In the second century AD, a Morrocan writer called Lucius Apuleius wrote a wondrous tale of mystery, magic and myth. “The Golden Ass,” written in Latin, tells the story of a likeable hero Lucius who journeys through the Greek region of ancient Thessaly, a land of intrigue and witchcraft to this day.
My first magical teacher some twenty five years ago strongly recommended all aspirants to the Mysteries to read this little book to get an allegorical sense of that great regeneration which lies at the heart of initiation into High Magic and the Hermetic Arts. I have to admit to not being disappointed by following through with her advice for it is a story I have often returned to for inspiration.
The pacey story follows the adventures of Lucius whose curiosity eventually leads him to being transformed into the form of an ass. In his new bestial form he finds himself incarcerated in a violent and lustful world of moral depravity, where he falls into the hands of brigands, sharing their fantastical exploits before eventually being transformed by the Goddess Isis into a new man.
The text is packed with entertaining and occasional gruesome stories populated with a motley theatre of fascinating characters. However, there are two key elements within the story which warrant note for the Ogdoadic practitioner. The first of these is a variant retelling of the romance between Cupid and Psyche, that great metaphor for the soul’s nurturing and education through divine love. The second of these is the message of redemption and regeneration at the tale’s finale when Isis transforms him back into a man and initiate. In this last piece of renewal Lucius decides to devote himself to the Mysteries of the Temple of Osiris where he is chosen to be a member of his Order of Shrine Bearers as well as a Temple Councillor.
There a many fine editions of this story available. I myself have two editions, one translated by Robert Graves and the other by William Adlington. The Graves’ version is my favourite, and to give you a taster and whet your appetite I will leave you with an excerpt from his interpretation of Lucius’s beautiful vision of the Goddess Isis:
“Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with cars of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what caught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.
In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp witch pulled throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.
All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: ‘You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.
‘Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis. I have come in pity of your plight, I have come to favor and aid you. Weep no more, lament no longer; the hour of deliverance, shone over by my watchful light, is at hand.
‘Listen attentively to my orders.
‘The eternal laws of religion devote to my worship the day born from this night. Tomorrow my priests offer me the first-fruits of the new sailing season by dedicating a ship to me: for at this season the storms of winter lose their force, the leaping waves subside and the sea becomes navigable once more. You must wait for this sacred ceremony, with a mind that is neither anxious for the future nor clouded with profane thoughts; and I shall order the High Priest to carry a garland of roses in my procession, tied to the rattle which he carries in his right hand. Do not hesitate, push the crowd aside, join the procession with confidence in my grace. Then come close up to the High Priest as if you wished to kiss his hand, gently pluck the roses with your mouth and you will immediately slough off the hide of what has always been for me the most hateful beast in the universe.
‘Above all, have faith: do not think that my commands are hard to obey. For at this very moment, while I am speaking to you here, I am also giving complementary instructions to my sleeping High Priest; and tomorrow, at my commandment, the dense crowds of people will make way for you. I promise you that in the joy and laughter of the festival nobody will either view your ugly shape with abhorrence or dare to put a sinister interpretation on your sudden return to human shape. Only remember, and keep these words of mine locked tight in your heart, that from now onwards until the very last day of your life you are dedicated to my service. It is only right that you should devote your whole life to the Goddess who makes you a man again. Under my protection you will be happy and famous, and when at the destined end of your life you descend to the land of ghosts, there too in the subterrene hemisphere you shall have frequent occasion to adore me. From the Elysian fields you will see me as queen of the profound Stygian realm, shining through the darkness of Acheron with a light as kindly and tender as I show you now. Further, if you are found to deserve my divine protection by careful obedience to the ordinances of my religion and by perfect chastity, you will become aware that I, and I alone, have power to prolong your life beyond the limits appointed by destiny.’
With this, the vision of the invincible Goddess faded and dissolved.”
There are many more fictionalized glimpses in this great work which shed light on the experience of the initiate into the Mysteries two thousand years ago. I cannot recommend this fantastic piece of magical literature more strongly!