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Talking Donkeys: A Seriocomic Interpretation of Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.2

Geoffrey Benson

Talking Donkeys: A Seriocomic Interpretation of Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.2

In this paper, I argue Lucius’ lyrical prayer to the Moon at the start of Book 11 of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (Met. 11.2) has a seriocomic dimension, which becomes apparent when the prayer is situated in two broader contexts.  I show how Apuleius portrays Lucius as an articulate, but ignorant ass in order to critique the anthropocentric argument, found in an array of philosophical works (Xenophon, Mem. I.4.13; Plato, Prt. 322a; Cicero, Leg. I.8.24), that man is the only creature to worship gods.  Past interpreters, on the other hand, believe Book 11 opens on a solemn, serious note (Winkler 1985, 215-216; Schlam 1992, 115).  Even a critic who favors the comic interpretation of Book 11—that it satirizes religious credulity—admits the prayer “appears genuinely pathetic and moving” (Harrison 2000, 239-240).  Harrison makes this claim despite suspicion about the preceding scene (Met. 11.1.4) where Lucius the ass dunks his head into the sea seven times to purify himself and justifies this seemingly superstitious action by invoking Pythagoras (Keulen 2003, 126).  Furthermore, interpreters who support the seriocomic reading of the novel—that Apuleius conveys serious ideas in a light-hearted manner—do not find anything comic or subversive about the prayer (Graverini 2012, 57; Tilg 2014, 95).

The key to the prayer’s seriocomic dimension is that the ass appears to speak aloud, miraculously defying his physical limitations, as Finkelpearl contends (1998, 204-205).  Even if Met. 11.2 is merely the representation of a silent interior monologue “as an act of praying aloud” (GCA 2015, 105; 20-21), the fact the ass is represented as talking invites comparison with animals that can actually speak.  In the first part of the paper, I compare Lucius with talking animals in the Metamorphoses.  The talking ants, eagle, reed, and tower in the Cupid and Psyche tale (Met. 4.28-6.24) have special insight into the workings of their universe and help Psyche.  Lucius, on the other hand, does not know the identity of the Moon goddess, alternatively identifying her as Ceres, Venus, Diana, and Proserpina.  He also is in Psyche’s position—he needs help—and he uses the same number of words to pray to the Moon as Psyche uses in her prayers to Ceres (Met. 6.2) and Juno (Met. 6.4; Tatum 1979, 158-159).   

In the second part of the paper, I set the prayer in a broader context.  That Lucius can pray beautifully but lacks insight becomes even more apparent when Lucius is compared to talking asses in stories from outside of the Metamorphoses, the most famous of which is Balaam’s ass in Numbers 22:21-38.  Balaam’s ass and one of its literary descendants—the talking wild ass in The Acts of Thomas 75-79—speak on God’s behalf, with insight into reality that Lucius does not possess.  It is uncertain whether Apuleius knew Balaam’s ass, but he probably was familiar with Judeo-Christian stories (Bradley 2012, 104).  Moreover, Lucius’ struggle with Charite over the direction to take as they escape from the robbers’ cave (Met. 6.29.6-8) brings to mind Balaam’s fight with his donkey.  

In the third part of the paper, I explain why Lucius’ ignorance is stressed at Met. 11.1-2.  Isis may give Lucius voice (Finkelpearl 1998, 205), but Lucius is still more animal than human.  His ritual action, in fact, brings to mind that of the elephants, the animals Pliny the Elder claims are “nearest to man in intelligence” (NH 8.1.1).  According to Pliny, when a new moon shines, elephants from Mauretania purify themselves with water before venerating the moon, sun, and stars (NH 8.1.1-2; for Apuleius’ use of Pliny in the Florida, see Lee 2005, 123-125).  I argue Apuleius describes Lucius as a talking ass who behaves like an elephant and lacks the insight of other articulate animals in order to support the view that intelligent animals have religious sensibilities and blur rigid distinctions between animals and humans. 

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Running Down Rome: Lyric, Iambic, and Satire

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