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Apuleius' use of philosophical allegory

Joshua Renfro

University of Texas

How are we to read the Metamorphoses alongside the remainder of Apuleius’ rich and

variegated corpus? This is a longstanding question in classical scholarship, and little progress

has been made, as evidenced by the lack of consensus. Unsatisfied with narratological and

sophistic readings (Winkler 1985, Harrison 2000) a few scholars have recently been trying to

revive a Platonic approach to Apuleius (e.g. O’Brien 2002 and Kirichenko 2008) by building

off suggestive leads found in older scholarship (Thibau 1965, Schlam 1970, DeFillippo

1990). O’Brien’s and Kirichenko’s findings are promising, but they adequately address

neither 1) the Metamorphoses , nor 2) the questions about Apuleius’ embryonic use of

Neoplatonic allegory and symbolism that they open. This paper poses and answers one such

question about a pivotal and hitherto puzzling juncture in the Cupid & Psyche narrative.

Drawing on other, more obviously Platonizing, parts of Apuleius’ corpus, it suggests

specific interpretations of Psyche’s four ‘helpers’, which lead us into questions about the

philosophical background that Apuleius must have had in mind while writing. Shortly after

Habit drags Psyche by her hair to present her to Venus’ gaze and after Psyche has been

whipped by Melancholy and Sorrow, Psyche is subjected to four tasks. In turn, formiculae ,

an harundo , an aquila , and a turris come to Psyche’s aid. Their help and Psyche’s “work”

has been the subject of allegorical speculation in much scholarship, especially Jungian

scholarship. However, although the Jungian approaches are generally provocative, they are

also generally anachronistic. This paper proposes to take the allegorical interpretation of the

four tasks seriously while trying to frame that interpretation within Apuleius’ own


One particularly tricky problem will be to understand the fourth task involving the

‘far-seeing tower’ ( prospicua turris ). In order to flush out the symbolism here one needs to

visit the Sibyl’s warnings to Aeneas at Aeneid 6 and, surprisingly and more expressly, the

complex Philolaic cosmological system. With the Platonic symbolism of this episode in

hand, a possible repercussion for the status of Cupid as a kind of fifth ‘helper’ is also

explored. The interpretation bears, as well, on a passage clé in Metamorphoses 11, and so

shows how Apuleius uses one part of his novel as a kind of inner commentary on another,

namely here the narrator’s initiation into Isiac cult.

Of course, it will not settle the debate about the relation of the Metamorphoses to

Apuleius’ more Platonic writings, but this paper will go some way toward vindicating the

more recent scholarly work on Apuleius’ Platonism. Moreover, it will provide evidence that

approaches to the Metamorphoses that take seriously the novel’s Platonic allegory and

symbolism are fruitful and that such approaches give us a window into the practice of

Apuleius’ poetics. In sum, following the hints in the Latin text that Apuleius leaves for the

reader, this paper demonstrates that Psyche’s four tasks ( Met . 6.10-20) are written within a

Platonico-Pythagorean frame. To conclude, the paper then speculates about the importance

of the symbolism of the four tasks for the Cupid & Psyche story as a whole, submitting that

Apuleius has written an exhilarating vignette of middle Platonic self-initiation.

Session/Panel Title

Allegory Poetics and Symbol in Neoplatonic Texts

Session/Paper Number


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