Lucius Apuleius is best known to us as the author of The Golden Ass, one of the most famous romances in the world, containing as it does the story of Cupid and Psyche.
His importance to the study of witchcraft rests on the fact that The Golden Ass is a romance of witchcraft, and illustrates the beliefs which were held about witches in the pre-Christian world.
This work of Apuleius proves that witchcraft was not, as some modern writers have claimed, an invention of the Middle Ages, On the contrary, witchcraft was known, feared and respected in ancient Greece and Rome.
Lucius Apuleius was a priest of Isis, who was born at Madaura, a Roman colony in North Africa, early in the second century A.D.
His family was wealthy, and he traveled quite extensively for those times, in search of education and insight into religious mysteries.
He was once himself accused of practicing black magic.
He had married a wealthy widow, older than himself, and the widow’s jealous family brought an accusation against him of having bewitched her into matrimony.
However, Apuleius successfully defended himself in court by a brilliant and witty speech, which was later published under the title of A Discourse on Magic (Apulei Apologia sive pro se de Magia Liber, with introduction and commentary by H. E. Butler and A. S. Owen, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1914).
His book The Golden Ass has been translated into English by William Adlington in 1 566 (Simpkin Marshall, London, 1 930 and AMS Press, New York, 1 893), and in our own day by Robert Graves in 1950.
It pretends to be an autobiography, telling how Lucius as an adventurous young man found himself in Thessaly, a region in Greece notorious for witchcraft. After hearing from his traveling companion’s various hair-raising tales about the dark powers of Thessalian witches, he determined to pry into witchcraft himself.
His cousin, Byrrhaena, warned him that his host’s wife, Pamphile, was a most dangerous witch; but her words of caution only made his curiosity keener.
He resolved to seduce Pamphile’s maid, Fotis, and thus gain entry into the secrets of Pamphile’s witchcraft.
As Fotis was quite willing to be seduced, Lucius’ plan at first appeared to prosper.
He persuaded the girl to let him secretly watch her mistress anointing herself with a magic unguent, which transformed her into an owl and enabled her to fly through the night in that shape.
However, when Lucius got the girl to steal a pot of the witch’s unguent for him, it changed him not into an owl, the bird of wisdom, but into an ass.
Fotis told him that the counter-magic which would restore him to human shape was to eat roses; but before he was able to do this he passed through one wild adventure after another, until the goddess Isis took pity on him and helped him to regain his humanity.
The witches in The Golden Ass have many of the characteristics attributed to those of the Middle Ages.
They can change their shape by means of magic unguents; they steal parts from corpses to use in their spells; they bewitch men by obtaining pieces of their hair; they can cast a glamour over the senses, and charm people asleep; they can pass through a hole in a door by changing themselves into a small animal, or even an insect, and they can transform others into animal shape.
However, Apuleius as a priest of lsis shows both sides of the cult of the moon goddess, the right- and left-hand paths.
He recognizes Isis as the Queen of Heaven, yet identical in her dark aspect with Hecate and Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld.
The roses which redeem Lucius from the shape of an ass are the symbol of the Mysteries; an idea which in later years was repeated in the occult emblem of the Rosy Cross.