I read the Cupid and Psyche tale in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses as a narrative of Psyche’s slavery. What Psyche endures aligns with the experiences of historical slaves: enslavement through exposure, sexual exploitation, psychological abuse, beatings, and hard labor. Focalizing the narrative through Psyche as slave also allows access to the psychological effect of this degradation.
The reading builds on Keith Bradley’s discussion of Lucius’ animal metamorphosis in reference to the treatment of historical slaves (2000) and proceeds in the spirit of Gayatri Spivak’s empathetic literary reading (2014), through which one imagines the reality of others, here, an exploited ancilla. Our access to this character has been mediated through the elite author, who represents the story as not his own. Apuleius’ ego-narrator Lucius, transformed into an ass, overhears an old domestic tell the story to a girl who has been kidnapped and, in effect, enslaved (mancipium, serviliter clausa, 4.24). Apuleius appropriates Psyche’s slave story to serve his own agenda, using the slave as a metaphor to think with (cf. Schlam, 1976: religious agenda; Kenney, 1990: philosophic). With Spivak’s purpose in mind, I read to think about the enslaved person behind the metaphor.
In response to an oracle, beautiful Psyche is exposed on a mountain to be devoured by a monster. Instead, she is transported to a magical palace, where she is attended by audible but invisible slaves (voces famulas, 5.3). An unseen lover/husband/rapist comes to take her virginity. Jack Winkler suggested that we read Cupid and Psyche as a mystery in which the identity of this character is revealed when Psyche first discovers it (1985, 89-93). But Psyche’s identity itself is an object of discovery. Only after Cupid deserts her and she goes to find him do we learn that she was the slave of Venus (Psychen illam fugituam uolaticam, 5.31). Her unseen “husband” was not just Cupid, but the son of her owner.
As was the case for other historical slaves, Psyche’s exposure leads to her enslavement; as a slave, she is sexually exploited. Like many abused slaves, she tries to run away and her owner hunts her down. The realism of Venus’ pursuit is suggested by allusion to laws against the harboring of fugitive slaves (6.4) and the practice in which notice was posted for fugitivi (6.7). After recovering her, Venus had Psyche tortured (6.9); she also punishes her slave with hard labor. Beatings, torture, and hard work were all forms of punishment available to slave owners. Despite their fantastic quality, the tasks that Psyche performs allude to the agricultural and domestic labor of historical slaves: sorting seeds, gathering wool, fetching water, bringing the mistress her cosmetics.
Psyche’s suffering and endurance win back Cupid, who intervenes with Juppiter to arrange for the apotheosis that allows the couple to be husband and wife according to the law (legitimas et iure civili congruas, 6.23), an allusion to the manumission of slaves for the purpose of marriage, a practice facilitated by the Augustan Lex Aelia Sentia.
Reading through Apuleius’s metaphor affords access to the emotional effect of degradation on the ancilla. Psyche tries to kill herself in despair (6.12; 6.17). Her despair reflects the suicidal tendencies of historical slaves (cf. Paulus, Digest, 22.214.171.124). Through Psyche’s uncertainty regarding the identity of the person who was sleeping with her, we enter the mind of the sexually exploited ancilla: Would sex win the master’s favor, even his love, or was he a beast who would use her and discard her? In Psyche’s happy ending we may see the unloved and degraded slave’s desire for a happy ending, a person to whom freedom and love may have seemed as unattainable as apotheosis.
In conclusion, I return to the framing of the story, told by a domestic to a girl on the cusp of enslavement, and suggest that Apuleius has appropriated a traditional tale used by slaves to tell their own story, an ancient slave narrative.
Slavery and Sexuality in Antiquity