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How to Read Isis: Apuleius and Plato’s Myth of Er

Byron MacDougall

The Myth of Er is a key parallel for Metamorphoses 11 with respect to thematic, linguistic, and structural similarities. This paper shows how one structural parallel offers us further purchase on the still-vexed question of how to interpret Lucius’ involvement with the cult of Isis. Analysis of this parallel demonstrates the significance behind the persistent echoes of the Myth of Er while adducing further arguments in favor of the view, frequently argued by Stephen Harrison as well as Libby 2011 and Murgatroyd 2004 (Winkler 1985 claims the text suggests without "authorizing" this interpretation), among others, that Lucius is the object of satire in Book 11.

The relationship between the Met. and its “Philosophus Platonicus” author has been treated (Schlam 1970, Fick-Michel 1991, O’Brien 2002), and Tatum 1979 draws briefly on the Myth of Er for an interpretation opposed to that offered here, but the Myth has not been foregrounded in readings of Met. 11.  At the most basic level, both texts traffic in a set of metamorphoses keyed to a narrative arc of moral failure, punishment, repentance, and a renewal of the cycle. They also feature linguistic parallels: we point to how Isis’ epiphany takes some of its cues from the ekphrasis of the Spindle of Necessity (616b2-617d1), as well as how Lucius’ first initiation ceremony recalls the climax of Er’s journey (621a-621d). More important than these and other parallels is a festival scene in both the Myth and Met. 11 that reworks a festival from earlier in the text:  the Bendideia at the Peiraeus in Rep. 1 is reconstituted point for point at the beginning of Er’s journey, a scene likened to a panêgyris, while the Festival of the Releasing of Ships in Met. 11 recalls the Festival of Risus in Book 3 (for the latter pair see Frangoulidis 2008). It is this structural parallel – two pairs of festivals that bookend most of the action of their respective works – that points to the significance of Republic 10 for Metamorphoses 11, and that helps us see how Lucius is satirized as the sort of person who, to allude to the Choice of Lives (617e-620d5), chooses the wrong life.  Odysseus in the Myth overcomes his once proverbial polypragmosynê and chooses a life that allows him to tend to his own affairs  –  i.e., the state of his soul – unlike the anti-Odyssean Lucius. His breathless impatience to join the cult of Isis is not a licensed or rehabilitated version of the prurient desire he had in Book 3 to learn about magic from Photis and Pamphile. With the Isis cult Lucius falls victim to the same curiositas (on this see DeFilippo 1990, Hijmans 1995, Van der Stockt 2012) that plagued him throughout the novel, but this time he should have seen it coming.

 A major theme of the Myth is the moral importance of memory and of learning from one’s experience: Socrates urges Glaukon to remember everything they discussed in the Republic “both in general and in particular regarding virtue” (618c5-7), while the reader’s memory muscles are exercised in encountering the reconstituted Bendideia festival. The Myth asks us to read our life experiences carefully – as it clearly expects us to have read the preceding dialogue carefully. Lucius, however, is a poor reader of his own experiences, and in Met. 11 lives out what the Myth suggests are the consequences for those who fail to heed its message: he repeats his experiences without learning from them, never overcomes his innate curiositas, and is condemned to a series of degrading transformations. With the Myth’s help, this paper adduces new readings to show how Lucius does not learn from earlier episodes, and that based on what we have read previously in the novel, the cult Lucius joins sure looks exploitative. To paraphrase Ramsay Snow, if you think this is a happy ending (pace Graverini 2012), you haven’t been paying attention. 

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Innovative Encounters between Ancient Religious Traditions

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