Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Wonderful to Tell


This is an excerpt from the 45th and 46th chapters of the immortal Latin book THE GOLDEN ASS by Lucias Apuleius. For sheer imagination and hidden wit this book ranks with the very best of the genre; and for unrivalled entertainment one does not know where else to search. Incidentally this is the only Latin novel of the pre-Christian era to have survived the ravages of time. I have relied on William Adlington’s translation [1566] for a grasp of the story. Lucius has used the first person throughout and I have done the same otherwise I believe the charm would be lost. Lucius, the Latin, on his peregrination lands up in Thessaly, Greece, where through magic and witchcraft he is transformed [metamorphosed] into an ass. He retains his human power to think and understand but alas, the power of speech is denied him. His physique though is that of an ass. Many wonderful adventures befall him and this is one of them.

‘Lend me your ear, reader: you shall enjoy yourself’

My master, the soldier, sold me to two of his underlings, the Baker and the Cook for a paltry sum of eleven pence. The Baker baked sweet bread and other delicacies and the Cook prepared superb meat for his master. They shared their hearth and victuals in common and would often take me from one place to another to carry their goods and I was like a brother to them. I was very happy to stay there; for at night after the day’s work was done and supper was over, they would keep many a dainty dish in the chamber where I was kept, before they retired to their rooms after shutting the chamber door. The Cook kept dishes of pigs, chicken and fish and the Baker laid out a table of fine bread, cakes, pastries and biscuits dipped in honey. Now I had my heart’s fill of these savouries and I was neither a fool nor an ass to spare the meats and eat hay. For a long time matters proceeded like this, for I was an honest ass and I took a little of one dish and a little of another to remain undetected as long as possible.

As time passed I became sturdy and commenced devouring the whole dishes which made the Baker and the Cook to suspect something fishy. But they never mistrusted me and were on the lookout for a thief. As no thief was apprehended they soon came to charge each other of infidelity, as follows ‘you have broken faith and promise by stealing the choicest meat and selling it for profit; yet you take your share of the residue that is left. If you do not like our partnership let us go asunder; for the heavy loss I sustain because of your greed will soon cause fraying of the tempers and much else besides’. To which the other replied ‘I praise your cunning and sophistry. After secretly taking away the meat you start complaining whereas I have suffered your thievery for a long time without complaining as you were a brother to me’. After discussing the matter over a length of time they settled the issue amicably swearing
by the very Gods of Olympus. They endeavoured to catch the thief by whatever methods necessary. It neither was in their imagination that a humble ass standing alone in a corner would eat such meat nor were they inclined to believe it was the handiwork of mice or harpies to polish off whole dishes of meat. Meanwhile being fed on such delectable dishes I became muscular, my skin became glossy, my hair developed a luster and I became robust and gallant in every part. This led to my undoing for it dawned upon the duo that I was appearing ever so sleek and shiny in spite of hardly eating any hay. When the time came for their rest they went to bed locking their chamber door and peeped through a hole. They saw me doing full justice to the meat and the cake, and without bothering for their loss, fell into peals of laughter. Wondering exceedingly at this marvel, they called in the servants of the house to show the voracious appetite of the ass. Such was the din created by the laughter that the master of the house rose up and wished to be told the reason of such hilarity. After being a party to it, he too peeped through the hole and on being satisfied, he ordered the door to be opened so that he could watch the scene without any encumbrance.

When I saw that everyone was viewing me with pleasure I became more bold and continued eating without the least shame. The master however ended the episode by bringing me to his parlour and spread all kinds of meat on his table for me to savour. I greedily ate up all the meat that was placed there. Being pleased with the novelty he ordered a servant to place wine before me which was immediately complied with. Everyone watched eagerly to see what would happen; but I did not require much of a prodding. I put my lips together and finished off the whole wine in one suck. Overjoyed at this unheard of phenomenon, the master called forth the Baker and the Cook and paid them four times the amount they had paid for me and took possession of me. He handed me over to his hostler with the admonition not to spare any expense for my comfort. This he did and did well and to further curry favour with his master he taught me a thousand etiquettes; not that I needed much teaching. Among other things he taught me how to sit on my tail at the table, how I should leap and dance holding my forefeet high in the air, on being asked a question how I should nod my head and if I wished a drink or two, to gaze constantly at the pot. Everything that he taught me I did obediently and I could have done the same without his teaching but I feared that had I done so I would be considered to be bewitched and thrown to wild animals. In a short time my fame was spread far and near and my master was renowned all over the country because of me. The onlooker would say ‘there goes the man whose ass will eat and drink with him, that will dance and if questioned will show signs easily understandable’.

Before proceeding further I must tell you who my master was and of what country. He was Thiasus, born at Corinth which is an important town of Greece and had held many important offices and was now elevated to Lordship. To show his benevolence to the masses he wished to offer a public show of gladiator fighting for a period of three days and had now come to Thessaly to purchase wild beasts and fighters.

After he had bought the necessary items for his show he became homeward bound. However he would neither travel in a chariot or a wagon nor would he ride a Thessalian horse, a French stallion or a Spanish mule. He had me nicely caparisoned with a brave harness, with purple coverings, with a silver bridle with pictured cloth. I was trimmed with barbs of gold with shriveling bells hanging from my neck. Such was I decked up to bear my master who with soothing words rode on my back and rejoiced to have me as a Servant to carry him, and a Companion to share his victuals at the dining table.

A long while later, after traveling by land and sea, we arrived at Corinth where the multitude came to see us, not out of any reverence for my master but to see me as I my fame had preceded me. My master made a lot of money, as people rushed in to see my pranks and the master had the gates closed so only the paying public could enter. I became a highly profitable companion to my team.

In the gallery there was a noble and rich lady who was delighted to behold me, and finding no recourse to her passion and perverted appetite paid continuous attention to me like Pasiphae in the story of ‘Pasiphae and the Bull’. Being exasperated she promised a substantial reward to my keeper, the hostler, for the pleasure of my company for one night. The hostler readily agreed and after I had supped with my master at his parlour, my keeper took me to the lady’s residence. She was waiting eagerly for me: I am not able to tell you in exact detail how things were prepared for our enjoyment but four eunuchs were reclining on a bed of soft downs, the cover was a cloth of gold and the pillows on which this lady was accustomed to place her head were tender and delicate. On our arrival, the eunuchs did not delay the commencement of our sport and locked the door and departed. The chamber was well lit with lamps that gave a clear glow. The lady undressed and was nude to her naked skin and taking hold of a lamp she anointed herself with balm and did the same to me. She specially anointed my nose and afterward kissed me lovingly; not as they do in brothels and seraglios but with deep purity and sincerity, all the while moaning these words ‘you are the one I love, you are the only person I desire, without you I cannot live’ and other such words that women use when they are burning with passion.

Then she took me by my halter and laid me down on the bed which was nothing unwelcome to me as she was a beautiful woman and I had already had wine at my master’s and she had rubbed balm on me. But a thought perturbed me quite a lot: how could I with my large and hairy legs embrace so fair a woman or how should I touch her smooth and silky skin with my hard hooves or how could I possibly kiss her delectable lips with my monstrous mouth and stony teeth or how this lady who was young and tender will receive me.

If I hurt this woman in any way, I knew, I was sure to be thrown to the wild animals. Meanwhile this lady kissed me and with burning eyes said ‘you are my rabbit, you are my sparrow’ and shortly afterward embraced my body all around and had her pleasure of me. I realized then that the mother of Minotaur had no cause to complain when she was covered by the Bull. When the night was over with a lot of joy and very little sleep the lady went to my keeper to bargain for me for another night. My keeper readily obliged partly for gain and partly for discovering a new pastime to please my master. My master on being informed of my new luxury was mighty glad and thought about exhibiting my prowess in the open for which a search had to be made for a suitable woman as the lady I was accustomed to ‘do’ could not be displayed on account of her wealth and status.

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