You are here

The Humor of Disgust: Attitudes toward galli in Lucian’s Onos and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses

Ashley Kirsten Weed

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In both Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and [Lucian]’s Onos, the narrator, transformed into a donkey, travels with a group of mendicant priests (ostensibly galli) who worship the Syrian goddess (Met. 8.24-9.10; Onos 35-41). Though the episodes are closely similar in plot, I argue that the two narrators see the galli differently, demonstrating the diversity in ancient attitudes toward this elusive group. To do so, I show how disgust toward galli is mobilized in each text to different ends: for the narrator of the Onos, this episode is one among many humorous encounters; for the narrator of the Metamorphoses, it is terrifying and dangerous.

Recent scholarship has interrogated the place of disgust in Greco-Roman literature and shown how it can inform our understanding of societal norms and values (Lateiner & Spitharas; Dutsch & Suter). Though it has been argued that Greeks find galli amusing while Romans view them with disgust (Rauhala), the Onos—a text both Greek and Roman (Finkelpearl; Tilg)—disrupts this dichotomy. Despite being a positive emotion, humor often relies on disgust responses. Psychological studies of disgust humor (McGraw & Warren; Kant & Norman) show that such humor requires three conditions: a violation of norms, a benign context, and for this violation and benign context to occur and be evaluated simultaneously. Simultaneously judging the violation as disgusting yet located within a non-threatening context makes the transgression humorous rather than horrifying. Although presented as norm-violators—appraised disparagingly as kinaidoi (35, 38, 40), anosioi (38), dussebeis (41), and hierosuloi (41), as well as engaging in self-mutilation, begging, stealing, and sexual deviance (aselgeia, 38)—the Onos primes its readers to evaluate the galli as benign. When Lucius fears for his physical safety, his fears are not realized (36), he is saved by divine intervention (38), and he is ultimately able to escape (40-41). Consequently, the galli pose no real threat toward the first-person narrator, and the audience is free to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

In contrast, the galli of the Metamorphoses are presented as quite threatening. Narrative pacing in moments of danger differs dramatically from analogous moments in the Onos, favoring suspense-building adverbs repente and subito over the iterative, indefinite constructions of the Onos. Moreover, the transgressive gender performance of Apuleius’ galli overloads readers’ senses (8.27): varicolored, high-contrast garments and makeup overstimulate readers’ vision; brutal self-mutilation, mild autocannibalism (morsibus suos incursantes musculos), and feats of acrobatic contortion elicit tactile responses of sympathetic pain; a cacophony of screams, cymbals, flutes, and tympana overwhelm readers’ ears. Such constant danger, sensory disorder, and amplified gender transgression leave no cognitive space for the reader to judge the catalogued violations as benign. The narrator of the Metamorphoses thus casts himself as averse toward the cult of the Syrian goddess, both as a naturalized Roman (1.1) who sees these galli as threatening, hypocritical, and abhorrent, and as a prefigured convert of Isis and Osiris, whose followers represent everything these galli are not: austere, celibate, and enlightened (11.6, 11.9-10).

Session/Panel Title


Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy