Imagine a group of prehistoric homo sapiens -or even Neanderthals- grouped round a cave fire listening intently to a story-teller. Now shift forwards a century or few to the Roman story teller, Apuleius and you can sense the continuity. Telling each other stories will never die out because it is in our genes!
Written towards the end of the second century AD, The Golden Ass tells the story of the many adventures of a young man whose fascination with witchcraft leads him to be transformed into a donkey. The bewitched Lucius passes from owner to owner – encountering a desperate gang of robbers and being forced to perform lewd ‘human’ tricks on stage – until the Goddess Isis finally breaks the spell and Lucius is initiated into her cult. Apuleius’ enchanting story has inspired generations of writers such as Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Keats with its dazzling combination of allegory, satire, bawdiness and sheer exuberance, and remains the most continuously and accessibly amusing book to have survived from Classical antiquity.
I’m reading the Penguin Classic translation by Robert Graves and can highly recommend it. Lucius implores his lover to get him a magic potion to transform him into a bird. Unfortunately she gets the wrong potion by mistake. Here’s what happens next:
I stood flapping my arms, first the left then the right. . . but no little feathers appeared on them and they showed no sign of turning into wings. All that happened was that the hair on them grew coarser and coarser and the skin toughened into hide. Next my fingers bunched together into a hard lump and my hands became hooves, the same change came over my feet and I felt a long tail sprouting from the base of my spine. Then my face swelled, my mouth widened, my nostrils dilated, my lips hung flabbily down, and my ears shot up long and hairy. The only consoling part of this miserable transformation was the enormous increase in the size of a certain organ of mine. . . At last I was obliged to face the mortifying fact that I had been transformed not into a bird but into a plain jackass.
As a donkey he has lots of adventures and this gives Apuleius the opportunity to tell story after story including Cupid and Psyche. Brilliant (!) and has the immediacy of style which is timeless.