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Apuleius’ Book of Trans* Formations: A Transgender Studies Reappraisal of Met. 8.24-30 and 11.17-30

H. Christian Blood

Within Apuleius scholarship, Lucius’s time among the devotees of the goddess Cybele
(8.24-30) is usually understood to be one component of a picaresque narrative mechanism that
lambasts the depravity and corruption of the Empire. Whether one concludes that Asinus Aureus is a
“philosophical comedy about religious knowledge” (Winkler 1985, 124) or a “religious comedy about
philosophical knowledge” (Accardo 2002, 49), all these episodes are generally  seen to serve the
novel’s overarching themes, transformation and conversion. Conversely, scholars in fields outside
of Apuleius studies, namely sex and gender in antiquity (Richlin,  Taylor, Williams, el al.) and
the history of religion (Latham, Roscoe, Stevenson, et. al.), tend to conceive of the galli as
textual evidence of an under-documented cultural phenomena, cinaedi or eunuchs, and pay less
attention to how their conclusions about this complex and poorly understood subculture shed new
light on the larger problems of the novel’s narrative. Seeking to unite these seemingly discrete
scholarly interests—conversion and non-normative gender expression—I will bring insights from
Transgender Studies to bear upon Asinus Aureus. In doing so, I will first make an argument for why
we should classify the galli as transgender women. Then, in the time afforded to a conference
presentation, I will demonstrate how this episode in Book 8 can be used to understand the notorious
challenges of Book 11.

Transgender studies—the academic discipline that “disrupts, denaturalizes, and rearticulates” the
“normative linkages” between biological sex, social gender, and the “cultural mechanisms” that
regulate them (Stryker 2006, 3)—provides alternate models for destabilizing and rethinking sex and
gender in antiquity. Here, I turn to the notion of “male femaling,” developed by ethnosociologist
Richard Ekins (1997). Taking “female” as a verb, male femaling is the complex of processes by which
genetic males transform themselves into women by “adopting what they take to be the thoughts,
feelings, attitudes, behaviours, accoutrements and attributes of genetic females” (48), including
everything from latter-day gender confirmation surgery to age- old low-tech practices. Reviewing
Ekins’s description of male femaling (55), one finds striking similarities between the activities
of modern transwomen and Apuleius’ galli: removing body  hair, sculpting eyebrows, modulating the
voice, altering mannerisms and gait, wearing make-up  or women’s clothing, and, most significantly,
using feminine terms and grammatical forms (puellae, mercata) (8.26-8.27).

While a reappraisal of 8.24-30 through the lens of Transgender Studies is itself important, for the
purposes of this paper, I am most interested in how the trans experience—a condition of  the spirit
that precedes a somatic metamorphosis—can open up the Isis Book in news ways. At first glance, it
is tempting to evaluate Cybele’s transwomen in relation to Lucius’s somatic transformation from
human to donkey. Though an interesting and potentially fruitful site of analysis, this
transformation is, in some ways, not up to the comparison, since it is cyclical and coercive rather
than progressive and self-motivated. There is, however, another major transformation that fits the
trans experience more closely: the religious conversion in Book 11. In this episode, Lucius begins
a process of self-identification—cutting his hair, changing his dress and working to integrate into
a marginalized subculture—of which his family, and ultimately the reader, are highly skeptical. By
not presenting conclusive proof—in a presurgical world, proof of transition is as impossible as
proof of conversion—Apuleius forces the reader to decide whether  to take Lucius in Book 11 and the
puellae in Book 8 at their word: they are what they are because they say they are. In this way, a
re-evaluation of Metamorphoses through Transgender Studies moves beyond familiar dichotomies of
piety and parody, enlightenment and entertainment, and instead argues that Apuleius’ book is a
novel of trans formations, a document of personal history and self-determination, uncannily in-line
with transgender narratives from the 20th  and 21st

Session/Panel Title

Libros Me Futurum: New Directions in Apuleian Scholarship

Session/Paper Number


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