Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Picture of Human Nature

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This essay will explore Apuleius’ Metamorphoses with special regard to what picture of human nature and society it presents and whether or not the gods offer the prospect of salvation. Dealing with the tale of Lucius whose overly curious nature results in him being turned into an ass and exploring the journey which he takes to once again become a man. This essay will aim to show that even though human nature and society at times may seem flawed, the gods do offer the prospect of salvation.

The Metamorphoses is told by Lucius in the first person and revolves around his journey from being an overly curious man who is transformed into an ass and later all the troubles that he endures in order to become a man again. It begins with Lucius travelling to Thessaly, while he is on his way there, he meets Aristomenes, who recounts to him a story with a warning attached to it about dealing with magic. Lucius is later also warned about magic by Byrrhena but once again does not listen. 

Lucius then had relations with a slave girl and convinced her to give him the potion that helped turn her mistress into a bird. She mistakenly gives him the wrong thing, which causes him to turn into an ass whose mind remains human. When robbers raided the house, they took him away with them. From here begins his journey as an ass. While on his journey he hears many stories and experiences many events such as the story of Cupid and Psyche.

Finally, Lucius is granted a reprieve by the great goddess, Isis. She informs him on what he must do to become a human again. Lucius follows the directions which he is given by the goddess and he finds a priest with roses, eats them, and is transformed into a man again. Lucius devotes his life to serving Isis.

One of the main things about human nature which is clear from the Metamorphoses is that people can be very curious and sometimes that curiosity can end up getting them in trouble. This is shown throughout the story and with the smaller stories that are within the main story. The main example of this is Lucius himself, because he is extremely curious about magic when he was warned on several occasions that it was very dangerous, it turns out to be the thing which makes him end up being turned into an Ass. 

Lucius did not think before he acted or even exercise caution before messing with things which were beyond his understanding. This exhibits how curiosity can turn into a dangerous thing. Another example of this can be found in the story of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche is curious about Cupid and Proserpina’s box and ends up in a bad situation because she did not exercise caution when it came to her curiosity. ‘How stupid am I to be carrying this beauty-lotion fit for deities, and not to take a single drop of it for myself, for with this at any rate I can be pleasing to my beautiful lover.’

The Metamorphoses can also be said to show the recklessness which people are accustomed to. This can be seen in the way that Lucius ignores the warning which Byrrhena tries to give to him. Warning him that he should not be too curious about magic, however Lucius allows his curiosity to overcome him, ignoring the advice and examples of others, such as the warning in the story of Aristomenes. His inability to heed warnings and act accordingly towards them is what leads to his transformation into an ass. ‘Dearest Lucius, I swear by the goddess here; I am troubled and fearful for you…Take stringent precautions against the wicked arts and evil enticements of the notorious Pamphile.’

Wilfulness is another aspect of human nature which is shown in the Metamorphoses, which also links closely with the aspects of curiosity and recklessness. We find that both Lucius and Psyche allow their wilfulness to get the better of them. Psyche chooses not to heed Cupid’s warnings even though she loves him and trusts him. When she allows her sisters to get inside her head and then later opens Proserpina’s box, she causes the surrounding estrangement, despair, and danger which she later finds herself in. 

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When Lucius ignores Byrrhena’s warnings and the warnings of the tales of Aristomenes, he moves closer to becoming an ass. Neither of them chooses to listen to the warnings which are given to them leading to them having to travel down a hard path in order to get back what they lost. This aspect of wilfulness can be linked to arrogance as well because Lucius having no knowledge of how magic worked arrogantly thought that he could achieved transformation into a bird merely because he wanted to.

Another element of human society brought through in the Metamorphoses is the fact that humans never seem to really want to take responsibility for their actions. It appears as if humans can do no wrong and it must be a higher power that is to blame for all the misfortunes which fall upon them. ‘In my case, Fortune by launching her most savage attack had transformed me into the four-footed beast of the most menial condition.’ This show a clear example where it seems Lucius is blaming fate for turning him into an ass when actually it was his own curiosity, recklessness and wilfulness which resulted in him turning into an ass. Lucius chose to ignore the warnings and examples of the dangers of magic which were given to him on several occasion and ended up as he was because of it.

The picture of society which is presented is a rather harsh one. Along his journey as an ass, Lucius is treated terribly and the things which he sees and hears are in some cases equally as terrible. This is bad picture of society because even though he is an ass he is surrounded by human and all the things which they do. Because he is an ass, they do not pay much attention to him and he is able to actually see the inner workings of society and how it revolves around different people. There are a whole range of people that he encounters on his journeys such as murderous, lustful and all manner of stupid people. The experiences which he goes through during his time as an ass could be said to be the thing which makes him embrace the cult of Isis once he is transformed back into a human, being a part of her initiates offers him a more meaningful and peaceful life. ‘My natural reaction was to criticize the whole sex when I observed that this girl, who had pretended to be in love with her young suitor and to long for a chaste marriage, welcomed the prospect of a foul and filthy brothel.’

The Metamorphoses gives us a very distasteful view of women in society. We see that from the beginning even with Aristomenes tale about his friend Socrates and the witch. Women are exposed as being vile creatures who seduce men and make them leave their families and kill them. This and many of the other stories which are told depict women in that society as being monsters, and were condemned for their sexuality, and prone to immorality. However, we see clearly from the Metamorphoses that men such as Lucius were doing things which could be seen as being equally if not worse than that which women were. An example of this is Lucius using Photis as a means to get what he wants; he sleeps with her not because he cares but merely so that he can get to the magic which he was so curious about. The Metamorphoses clearly shows women as being the cause of the troubles of men, an example of this is the fact that it was Photis’ fault that he was turned into an ass.

Lucius transformation back into a human takes place after he prays for help and the fact that we are told that Isis herself comes to him and tells him how his suffering will end and how he will be able to be turned back into a human gives the Metamorphoses a broader message. This message being that the gods are always watching over us and are there for us when we need them. Which is proven when Lucius offers a prayer and is later answered in a dream by Isis herself.

The stories which are told in the Metamorphoses can be seen to be aligned with the main story of Lucius and his journey, because the tales told within the Metamorphoses seem to be an almost future telling for how Lucius’ own story will turn out. An example of this could be with the tale of Cupid and Psyche it is quite similar to that of Lucius’ own story. Psyche is curious and wilful, her inability to listen to the warning which Cupid gives her is like Lucius ignoring the warnings of Byrrhena and others. After she ignores Cupid Psyche becomes estranged from her loved one and is forced to undergo a series of difficult tasks just so that she can get back what she lost. She opens the box of Proserpina after being told not to. However her story ends with her being saved by a god just as Lucius will be on the end of his journey.

This ending has already been foreseen in the tale of Cupid and Psyche. After Psyches difficult journey she is later saved by a god and made an immortal. This story of Cupid and Psyche shows us an example of how the gods do offer salvation. This expresses to us that there is not much distance between the gods and man.

In conclusion this essay examined the Metamorphoses and discussed what picture of human nature and society is shown as well as whether the gods offer the prospect of salvation. By exploring the journey which Lucius takes as well as the elements within himself which led to him having to go on the journey which he did. The Metamorphoses exhibits how curiosity, recklessness and wilfulness can lead to very dangerous outcomes. But it also shows us that the gods do in fact offer the prospect of salvation. The Metamorphoses demonstrates to us a lesson about curiosity and being careful when dealing with things that you do not know about.  

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