Several Layers of Allegorical Meaning in The Golden Ass
© 2007 by John Caris

Apuleius wrote his famous and thought-provoking story The Golden Ass back in the second century A.D. During his life, he had defeated charges of practicing magic, had been initiated into the Mysteries of Isis, and had become a priest of god Aesculapius (in Greek named Asclepius), renowned for his healing powers. Snakes were often used in Aesculapius’ healing procedures, and his staff was entwined with a serpent. Dreams were considered important, and patients would tell theirs to a priest at the god’s temple. Apuleius’ allegorical story has for centuries attracted those who sought the secrets veiled by the charm of words, secrets about magic and alchemy, revelations concerning the structure of reality.

The complete story is a complex allegory containing many layers of meaning. Leaving aside Apuleius’ shrewd examination of Roman society and his satiric remarks—all filled with sharp ironies—in this essay I will examine the Psyche-Cupid episode, which is the mythic center, reflecting the strange adventures of the main character Lucius as a diamond does the many colors of light. First, a short summary of the episode is required, interspersed with a few comments, before I share my insights and interpretations.

Psyche becomes beware that a person’s presence can cause jealousy and envy in other people. Her beauty gives her no pleasure, but separates her from others. Her father, unable to find a suitor for her, goes to the oracle for advice. The oracle declares that Psyche must wed the raging serpent: the wedding is viewed as a funeral. After she is left on the mountain top, gentle Zephyrus, the west wind, calms her and carries her to the valley floor. Psyche enters a pleasure dome, a divinely appointed palace. The attendants are invisible, and she hears only their voices. Her husband Cupid visits in the dark of the night, leaving before dawn. She can feel and hear him, but not see him. Cupid has fallen in love with Psyche and allows her to do anything she wants, even if it will bring harm and destruction. The soul (Psyche) is caught up in worldly affairs while the spirit (Cupid) is not, except through Psyche’s activities. She cannot tell her sisters about her husband’s identity nor try to see him. Underline the big disobedience! She is given freedom, but notice how she uses it.

Psyche brings her two sisters to the palace, and the conniving begins. Cupid experiences suffering when Psyche uses her freedom. Psyche’s niceness, her desire to do good, and her compassion—all lead her into misery and harm: she lacks knowledge and wisdom. She will not listen to Cupid because she is headstrong. Her sisters’ jealousy and envy, however, become hatred. They whisper to each other: will her mysterious husband turn Psyche into a goddess, a divinity? Is she already acting like one? The sisters plan vengeance, so they do not let anyone know Psyche is alive. Everyone has believed that she had died when she had disappeared from the mountain top.

Cupid has warned Psyche that if she looks on his face, he will leave. Her child will be divine only if she keeps the secret about her husband, but if she reveals the secret, the child will be mortal. The divinity’s face is mirrored in the child.

On their third visit her sisters tell Psyche that her husband Cupid is a serpent and encourage her to behead him. Psyche, after seeing Cupid by lamplight, cuts her thumb on one of his arrows, and her desire for him is ignited. Hot oil from the lamp then spills on Cupid’s right shoulder. Originally, he had pierced himself with an arrow and so had fallen in love with her, but now he must fly away from his love.

In despair she throws herself into a river, but the waters lay her safely on the bank. Pan is present and gives her advice: put aside grief and woo Cupid. First Psyche gets revenge on her sisters by letting them fling themselves off the cliff without Zephyrus bearing them up. Then she goes in search of Cupid. Venus, however, hears of Cupid’s wound and the gossip about him. When she learns that Psyche is the cause of the harm, Venus is even more angry. She wants to punish Cupid by taking away his wings, flame, and bow and arrows. Ceres and Juno ask her why she is so upset about her son’s love affairs? The irony here is perceptive.

Psyche has decided that when she finds Cupid she will offer to be his slave if he will take her back. Seeing a temple high up on a mountain top, Psyche struggles to climb the steep, rocky slope. Finally reaching the top, she enters the shrine and finds the harvest strewed about. She cleans up the mess and puts everything in its proper place. Ceres, matron of the Eleusian Mysteries, notices her chores but refuses to let her stay. Psyche next finds Juno’s shrine, but the goddess also sends her away. Neither goddess wants to offend Venus and receive her anger. Venus asks Mercury to proclaim around the countryside that she wants Psyche. Upon hearing the proclamation, Psyche goes to Venus’ palace and gives herself up. Psyche and Cupid reside in the same building but are separated and kept apart by Venus. After beating her, Venus gives Psyche four tasks to perform. The first is to sort a mixture of various grains and beans and then put them into separate piles. Ants help by sorting out the seeds. The second task is to collect some wool from a flock of hostile sheep. A reed growing in the river gives her advice for collecting the wool: wait until the sheep are napping and then shake branches of the trees and pieces of wool will fall to the ground. The third task is to climb a steep mountain and collect a bottle of water from a spring, guarded by dragons, which ultimately flows into the Stygian Marshes and Cocytus. She is assisted by an eagle, who fills the bottle for her.

The fourth task is to go to Hades and get some of Proserpine’s beauty for Venus. Psyche is given a box to carry the beauty in, but she is so distressed she goes to the top of a high tower to jump and end it all. She has been constantly thinking suicide, but assistance has always arrived. The voice of the tower gives her advice about the journey to Hades: where the path is, what to take, and what to do. Greed flourishes among the dead! Do not be delayed by those who ask for help! The tower’s major warning is not to open and peek into the box to see the beauty. After receiving Proserpine’s gift, the trickster in her mind, however, whispers: why not take a tiny, tiny piece of the beauty so that she can be lovely in Cupid’s eyes. Because her self-image has been tarnished by Venus’ punishment, she opens the box and is surprised that it contains the Sleep of the Innermost Darkness, the night of Styx. The Sleep emerges from the box and enters her, causing her to fall unconscious.

His wound having healed, Cupid now ventures forth to find Psyche. When he comes upon her, he puts the Sleep back into the box and rouses her with a prick of his arrow. Awakening, she realizes that her uncontrollable curiosity is her weakness. Cupid now entreats Jove to help. Jove commands that Cupid and Psyche will be properly wed and their marriage will be divinely accepted. Psyche is taken to heaven by Mercury, given ambrosia, and becomes immortal, to be eternally wed to Cupid. Their child is a daughter whom they name Joy.

After reading the story several times over the years, I have discovered many connections to alchemy and the transformative process of the perennial philosophy concealed in the story. First some thoughts about the mystical level of meaning.

Psyche the soul is mortal; Cupid the spirit is immortal. Immortal means not mortal. The soul when it enters the world is mortal, and when the body dies, it leaves this realm of incarnation. If the soul remains mortal, it will reincarnate and continue the cycle of birth and death until it becomes immortal and goes to the divine realm—paradise or heaven or nirvana. Clearly, the ancients assumed reincarnation and the mortality of the soul.

After Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church fathers rejected reincarnation but still maintained the inner truth, that is, the soul is mortal unless it becomes immortal. In Christianity gaining immortality means being saved and going to heaven. Those who are not saved go to hell, which is a realm where unsaved (read “mortal”) souls reside. These souls experience mortality as if they were still in their bodies. Hence hell takes the place of reincarnation without the recycling process, and thus a second chance is denied. Christianity posits a one time opportunity for all eternity. Reincarnation offers recurring chances for acquiring immortality.

For me, an alchemical interpretation offers more insight. The nectar of the gods gives immortality; this is the quest for the fountain of youth. The marriage of the king and queen equals fusing the soul and spirit. Their offspring—the blending—is an immortal, spiritual soul that has experienced the physical, temporal world in physical form. This mystical marriage explains some of the complexities and apparent paradoxes in alchemical texts. What does the multiplication stage mean here?

The heat is that of love. Psyche’s four tasks are the four alchemical stages. Venus’ wrath is another heat energy that decomposes the elements of the soul and separates the two, soul and spirit, for a time. The two sisters, corrupted substances, spur the soul toward its destruction and thus eventual renewal on a higher level. This is the phoenix image: death and rebirth. Without the sisters’ jealousy and hatred, Psyche would remain in an innocent, unconscious bliss—the mortal soul in an earthly paradise without any desire for achieving immortality. This is basic contentedness. (Is this a reason for God through the serpent tricking Adam and Eve into eating the apple?)

The sisters trigger the sequence leading to the soul’s salvation, but Psyche’s own curiosity leads to the destruction of her mindless innocence. At first she needs a visible image; later she wants to improve herself. Thus the punishment and travail begin but eventually lead to immortality because of Cupid’s love, which awakens Psyche into a higher consciousness. When Psyche the soul first entered Cupid’s enchanted palace, she was only in love with herself; yet once she cuts herself on one of his arrows, her love is directed toward her spirit guardian, Cupid. Thus, she is now in a state which is conducive to a marriage with him. Previously, they were only living together. Because Psyche was not ready for and equal to a bonding with Cupid, he had to remain invisible. Although she bore within her their child, she had to go through a series of challenges before she could reach the spiritual level. At first Cupid came to earth at night for their meeting when she could only hear and feel but not see him. Now she goes to the god realm where they are married, and their child becomes immortal too. Venus’ rantings express the guidelines and the existential qualities. Venus’ wrath turns Cupid onto Psyche! Otherwise, Psyche would have ended up as a mortal beauty without any offspring or opportunity to gain immortality. Jealousy is a distorted form of love, but notice the many other manifestations of love or heat. Also included is the love underlying the help that she receives for the four tasks. Was Cupid directing the assistance behind the scenes?

Christianity’s rejection of reincarnation created a distorted layer over the ancient texts. Reading the texts through Christian lens engendered difficulties in interpretation and understanding. Later analyses tried to give clues that would unlock the code without disturbing the religious and political powers. Medieval alchemists at least needed to appear Christian because they were already on dangerous ground with their occult studies, and so the Christian guise was their shield against persecution.

The soul contains in its essence the seed of immortality. Without this seed the soul could never become immortal. It is the seed, the child within, that is transformed. The story of Psyche-Cupid is a key to the code hidden in the ancient texts.

A final thought—observing a spider floating in the air, we might image an analogy. Is she the one who wove the universe into being? And are we bugs caught in her web of existence? The soul and spirit are seeking each other: the soul on the ground and the spirit wafting down toward it, but not going all the way. Is she our spirit guide come to protect us? Is the soul’s vessel made of gossamer? The soul must perform its role and reach up and grasp the spirit, which simultaneously seizes the soul. To accomplish the task, we must become what we are not, that is, our perfect nature, our original self. The absurdity of existence often seems too much—La Commedia, as Dante Alighieri had called it.