass, William Adlington wrote, "Although the matter therein seemed very light and merry, yet the effect thereof tendeth to a good and virtuous moral...under the wrap of this transformation is taxed the life of mortal men, when as we suffer our minds so to been drowned in the sensual lusts of the flesh, and the beastly pleasure thereof...so can we never be restored to the right figure of ourselves except we taste and eat the sweet Rose of reason and virtue, which rather by the mediation or prayer we may assuredly attained."
This is the central idea of the novel and is presented in highly original manner. The tale contains every important ingredient of a good classic fairytale. There is magic and goddesses, trials and salvation, extreme bad fortune followed by a 'happily ever after' ending etc. thus the real reason why this book is still enjoyed by the readers is because such stories of salvation still appeal to us.
ROLE OF MAGIC AND RELIGION
Magic and religion play important roles in the novel even though they are secondary themes. This is because the role of magic though important is rather limited in its scope of influence. For example while it is magic that transforms Lucius into a donkey, it doesn't seem to do anything more. It causes problems for the protagonist from time to time but it renders no major services in the novel. The scope of magic is limited but the novel does contain references to magic and sorcery on various occasions.
For example In chapter One Book 1, magic has been mocked in these words: "Verily this tale is as true, as if a man would say that by sorcery and enchantment the floods might be enforced to run against their course, the seas to be immovable, the air to lack the blowing of winds, the Sun to be restrained from his natural race, the Moon to purge his skimme upon herbs and trees to serve for sorceries"
Apuleius himself was certainly a believer in magic but since he was openly criticized for his fascination with sorcery, he decided to restrict its role in this novel. The very fact that Lucius was punished for his curiosity about Pamphile's magic indicates that the author deliberately chose to downplay the role of magic in this novel. But magic is nonetheless present and does the most important job when it transforms the protagonist into an ass, something that sets the stage for later twists and turns.
On the other hand religion has been awarded a much bigger role. It comes in several forms and intervenes frequently to make us take notice of religious tenets. But Apuleius interpretation of what forms a religion is not exactly consistent with Christian beliefs.
But it must be remembered the Romans were tolerant of paganism and thus raised no questions about Apuleius' religious beliefs.
Prayers and Incantation have been repeatedly mentioned in the novel. Lucius clearly believes in the Higher Power when he begs it to come to his aid: "By whatever name or right or image it is right to invoke you, come to my aid at this time of extreme privation, lend stability to my disintegrating fortunes, grant respite and peace to the harsh afflictions which I have endured make me again the Lucius that I was (Golden Ass 219).
What might confuse the readers is the willingness shown by the protagonist to give up his old faith when goddess Isis insists. It can however be interpreted as shunning of useless false beliefs and acceptance of views that help a man achieve all his worldly goals. This is because Lucius was clearly suffering at the hands of Fortune and wasn't able to achieve much through his old beliefs. It was only when he accepted Isis' Priesthood that he finally finds himself on the right track.
This is where the process of salvation begins and this theme eventually comes to dominate all other minor themes in the novel. Apuleius' novel is a salvation narrative because it doesn't only focus on human suffering alone but also shows how man can save himself from repeated misfortunes. Golden Ass skillfully captures a typical human journey in this world. Man suffers on account of his wrong action, pays a heavy price but if he repents, is ultimately rescued by the Higher Power. In the preface of his translation of the Golden Ass, Jack Lindsay explains that this novel is a 'fable of the fettered soul seeking to know its own action that is the true center of the work; it is a radiant hymn of hope introduced to counterbalance the image of man's life as that of a galled beast-of-burden' (Lindsay ix).
This shows that the novel is certainly about general human experience in this world and how religion can save man from constant misfortunes. Fortune has been placed as a negative force in the book, which is to be defeated in order to achieve true happiness. But man is unable to do so without the help of Higher powers and this is where he needs the help of religion to salvage him.
Salvation is the most important subject because all the trials and tribulations have been created to accentuate the power and prominence of this theme. Without misfortunes, salvation is not needed and Lucius thus repeatedly encounters troubles until goddess Isis decides to rescue the poor soul.
In other words, Apuleius has intelligently illustrated man's journey through pain and suffering and his final salvation. The author appears to believe that without the aid of a higher power it is impossible for man to break the cycle of misfortunes.
Modern readers can easily relate to this form of achieving salvation because it is consistent with modern religious beliefs. Almost every culture and religion around the world maintains that intervention of Higher Power is required to attain salvation. However our interpretation of this Higher Power may differ according to the faith we follow. But nonetheless the novel is certainly universal in nature. It doesn't support or shun any particular religion but simply maintains that man needs to relinquish control over himself and his destiny in order to finally be rescued by a power greater than himself. In other words, salvation according to Apuleius cannot be attained through battling with destiny. Trust in a higher power and admission of one's helplessness is required to triumph over fate. This is explained by Priestess in these words, "What you must carefully remember and keep ever locked deep in your heart is that the remaining course of your life until the moment of your last breath is pledged to me, for it is only right that all your future days should be devoted to the one whose kindness has restored you to the company of men (Golden Ass 221-22).
Fortune was constantly acting as Lucius's enemy and thus he needed help for deliverance. He had become a victim of cruel fate, which is clear from comments such as, "but Fortune cruelly exposed me to fresh trials" (162), "Fortune seemed insatiable;…